Bo: Flow

Sometimes we feel inspired. We may be working hard, but we don’t seem to mind, because we love the work we are doing and believe in it.

Our objectives are based on our heartfelt convictions, and our labors are consistent with our deepest attitudes. No task feels onerous, because time flies by and we have a constant feeling of accomplishment.

This sense that everything is just right and the ability to do all that is expected of us effectively and enjoyably is called “flow” by some psychologists. One such psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, has written a book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he reports his research on this vital feeling of how the work we do conforms with our innermost beliefs and highest principles.

Other times, however, there is also a very different manner in which we work. We feel unhappy with our jobs not merely because they are difficult, boring, or stressful, but because we don’t really want to be doing what we are required to do. We perform out of a sense of obedience and duty, but we would rather that someone else take up our task.

In this instance, we often do not feel competent to perform our labors. We are certain that there are others much more capable than we are who could do much better. We feel unworthy and uncertain of our success.

In reading the recent Torah portions, this week’s (Bo) and last week’s (Shemot), we encounter one man, Moses, working very hard at some complex and almost impossible tasks: leading the Jewish people and challenging Pharaoh to free them.

I often ask myself about Moses’ inner experience while carrying out his mission. Are his feelings like the first set of emotions described above? Does he feel inspired, happy, eager? Does he experience this sense of “flow”? Or does he find himself reluctant, uncomfortable, and perhaps even feel awkward, at least at times?

Does he experience thrill in his comings and goings into Pharaoh’s royal court? Is he excited by the words he finds to challenge Pharaoh and to debate with him? Or does he approach these experiences with trepidation and suffer in agony as each successive attempt to free his people is disturbed?

There is a transition, in this week’s Torah readings, in Moses’ role. Moses’ initial role is being an advocate for freedom, but by the end of the Parsha, he becomes a law giver and teacher as well. And his role further expands to that of master of logistics and desert travel guide as he prepares his people for their journey and embarks upon it.

Is Moses in “flow”? Or is he struggling inwardly with reluctance, resistance, and perhaps even resentment?

The answer lies in Moses’ initial reaction to his assignment, in his ongoing expressions throughout his life, in his disappointments with his people, and in his willingness to shed his leadership role.

Initially, he asks God to send another in his stead. He insists that his handicaps disqualify him from God’s mission. He does not trust his people to respond to him, and he is certain that Pharaoh will mock him. He never, even at the end of his life, seems comfortable with his many tasks.

What, then, does motivate Moses to stand before Pharaoh, suffer his taunts, threaten him repeatedly, and teach his people lessons which they often do not wish to hear?

What motivates him is his sense of duty, his commitment to a life of responsibility. He models for us, for all of us, a life of obedience to a higher authority. He teaches us that we each have a vocation, a mission, a part to play in life’s drama.

More importantly, he teaches us that our tasks will often be frustrating and painful. We may not experience “flow”. Our careers may not go smoothly and may not bring us gratification. But we will, nevertheless, prevail if we recognize the truth of our calling and respond dutifully and faithfully, even if it doesn’t “feel good”.

Obedience is a major value in Judaism. It may not be trendy these days, but it was certainly the hallmark of the life of Moses, and we are all challenged to emulate him in our own lives.