Last week was an exciting week for me. After years of paperwork, class-time, and assignments, I finally graduated. Now I just want to clarify, since I know there are some people here who are still a little unsure of my age. I graduated from college, not high school.
I learned a lot of wonderful things over the years, but there is one thing that I learned over this past year, specifically this past week, which is possibly the most significant thing of all. This past year has been a tad busy. Aside from all the amazing things going on in my life with the shul and a new addition to my family, I had a few hundred hours that I had to dedicate towards my internship. I only had to actually counsel for a few hours every week but there were still many more hours that I had to log doing things that related to counseling. One of the things that did count towards my hours was listening to lectures that related to issues that my clients were dealing with. So for example, if I had a client that was dealing with anxiety and I listened to a lecture that taught me about anxiety – that would count as time towards my internship. So I went and downloaded every lecture that I could get my hands on and every time I would get in a car I would turn it on, and try my best to stay awake as some professor droned on about some psychology-related topic. No, I am not as disciplined as I would like to be, I did not do this every single time I got in the car. But I did do this enough times that over the past year I was able to log a rather substantial amount of hours and use them towards my degree.
Last Monday I was driving home from my last class and for the first time in a very long time, I did not have to listen to a class in counseling on the way home, so I put on the radio, 91.5, classical music. And then it dawned upon me – over the past few months I was able to accumulate hundreds of hours-worth of knowledge while driving. And now for the rest of my life, now that I don’t have the same pressure, I’m going to spend that time that I could be becoming more knowledgeable, time I could be using more constructively, and listen to Mozart?! No way.
And the lesson that I perhaps knew but never experienced was that finding time to do things is not a matter of having or not having the time; it’s really all about our attitude. When I had to clock hours towards my internship, I was able to find the time to listen to lecture after lecture. But when I didn’t have that same pressure, I went back to being a busy man with no time to do things. Finding time in our lives is not about time management per say, it’s not about having the right personality. There is time in our lives – what we are missing and what we need is goals; what we are missing is a desire to accomplish, to achieve, and to grow. When we have goals in our lives, when there are things that we are driven to do, time suddenly pops up in places you least expect it. When driving to work, when going to bed, during a lunch break. Time is there and it’s waiting. It’s us who have to step up and do something with it.
There is a man, a Torah scholar who lived in Israel who used to finish the entire Talmud every three years. It’s pretty impressive. The Daf Yomi cycle takes seven years and this man finished the entire Talmud in three years. He used to make a party every three years when he would finish his cycle. One year, a few months after he made his regular party, he called his friends and family in for another party to celebrate the completion of the Talmud. And his guests were shocked – he had just made a party upon his completion of the Talmud a few months ago, and now he’s doing it again?! He shared with his guests the following explanation. The regular party he makes every three years – that is for the Talmud that he studies for a few hours every day to study. This party is a celebration of the fact that in his spare time – when he waiting for someone to meet up with him, when he came early to a meeting, whenever he had an extra minute or two, he would take out a section of the Talmud, and in that spare time, over however many years, he managed to complete the entire Talmud! We have time, we all have time – we need objectives, and we need goals, in order to use it constructively.
But there’s another idea, a much deeper idea that I thought about this week, and that is Judaism’s unique perspective of time. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘time is money.’ Obviously, this phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Time is not actually money. Rather, the idea is, that time is precious because one can use the time they have to generate something else, in this case money. Time is valuable insofar as it can be used to achieve or accumulate something of significance. That is the way the world perceives time, namely, as a means to an end. However, Judaism sees time in a radically different way.
Last night, during Kiddush we said the blessing of Shehechiyanu – Shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, That You, G-d gave us life, You sustained us, and You brought us lazman hazeh, to this time. Why don’t we just say, thank You G-d for giving us life and sustaining us. What is the meaning of the last line: “For bringing us to this time”?
The significance is that in Judaism time is not a means to an end. Time is a precious commodity onto its own. Time carries within it a certain sanctity. And so we thank G-d not only for keeping us alive, but we thank Him for bringing us to now, to today, because even without doing anything, the time itself is special. We experience the exact same thing on Shabbos. Whether we do something or not, whether we light candles and come to shul or whether we stay home all day, the time of Shabbos is different, it carries something in it.
And it’s not just limited to Shabbos or Yom Tov. Every day carries its own uniqueness. Every day, explain the Jewish philosophers, in our worldview, a worldview that has a starting point at Creation and an end point called Olam Haba, by definition every moment is one that is accomplishing something by bringing us closer to our final destination. And because of that, every moment of time – on its own – is precious. Every moment has a unique role, a unique place in history. We indeed say, thank You G-d for bringing us to this time, to this very special moment.
In short, in Judaism, we do not say there are important things to do – so don’t waste time. Rather, we say, time itself is important and therefore, find important things to do to fill it.
One of the great Torah revolutionaries in the 20th century was Sarah Shneirer. We take it for granted that Jewish girls get a Jewish education just like Jewish boys do. But in the early 1900’s that was not the case. Despite the great emphasis on Torah study and education in Judaism, there was no formal system of study for young Jewish girls. In 1917, Sarah Schneirer formed the first Beis Yaakov school. She succeeded in overcoming initial resistance against this new type of school and saw rapid development of about 300 schools in pre Holocaust Europe. By the time she died in 1935, more than 200 Beis Yaakov schools were teaching approximately 35,000 girls. There is much to say about this creative and industrious women, but I’d like to focus on but one feature, and that was her motto. It was a verse from Tehillim that was constantly on her lips and posted in every wall in the Beis Yaakov building. Limnos Yamenu ken Hoda – Teach us to count our days. Time is the most precious gift that Hashem grants us, he gives every person the same 24 hours a day and every person uses it as they please. “Children,” she would say, “please use it wisely! Count your days! Count your hours! Use the precious gift of time.”
People like Sarah Shneirer, who are conscientious of the great gift of time, it’s people like that who know how to use it. Because it’s people like that who recognize that even if we don’t have something to do, a goal to accomplish, an objective to reach, we still have time, and it would be a tragic waste to let it go.
I’d like to conclude by reading to you an article by Lauren Slater, noted psychologist and writer:
The patient was depressed. He was a wet rag. He was suicidal. The psychiatrist had tried every pill and combination of pills he could conceive of, you name it. And still the man was depressed. He underwent a series of six shock treatments, lying bound on a bed while they juiced his brain, waking up in a fog, his eyes burning. And still the man was depressed. He tried to hang himself, to slash his wrists, to overdose on pills; he even tried to shoot himself but missed and survived without so much as a scar. And now the psychiatrist had grown bored with him. Three times a week, the man came in and either said nothing or talked about his failures. The clock ticked away. The man began to complain of headaches. He felt physically ill. The psychiatrist suspected it was psychosomatic. He paid little attention to the man. Still, his complaints grew louder. At last the psychiatrist referred the man to a neurologist, who could see inside his skull using instruments. Three days later, the neurologist called the psychiatrist. “There is nothing wrong with him,” the neurologist said. And the psychiatrist sighed, almost disappointed.
When the man came in for his next appointment, he asked, “Did you speak to the neurologist?” The psychiatrist nodded gravely and said, “Yes, I did.”
The man leaned forward in his seat. His dull eyes flickered — with terror. “And?” he said. “Well,” said the psychiatrist, drawing it out, with no plan or premeditation. “I’m sorry, but the neurologist says you have only three months to live.” The man shot back in his seat, stared for a long time at the ceiling, and then left abruptly.
The man was now in a rush. He booked a flight to Greece, and travelled to Crete, and saw dazzling white sand, he ate from a big buffet in the Caribbean. He sent his psychiatrist postcards from countries all around the world. Here I am in Russia, he wrote. I was in a bar all night, he wrote. I am taking cooking classes in Taiwan. I swam in the Dead Sea. Eventually, though, the months passed and the man did not die. Nor did he seem to be dying.
The man, of course, doesn’t die. He keeps burning brightly. Eventually he goes back to the psychiatrist who tells him his disease is in remission. And a year later he goes back again, only to find the office door open and the psychiatrist away. He takes the opportunity to open the filing cabinet and read his own file.
He flipped to the end of his chart and read: Tried to inject some existential urgency into the Man’s condition. Ethically questionable. Radical intervention. Told patient he was dying. Three months to live. Patient’s affect changed considerably. And the next note said: Postcard from patient. Depression in complete remission. Will continue with intervention. Benefits outweigh risks.
The man slowly closed his folder. On the doctor’s desk, he saw the American Journal of Psychiatry. Next to an advertisement for Effexor was an article written by his doctor. He looked at its title: “Mortality Therapy: A Case Study.” ***
That’s what Yizkor is; mortality therapy. It’s not only a day when those who have lost a loved one reflect on beautiful memories. But it’s a day that all of us remember that we do not live forever. Judaism is not morbid and death-centered. On the contrary, it deliberately takes the happiest days of the year, the holidays, and dampens the mood ever so slightly to remind us, we are here today and gone tomorrow.
So let’s use this Yizkor day as a wake-up call. Let’s all take advantage of this great gift that G-d has blessed us with and recognize the preciousness of a day, of an hour, of a second, and cherish it. Let’s fill those extra minutes and seconds with meaningful things; on car rides to and from work, we could become more knowledgeable and connected to the Torah which we’re celebrating today on Shavuot, we could use that time to call old friends who could use a call to cheer them up. We could find time on the way home from work to visit Levindale’s or the home of an older member who can no longer make it to shul. We could spend the last two minutes of our day, talking to G-d, praying, as we drift off to sleep. There’s no shortage to the things we can do, but there is a shortage to the time that we have.