from the heart of jerusalem

Seize the moment and save the day


On September 7, 2007, Israel bombed a compound of buildings in eastern Syria, which, as it later reported, was a nuclear reactor being built with the assistance of North Korea. In a 2012 article for the New Yorker, David Makovsky described the operation that preceded the secret bombing raid:

“In the first days of March, 2007, agents from the Mossad … made a daring raid on the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Othman was in town attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors and had stepped out. In less than an hour, Mossad operatives swept in, extracted top-secret information from Othman’s computer, and left without a trace.”

This, apparently, was the evidence Israel needed to prove that Syria, with North Korean help, was building a top-secret plutonium reactor in the eastern Syrian desert. The reactor, at Al Kibar, was nine hundred yards from the Euphrates River and halfway between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. The assessment of the Mossad was that its only purpose could be the production of a nuclear bomb.  

Israel shared this information with the U.S. Then-President George Bush received confirmation that it was a nuclear weapons program, but could not confirm it as imminent, and would not agree to Prime Minister Olmert’s request to bomb the site, preferring a diplomatic route. Israel was convinced a diplomatic route would take too long and entail too great a risk. In a White House meeting in June, Olmert reportedly told Bush: “If you won’t bomb it, we will.” The President declined to take action, and Olmert gave a green light for the mission. 

The bombing run was carried out by F-15i Ra’am fighter jets of the 69th squadron, supported by F-16i Sufa fighter jets and was reportedly the first instance of combat involving the use of electromagnetic transmissions to interfere with the enemy’s systems.

It was also supported, almost simultaneously, by a daring commando raid on the radar station of Tell-Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, disabling two radar systems and enabling the Israeli jets to overfly Syrian airspace without detection.

All of Israel’s forces made it home safely, and President Assad of Syria, faced with the uncomfortable choice of having to admit to a nuclear project he denied even existed, was forced to remain silent.

The chilling postscript to this story: for almost five years, from 2014 through 2018, this area was under ISIS control. One can only imagine what might have occurred had an active nuclear weapons program fallen into the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fanatical Muslim caliphate. The world owes Israel, and its decision to act, a huge debt of gratitude.

This week’s portion of Naso contains a fascinating example of the downside of hesitation. The dedication of the Mishkan was marked by the offerings of the princes, the nesi’im, of the twelve tribes, as described at length in our portion. Rashi (Bamidbar 7:3) notes that the princes were the first to volunteer their offerings in the new Mishkan, but were last contribute to its actual building. He explains that when the Mishkan was being built they figured they would let the people donate first and fill in what remained, until they saw that the community had brought everything … so they were first to volunteer this time.

The nesi’im obviously felt they had made a mistake, yet one wonders what was wrong with this approach. After all, it assured that in the end everything necessary would be received for the building of the Mishkan. In fact, as Rashi notes, they ended up contributing the precious stones for the kohen gadol’s vestments, an essential item that might otherwise not have been donated. So what’s the problem?

There is, perhaps, an inherently unhealthy attitude in procrastinating. When something needs to get done, Jewish tradition teaches we should get it done without hesitation.

Indeed, the antithesis of this approach can be found in a story the Tanach shares regarding King David’s desire to build the temple. David recognizes (II Shmuel 7:2) that it is improper for him to reside in a palace whilst the Ark is essentially kept in a tent, and he shares with the prophet Natan his desire to build a great Temple for G-d. Natan’s response is that G-d will be with him. 

However, that very night G-d comes to the prophet and tells him to go immediately (ibid. v. 4) and tell David that while his descendant Shlomo will indeed build a temple, King David will not. Tradition teaches that Natan immediately arises and goes to the palace to share G-d’s command with the king. 

One wonders why G-d comes to the prophet that night, and why Natan immediately rose from his bed in the middle of the night to share this prophecy. He could have given over the message in the morning — what was the rush? 

Rav Eliyahu Lopian, in his Lev Eliyahu, shares that this was exactly what made King David who he was: when he had the chance to do something positive, he did not wait. Hashem knew that as soon as Natan had left David’s chambers, the king was already instructing woodsmen to start stockpiling lumber and architects to draw up plans. Hashem comes to Natan that very night because He knows that by the time Natan shows up in the morning, the Temple may already be half built!

This is the antithesis of hesitation or procrastination; this is zerizut, sometimes translated as zeal. This quality denotes an attitude of enthusiasm and devotion; it bespeaks a certain determination to get things done, an excitement at the opportunity to be a part of something; of contributing to the greater good.

People who procrastinate sabotage themselves. They miss opportunities, fall behind on their work and bills, and allow the simplest projects to become crises. And when it hinders relationships or prevents us from getting work done, it can become a serious problem. 

Often procrastinators lie to themselves, saying “I work better under pressure” or “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow,” but usually end up squandering their time and resources. 

Procrastinators often seek distractions to avoid what they are … avoiding. But psychologists and behaviorists believe that procrastination is learned, not inherited. Which means it can be unlearned.

There are three basic types of procrastinators: thrill seekers, who like the rush of the last-minute flurry of activity to get something done; those who want to avoid responsibility and as such have difficulty making decisions; and chronic avoiders, who have a fear of failure and are overly concerned with what others might think of them — they would prefer others think they lack effort than ability.

Often, we get a little mood boost when we avoid something unpleasant, but this does not last, because the avoided item still hangs over us, causing stress and even guilt.

So how can we change this? Changing bad habits is hard, but one way to do it is by substituting it with a good habit. Maimonides defines a habit as something we do consistently, again and again, until we no longer have any resistance (see Hilchot Deot 1:7).

Dave Allen, in his book Getting It Done, suggests that anything that comes into our lives that is actionable begs a simple question: can we do it in less than two minutes? If the answer is yes, he suggests, just do it!

Practicing this again and again will eventually make it a habit that will have an enormous impact on the procrastination we let into our lives.

Perhaps that is what the nesi’im were doing here. This time, instead of letting the project hang over them, they grabbed it. They did it before they had a chance to procrastinate!

Imagine if we did that with every good idea that came into our heads, every task we had, every thought of saying or doing something nice. Soon it would become a habit to get things done. And what a different life that would be — a life of nesi’im, of princes.