Making the most of time

How much is time worth? To the day laborer it is $10 an hour; to the brain surgeon, $5,000 per hour.

clock 88 (photo credit: )
clock 88
(photo credit: )
For every thing there is a time: a time to weep and a time to laugh... a time for silence and a time to speak... (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) How much is time worth? To the day laborer it is worth $10 an hour; to the brain surgeon, $5,000 per hour, or over $150 per minute. And this week came word that the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson, will deign to have you shake his hand for about five seconds - for a nominal fee of $3,500. But the keenest insight into the value of time is offered, ironically, by history's most profligate time-waster, television. A one-minute advertisement on the recently televised American Super Bowl football game cost over $5 million. One minute. That is about $85,000 per second. TV may be mind-numbing, but it does help us appreciate the real value of time. But even TV understates that value. How much is a minute of life worth? In Jewish law if you cut short a dying person's life even by a few seconds you could be guilty of murder - because you have deprived that person of those few seconds of life. Time is much more than money; it is life itself. ALTHOUGH we have mastered much of the physical universe, one crucial facet of life continues to elude us: mastery over time. We have outgrown hour-glasses and sun-dials, have developed subtle and sophisticated time-measurement devices, and can tell time very accurately. But the bottom line is that we cannot tell time anything. Time itself does the real telling: when to come and when to go, how long to stay, how to conduct our lives. Truly, "time will tell." We acknowledge time's sovereignty by placing it on our wrists, on our walls, at our bedsides, atop great buildings. Time hovers over us like an omnipresent shadow. Yet we are still as confused about it as the ancients were. Note the ambivalences and contradictions of daily speech: Take your time vs Time waits for no man. Bide your time vs Make time. Time flies vs Time drags. Time is money vs Killing time. Time on our hands vs Where did the time go? Time is a cruel taskmaster vs Time is a healer. Time seems to stand still vs Time marches on. NEVER MIND that Einstein said time is relative, and that an hour seems like a minute when watching a glorious sunset, but a minute seems like an hour when your hand is on a hot stove. The good professor notwithstanding, the ticktock of the clock continues at its own steady, relentless pace. Some try to remove the inevitable signature of time from their bodies through the use of creams, diets, medications and surgery. But time is inexorable; it will not be conquered. Others try to escape it through the headlong pursuit of new toys and baubles - which in time quickly turn old. Still others try to ignore past and future time, and live only in the present. This, obviously, is why they wear digital watches which, unlike the older analog watches, display only the present moment. Certainly we value time, which is why we rush through life trying to save it. We speed on the roads to save time, dash through our prayers to save time, hurry through our meals to save time, speed-read to save time - and then, when all that accumulated time lies before us, we are unsure how to handle it. NOT KNOWING how to manage time, or conquer it, or escape it, we take extreme measures: We take revenge on it by wasting it and killing it. So pervasive is the lust to kill time that there are dozens of specialty Web sites for serious time-killers, offering a variety of inane distractions - from celebrity gossip to endless video games, from hopelessly hoary jokes to the best places to go window shopping. (Concern for the value of your time prevents me from disclosing these Web addresses.) Time is fickle; it grants experience and some wisdom, but it also creates gray hair, wrinkles, and worse. Some thinkers, unable to do anything about time, have even suggested in their desperation that time does not exist, that it is an illusion, an abstraction. Some of the world's greatest minds - Einstein, Max Planck, Kant, Schopenhauer - have wrestled with the meaning of time and tried to bend it to their philosophies. But they each succumbed to time, which, oblivious to their theories, transformed the philosophers and physicists themselves into abstractions. Judaism affirms that time is our most valuable possession, and the most perishable: It cannot be put in the recycle bin to be retrieved later. Thoreau's comment that one cannot kill time without injuring eternity is very Jewish. Our entire religious life is framed by time. God Himself - He Who is timeless - sanctifies time, setting aside special holy moments for His service: Shabbat, holidays, prayer time, Torah study time, time for good deeds. He is the Mekadesh Yisroel vehazmanim - "the Sanctifier of Israel and of time." The word zeman, meaning time or season, pervades our liturgy. CAN TIME be vanquished? Can we at least decelerate its frenetic pace? God deemed Joshua worthy enough to stop time for him (10:13), but the rest of us ordinary mortals can only hope to slow it down a bit. How? One way is to place our time in the hands of a Higher Power, as King David suggests in Psalm 31:16 "In Thy hands are my times…" That is, we can enter realms that enable us to at least brush the hem of eternity: prayer, Torah study, serious thinking and meditation. There are other such realms: mitzvot like loving-kindness, tefillin, charity, integrity, humility, intake and output of the mouth, awareness of the other beside me and the Other above me. All of these, singly and collectively, usher us into a fourth dimension that brings a hint of eternity into daily life. They will not slow wrinkling nor prevent aging, but they apply the brakes to the inexorable rush of time and help allay the unsettling feeling that time is slipping through our fingers. Those doors are open; they only need a push. And once we push them open, time becomes transformed from adversary to friend. Hassidim tell of a man who sighed whenever he saw the village clock: "Every passing minute brings us closer to death." "Wrong," replied his friend, "every passing minute brings us closer to the Messiah." I've just glanced at my (digital/analog) watch and find that I have a spare half-hour. How shall I spend it? Hmm… I have the address of that time-waster's Web site. It just takes one click. On the other hand… The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, served as rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years, and is former editor of Tradition magazine.