Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) Is Effective Time Management a Mitzvah?

Many people will tell you, “it’s all in the Torah, you just have to know where to find it.” In Genesis, there are stories giving moral lessons; in Exodus we are introduced to some of the mitzvot (commandants), as they relate to us as individuals and as a nation. When people think of Jewish practices, they associate them with formalities such as eating kosher food, Sabbath observance, Passover and other holidays and the rituals connected to them but this is a mistake because one’s Judaism should traverse every area of life. It’s not just when we are in the synagogue or having a Passover Seder, it’s also how we conduct ourselves at work and at play. For example, an employee should not be shopping or browsing online without permission of their employer. When you are at an Amusement or Theme Park, you shouldn’t lie about the age of your child in order to get a reduced rate. Whether it’s work or play, classical Jewish literature has much to say about all areas of life, but where do we find a reference in the Torah for effective time management?
This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; the first of the months of the year. (Ex. 12:2)
Sforno (1475-1550; Italy) comments that during the Egyptian slavery, “your time did not belong to you, rather you worked for others, to fulfill their will and therefore (in this month) your existence as a people of (free) choice began.” The message is to each individual Jew; you are the free-willed master of your months (i.e. time). A slave’s time does not belong to him but now that you are free, what you do with your time is a choice-your choice. The reason why this month is called the first of the months of the year is this was the first month that each person’s free new life of free will began.
It would be pointless to give moral responsibilities to one who has no control over his or her time. Being kind, helping the stranger and other ethical directives cannot be accomplished if someone is standing over you day and night telling you what to do. Therefore, it stands to reason that when no one is standing over you barking out orders, you are responsible for the content of your day. For thousands of years Jews have been guided by the Torah for how to use their time. Will I be passive and just let life happen or will I be conscientious; will I be a player? As such, it behooves us to use whatever tools are available to help us to use our time wisely. The Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933) once remarked, “some people think that our task on earth is to be pious. The truth is that our task is to be wise.” Here are some words or wisdom from two wonderful books about the importance of using your time to live your life to the fullest.
In Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry writes,
Empty space wants to be filled, and where there is an absence of purposeful activity and meaningful progress, any activity that brings the ping of immediate productivity will fill the void. (p. 19).
Being busy but mindless fills valuable time-i.e. it wastes valuable time- needed for your best work. The sooner in life one figures out what (s)he considers purposeful, the more personal fulfillment (s)he will have. I have heard this comment from many people, “I’m always busy but I’m not getting anywhere.” (i.e. I don’t have a sense of accomplishment.) My experience has been that when people misuse time in this way (i.e. being busy without purpose), they start doubting themselves and ultimately ask what meaning their life has. They feel as though they are on a timeless treadmill and can’t get off. What advice might we offer them? “You need to read and internalize the following book.”
In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, we learn that we need to give ourselves permission “to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone,” because only then “can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” When one is on life’s “treadmill” (s)he is fatigued because (s)he isn’t setting aside time to ask the difficult question, “what really matters to me?” If career is the most important thing in one’s life, then (s)he won’t have second thoughts about remaining single but if one seeks a meaningful and committed relationship, his or her decisions will be different. The word “decide” comes from the Latin “cis” or “cid,” literally meaning “to kill (e.g. suicide, homicide, infanticide). Are you willing to move for the sake of your relationship-i.e kill your options in the place you are for the other person. I know a man who had graduated from an Ivy League university and was planning on getting a Ph.D.; he decided to get it in Canada because the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with was going to school there. She ultimately went to medical school but when he finished his Ph.D. and got a job at an American university, she decided to follow him and do her residency in the States. Each of them chose the relationship and everything else followed. Every time one makes a decision, (s)he kills a different option. The only way to make decisions you will be able to live with is if you have clarity about what is really important to you. We are the only ones who take away our ability to make the choices that really matter in life. As McKeon says in Chapter 3 (p. 36), “The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away-it can only be forgotten.”
One of the great consequences of the Jews being liberated from Egypt was that they would now be able to make decisions. Therefore, the month they were freed was to be for all future generations the first month because this is truly when they started living.
What choices do you make? How happy (or perhaps, effective) are you with how you spend your days?
Some Syrian Jews have a custom to sing the following Hebrew poem at a brit milah (circumcision). Its message is not limited merely to the infant who recently entered the covenant, it’s for all those assembled-and us too.
A man worries about his wealth being, but not about his days fleeing (Odam doeg al ibud domov v’einu doeg al ibud yomov)
Money will not help his yearning; the days that pass will not be returning.(Damov einum chozrim, yomav einum chozrim).
May we all get the clarity we need to make decisions that allow us to use our time in a way that will bring us fulfillment and peace of mind.
(Sources: Sforno 12:2; Atarah LaMelech by Rav Avraham Pam; Midrash Rabbah Shemos 15:2 (Artscroll, Kleinman Edition)

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