From the decreasing productivity of the workplace, to bad decisions by drivers leading to tragic accidents, distraction is an issue that challenges each of us and our society each and every day.
One need look no further than Google (another place where we get distracted…) to see that there is an entire body of literature all focused on trying to find solutions to this massive concern.
Most of the advice actually boils down to this: In order for us to reach our potential and do “right”, we must learn to focus — to focus on the essential, important tasks from which we are distracted.
But while this issue is certainly exacerbated in our digital age, our tradition was keenly aware of this challenge hundreds of years ago. This awareness is articulated in many places, and one such area is in the halakhot of Mincha, one of the tefilot whose basis is found in this week’s parsha. Bamidbar 28:4 tells us:
ד. אֶת-הַכֶּבֶשׂ אֶחָד, תַּעֲשֶׂה בַבֹּקֶר; וְאֵת הַכֶּבֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִי, תַּעֲשֶׂה בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם
4. The one lamb shalt thou offer in the morning, and the other lamb shalt thou offer at dusk; (28 בְּמִדְבַּר)
The morning offering, is the foundation for Shacharit and the dusk offering, is the foundation for the afternoon recitation of Mincha. (Brachot 26b)
While making time to daven anytime is certainly not simple (just ask any Day School educator about shacharit with students), stepping out in the middle of the day to daven Mincha amidst our busy lives, for all of us, can pose a whole set of difficulties.
The Talmud identifies the unique challenge that Mincha presents when it says that:
לעולם יהא אדם זהיר בתפלת המנחה שהרי אליהו לא נענה אלא בתפלת המנחה
One must always be vigilant with regard to Mincha, as Elijah’s prayer was only answered at Mincha…” (Brachot 6b)
The Shulkhan Aruch recognized this as well when it goes out of its way to tell us not to start any task close to the time for Mincha.
לא ישב אדם להסתפר סמוך למנחה עד שיתפלל ולא יכנס למרחץ ולא לבורסקי ולא לדין ולא לאכול אפי’ סעודה קטנה סמוך למנחה
A person should not cut his hair near the Mincha until he prays and does not enter the bath or the tannery or sit to judge and should not to eat a meal even a small meal close to the time of Mincha. (O.C 232:2)
R. Hirsch expands on these ideas when he said, “It is human nature to leave the house and spend the whole day working and forget to pray Mincha.”
And finally, R. Yaakovson, the Netiv Binah explains that it is easy to know the time of Shacharit and Maariv, but Mincha is in the middle of the day. It is then when you have to remove yourself from your business and turn towards tefilah. It’s hard to make time for Mincha.
Certainly Chazal understood the importance of parnasah, the need for us all to make a living and be involved in the day-to-day business of our lives. Yet, at the same time, the halakhot of Mincha teach us that the antidote to distractibility can be summed up in one word: prioritization. While we all sometimes fall short, if we truly internalized our priorities, the temptation of distraction would decrease.
If we truly internalized prioritizing our central goals and the mission of our professional work, we all would be more successful. If we truly internalized prioritizing safety, countless lives would be saved. And, if we truly internalized prioritizing our time with family or with our service to the divine, our relationships would reflect those values even more.
While Mincha is usually associated with the afternoon service, the word appears in other contexts as well. One such instance is in the story of Yaakov and his reunion with Esav. (Gen. 32)
יד. וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא; וַיִּקַּח מִן-הַבָּא בְיָדוֹ, מִנְחָה–לְעֵשָׂו אָחִיו
14. And he lodged there that night; and took of that which he had with him a present for Esau his brother:
With this lens, we understand tefilat Mincha is a unique gift, special both to us and to God.* While Shacharit is the thanks of waking to a new day and Maariv is a tefila in the hopes of surviving the challenges of night, Mincha has a different feel. It is recited when we are in our “peak” of the day– at the moment where we potentially feel the height of our human capacity and thus we are in danger of feeling the least need to connect to God.
Yet, Mincha is there for us as a gift. It is a gift from us to God telling Hashem that even in the midst of my daily accomplishments, I realize that they are all due to You– as nothing is truly in my own power.
And, it also serves as a gift for us, to take a moment to ground ourselves in gratitude and recognition of the truly important foci of our lives– the service of God and the improvement of our world,
Mincha, this short afternoon tefila is the Jewish eternal reboot of prioritization– a most effective antidote to the distractions in our lives.
*Inspired by Binyomin Adilman, based on Kedushat Levi