Whether you even know what a picture postcard is will immediately put you in a certain age bracket. Just recently, I asked a group of teenagers if they knew what a postcard was, and they had absolutely no idea. It reminded me of a video posted last year of two teenagers being challenged to operate an old-fashioned telephone where you dialed the number with that circular dialing system. They were completely flustered and just could not work it out. I’ll get to the picture postcard soon.
I intended procrastinating, but I never got around to it.
Whether you consider the above quotation wise, witty or silly, it can actually be quite a sobering thought. How many of us can truly say we don’t put off important things we know we should have done yesterday? Don’t you just go green with envy when you meet those super-efficient amazons who are so punctual, organized and always put together? Don’t they infuriate you … with yourself?
From my own experience, I know that if something is important, I better attend to it immediately; otherwise, I simply don’t trust myself to “get around to it.” I know I could benefit from a time management course. In fact, I once signed up for one, but I never made it there. No time. (It’s true, I promise.) There are still so many new ideas, projects and plans I’d like to get around to, and I know that only with better personal discipline will they materialize.
You might be surprised to learn that effective time management is not only a professional value but also a religious imperative. During these weeks between Passover and Shavuot, we do the Counting of the Omer (Leviticus 21-24). Just as the Israelites counted the days after the Exodus in eager anticipation to receive the Torah, so do we count these 49 days annually.
But why count time? Time marches on inexorably, whether we take note of it or not. “Time waits for no man” goes the old proverb. What value is there in counting the days?
One answer is that we count these 49 days precisely to make us conscious of the preciousness of every single day—to make us more sensitive to the value of a day, an hour, a moment. As Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch once said, “A summer’s day and a winter’s night is a year!”
I heard a classic analogy on this theme in the name of the saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933). Life is like a picture postcard, he said. To be honest, I was quite taken aback to see this line attributed to such a pious rabbi. I can’t quite imagine the Chofetz Chaim in a seaside hotel sending a picture postcard home. But this is as I received it, and so am I passing it on.
Ever had the experience of being on vacation and sending a picture postcard home or to a friend? Those of you old enough to remember will recall what happened to so many people so often. We start writing with a large scrawl and then we think of new things to say, experiences to share or questions to ask, and before we know it, we’re at the end of the card and there’s no more room. After all, a picture postcard had a picture of the beautiful scenery on one side and half of the other side was for the address. So, all the space available to write your message amounts to half of one side of a small postcard.
So, what do we do? We start writing in a smaller font, and then when we’re out of space, we start winding our words around the edges of the card to get it all in. And before we know it, we’re turning the card upside down to squeeze in the last few vital words in our message.
But, hey, isn’t life just like that? We start off young and reckless without a worry in the world. We live our younger years with abandon. Then, as we get older, we start realizing that life is short. So we start cramming and trying to squeeze in all those important things on our “bucket list.” Sometimes, our attempts are quite desperate, even pathetic, as we seek to put some meaning into our lives before it’s too late. Maybe that’s what a mid-life crisis is all about.
So the Torah tells us to count our days—because they are, in fact, numbered. We each have an allotted number of days and years in which to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Hopefully, by counting time, we will appreciate it better. So, whatever it is that is important for each of us to get done, please G-d, we will all get around to it.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.