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More Time or More Value: Yom Kippur and My MTA Quandary

September 27, 2017 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

What’s more important: longer days or more meaningful hours?

No, I never really noticed it before. The week before Yom Kippur I suddenly read the words I must’ve looked at hundreds of times before in a totally new light. The simple question posed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority machines found in every New York subway station took on a profound personal meaning.

In New York, Metro cards are used to pass through a turnstile. The card has to be refilled on a regular basis by way of credit card payment. The machine that carries out this transaction offers you a choice:

“Do you want more time or more value?”

Everyone has their own transportation preference. In the rush to catch the next train, I’ve never seen anyone stop and ponder their decision. But I guess because it was the ten days of repentance and I’ve been thinking about my life from the perspective of standing in judgment before God with my fate for the coming year in the balance, I stopped short to think about the deeper implications of this MTA challenge – almost causing a frantic pileup of commuters behind me.

Refilling my Metro card posed a personal theological quandary. Here I had been praying throughout Rosh Hashanah for life. I always tremble when I read the stirring words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: Who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…

In a year of hurricanes and earthquakes, of fires and floods, of unimaginable and terrifying possibilities for the end of our days, the descriptions listed in the prayer no longer seem far-fetched. The Angel of death found opportunities to turn all the horrific illustrations into reality.

Of course I want life. So I pray to God to grant me more time. But what if I have to choose between two desirable ideals? More time or more value?

The easiest thing to do is to request both; O Lord, give me more time and grant me more value. But what if life, like the Metro card machine, is willing to offer us only one option. What if we have to decide between time and value, between existence and purpose, between longer days or more meaningful hours?

Perhaps the simplest way to answer the question is to acknowledge the standard by which we end up evaluating the lives of those who preceded us. When we calculate the impact people had on the world, on their communities, on their families and on their friends, do we just measure how long they lived – or do we emphasize how well they lived? Is age the ultimate determinant of achievement, of heroism, or of saintliness? Eternal legacies are not created primarily by numbers of years lived; they are fashioned by days, no matter how few, which exemplify divine qualities of character and epitomize righteous behavior.

More time is not really in our hands. Its quality, however, can only be determined by our own free will.

Created in the image of God, our lives, first and foremost, must demonstrate our divine origin. Every one of us was created with a mission. To be given the gift of life was God’s way of saying He needs us to become a partner with Him in the holy task of perfecting the world. Our mission in life is our justification for being. Our days on earth are limited by our mortality. But our lasting achievements on earth outlive us by virtue of our values.

I will always remember the calling card an elderly rabbi once gave me. On one side was his name, address and phone number. On the other there was this simple question: “What on earth are you doing – for heaven’s sake?”

As we approach Yom Kippur it is good to recall that the hope for “more time” is not really in our hands. The length of our journey of life is fixed from above. Its quality, however, can only be determined by our own free will. It is we who can choose more value above more time. It is we who have the option to select the holy over the profane, the sacred over the superficial, the meaningful over the insignificant.

There is something far more important than counting our days. It is to make our days count. That is the commitment to God I’m going to make on this coming Yom Kippur.

And hopefully, because I will choose the option of “more value”, the Almighty will be kind enough to grant me “more time” as well.

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