Wasting Time

January 16, 2000

6 min read


Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

Mr. Cohen is pacing nervously in the waiting room of a hospital maternity ward where, inside, his wife is giving birth to their first child. Suddenly, the door swings open and the doctor appears. "Mr. Cohen, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the birth went smoothly. The bad news is that your son has a condition which, in time, will kill him."

Mr. Cohen is in shock. "This is terrible! What can we do?"

"I'm afraid nothing can be done," replies the doctor. "A cure has not been found. Furthermore, scientists have abandoned hope of ever finding a cure. Your son is definitely going to die."

"Oh no..." says Mr. Cohen, "What is this condition called?"

"Life," answers the doctor. "Life."

The saying goes, "Time is money." But given the choice, which is really more important: five minutes or five dollars?

It's obvious that time is more precious than money. We have a limited amount of time on this earth. The older we get, the clearer that becomes. When we're young, we may feel we'll live forever, "So what's he difference if I waste a decade…" But reality eventually catches up. Legend has it that on her deathbed, the Queen of England said, "I'd give up all my fame and riches for just one more hour of life."

One of the biggest human tragedies is to waste time – gossip, to moronic jokes, sitcoms, mindless surfing through cyberspace. In Los Angeles, a billboard for a popular entertainment promenade reads: "The place to go when you've got nothing to do." That is "Killing time... And vise versa."

There's a more subtle way of wasting time as well. I recall seeing a poster in a low-scale department store advertising clothes "to fit your busy lifestyle." The poster was appealing to our human desire to be busy. If we're busy, we feel important. But what are we really accomplishing? Imagine a tombstone that reads: "He ran a lot of errands." Isn't there more to life than just "being busy?"

The Measure of Life

The title of this week's Torah portion is "Chayei Sarah" – literally the "life of Sarah." Strangely, our parsha does not discuss the life of Sarah, but rather describes her death and burial. The parsha continues this theme and ends with the death of Abraham. If this parsha is all about death, why is it entitled "life"?

Life is like a boat. Typically a boat is christened upon its maiden voyage. We have hopes and expectations that the boat will travel safely and successfully. But what happens many years later when the boat, beaten and weathered, comes back to dock? Where are the cameras, the crowds and the champagne?

Judaism says that is precisely the time for celebration. Because that is when we can evaluate and appreciate the success of the vessel. Which explains why the Torah uses the deaths of Sarah and Abraham to trumpet the great value of their lives.

Daily Growth

The growth spurts of a child can be measured in terms of months. For an adult, growth is detected over a period of years. But why should this be so? Just as we would not expect a 10-year-old to be acting as he did at age five, why should a 40-year-old act as he did at age 35?!

In describing Abraham's life, the Torah says: "These are the DAYS of the YEARS of Abraham's life" (Genesis 25:7). The Torah compares days to years to tell us that while the average person's growth can be measured in years, Abraham and Sarah's could be measured in days. They had daily growth spurts. They lived full days.

Sometimes we might think, "I could be growing more, if only my life weren't so difficult." This is a fallacy. Because our greatest growth comes not during the easy times, but in the difficult times. The Talmud says that "all of Sarah's years were equal in goodness." Yet Sarah suffered 90 years of barrenness and was kidnapped twice. Abraham, too, fought wars and was thrown into a fiery furnace.

Yet no matter what happened, Sarah saw every event as an opportunity to learn and to grow. There is no such thing as "standing still." Life is a constant state of entropy. If we're not growing, we're withering.

Spare Minutes

The average American spends 250 hours each year commuting, and another 200 hours standing in line. Over a 40-year working career, that's 18,000 hours. And what do we have to show for it? That we can recognize every hit song from the '60s and '70s? That we've listened to hours and hours of political analysis on talk-radio? That we cheered the Yankees to the pennant?

Driving and daydreaming is throwing money out the window. Instead, learn something! Set a goal. Learn Hebrew. Go through a series on Jewish history. While eating lunch or while commuting, listen to audio classes. There is no shortage of opportunities, if we truly desire to make it a reality.

One of my favorite stories illustrates this idea: There was a great rabbi in 19th century Europe named the Chasam Sofer. It would take him several years to learn through the voluminous Talmud, cover-to-cover. Upon completion, he would celebrate with family and friends. One time, he announced another celebration – just a few months after the previous one. His friends asked: "But your cycle is not due to complete for another several years?!" To which he explained: "All this time I have been learning through the Talmud on a second, concurrent cycle. I learned whenever I had five minutes to spare – whether standing in line, waiting for some event to start, or while travelling. In this way – five minutes at a time – I was able to amass many extra years of Torah study!"

Purposeful Relaxation

This all sounds nice in theory, but we do need time to relax! Of course, everyone needs time to recharge and refresh. "Don't waste a minute" doesn't mean having a book in front of you 24 hours a day. (After all, we do sleep.) Rather, the Jewish idea of "relaxing" means to tune into another aspect of living. Relax, but don't "space out." Make all our actions purposeful and directed. When we sleep, it should be for the purpose of resting the body so that it will have the strength to do something truly meaningful. In this way, the sleep itself becomes meaningful.

Similarly, when visiting with a friend, rather than spend the time chattering about news, sports and weather, instead brainstorm ways to assist the community, or talk about the weekly Torah portion. Or take a walk through nature. Even though you change gears, it's not quitting. It's growth.

As descendents of Abraham and Sarah, we have inherited their spiritual genes. Every moment of their lives was purposeful and meaningful. May their example inspire us to do the same.

The clock is ticking.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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