There is a famous classroom activity/demonstration that is used to teach decision making and prioritization of goals and resources. The teacher shows the class a glass jar full of ping-pong balls and asks the class if the jar is full. Most students answer that it is. The teacher then pours beads into the jar, which fill in the gaps around the ping-pong balls. Now is the jar full? The class acknowledges it is. The teacher adds sand, filling in all the visible empty space between the beads. Now is the jar full? Some students might still agree, and others are starting to catch on. Finally, the teacher adds water, which soaks into the sand.
Here’s the usual breakdown that comes with the visual. Ping-pong balls represent the big, important aspects of life like family and friends. The beads are the smaller necessities like education and career. The sand reminds us that we still have room for other personal endeavors and hobbies, and the water reminds us that even when we feel full, there’s room for new experiences we might not anticipate.
This exercise is made even more illuminating when you realize that if you did it in reverse, the little things would take up so much space that there would be no room for the important things like family and friends. The second message is to be aware of your priorities and how much space they take up in your life.
This is a wonderful little demonstration, and you could even argue that it has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor. In this section of text, we are reminded about the laws for purification of the priests, the holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat each other and animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them. The time and manner in which each ritual is performed is delineated by the Torah.
The laws of the holidays and sacred element of time pose an important question in chapter 23, verse 7. “On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.” Our holidays present us with a unique challenge in today’s world: How do we prioritize our time? Do we take a few hours to celebrate the holiday and then move back into our “regularly scheduled programming” or do we jump in and immerse ourselves in the sacred time prescribed to us? Or, as you might guess, perhaps there might be a happy medium.
There are a lot of holidays in Jewish tradition, which means a lot of time off from our secular world occupations (unless you’re clergy of course, when the holidays are your job). It is completely understandable that for some people, taking every holiday off just isn’t feasible. However, the Torah this week reminds us of our sacred obligation to those ping-pong ball sized values in our lives. What are the major ways in which you define yourself? How do you prioritize what’s important in your life? If you focus on your top values first, you’ll probably find there’s always room for more.