A plane is an amazing thing.
For the life of me, being a liberal arts rather than a science major, I will never fully comprehend how a giant chunk of metal that weighs a million pounds can hurtle through the air so effortlessly, and get you from one end of the world to the next in no time at all. (Truth be told, I also have trouble fathoming – no pun intended – how a 130,000-ton metal ship can glide across the ocean without sinking; I once dropped a quarter over the side and it fell right to the bottom!) But amazing as air travel is, I am at a loss as to what to do when I’m on a long flight, such as the one I recently took from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles. Nonstop, 15-plus hours.
The good wife and I settled in, had a snack and soon after that a full meal, and she promptly took her sleeping pill and disappeared into La La Land (which seemed appropriate, considering our destination). So I leisurely read the day’s paper, which I had specifically saved for the occasion, watched a movie on the personal screen, read several chapters of my book and closed my eyes for a bit.
When I awoke, I was overjoyed to learn I only had eight-and-a-half hours left until we landed.
“Oh, my God!” I said to my unconscious wife, whose foot was now wrapped around mine in a classic wrestling hold. “What to do now??” So, my options pretty much exhausted, I opened the in-flight magazine.
You know, the one with all the bargains you lust for when your oxygen supply is low and your fantasy level is high, but regret having bought the second you land. These tchotchkes I refer to as W.W.I.T. items: As soon as you get home with them, you smack yourself on the forehead and exclaim in a loud voice, “WHAT WAS I THINKING?!” But one of these products was actually quite unique, and captured my attention for most of the remaining flight. It was an $80 Tikker “Happiness Watch.”
Using statistics and a “personal health algorithm,” it calculates your average life expectancy down to the second, and counts down exactly how much time you have left to live.
How many years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds are left before your, well, time is up. Of course, it doesn’t take into account extraordinary circumstances – which we Israelis fondly refer to as “ordinary circumstances.”
At first, I found the whole idea of a ticking time tracker to be bizarre, maybe even morbid. Who wants to be constantly reminded that we are not immortal? That we suffer from a fatal disease called “Life,” so that from the moment we are born, like it or not, we are inexorably hurtling towards our demise? It was something straight out of The Twilight Zone, and it reminded me of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s darker short stories, “Yachid and Yachida,” in which he observes that people constantly check their watches because they want to know just how much time remains of their sentence to live on this earth.
But then the stewardess brought me a drink, I calmed down a bit, and I thought more about all this. And it occurred to me that maybe this watch was actually a very good thing. By shocking us into realizing that life is not infinite, that we only have so much time to spend in this world, we will maximize our opportunities to live life to the fullest.
We will guard ourselves from wasting time – or killing it altogether – to squeeze whatever positive, important things we can out of this frail human existence of ours.
But then I asked myself, “What is important in life?” I remember that some years ago, on a trip to Switzerland, my wife got to talking with one of the locals. Never very shy, the little lady asked the Swiss miss what she worried about in a country that is filled with wealth and wonderful views, and which is eternally neutral. The lady thought for a while – this was obviously a toughie for her – and finally she said, quite convincingly, “We worry about the weather!” And my wife and I just looked at each other, mentally placing “weather” way, way down on our list, somewhere well below missiles, mayhem and sporadic mail delivery. Considering that our own Israeli weather forecast repeats itself like a broken record for seven-and-a-half months, we are blessed with lots of other things that keep us drinking coffee and up late at night.
I suggest that we ought to “take the time” to think seriously about our lives: What are we doing here, after all? Are we on some mystical, meaningless merry-go-round that ultimately goes nowhere, some interminable treadmill that makes us sweat a lot, but doesn’t arrive at any specific destination? Or were we put on this earth to do more than break even, to accomplish something significant with our lives, something that will perfect our own souls while also advancing the cause of humankind? Life in Israel, with all its challenges, provides the ultimate opportunity – for those who seize it – to effect gargantuan changes: To recreate our homeland, to ingather our people, to finally bring Judaism to its zenith of fulfillment.
When all is said and done – when that faithful watch ticks its final tock – only three essential questions will remain: Did we live up to our potential? Will God and our parents be proud that they created us? And will others speak of us kindly when we are gone? At the meeting between Jacob and Pharaoh, as recorded in Gen. 47:8-9, the Egyptian king looks at the venerable patriarch – who was then 147 years old – and can only manage to ask him one question: “How old are you?” Jacob gives his age, and adds that his years “are short, and bad,” a rather depressing epitaph.
But then, just a few verses later, he changes direction completely and begins to issue blessings – to his children, his grandchildren, even to Pharaoh himself.
Contemplating our finite condition can indeed be disheartening and disturbing at first. But if we take that emotion and channel it, if we demand of ourselves an endless, energetic march to excellence, we can indeed create blessings for ourselves and everyone else around us. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; email@example.com.