The two old men couldn’t have been more different from each other. Yet they both taught me the identical life lesson.
The first, a cagey old Irishman, was one of my mentors in the postgraduate psychotherapy training program in which I was enrolled many years ago. He wrote quite a few books in his day, but they are all out of print now and nearly forgotten, like so many other wise writings.
The other was an aged Rabbi, several of whose Yiddish discourses I was privileged to hear in person. He was but moderately famous in his lifetime, but is much more well known nowadays because of the popularity of his posthumously published writings.
The lesson was about the importance of time management. Neither of these men used that term, which is of relatively recent coinage. Yet their words, while far fewer than the words of the numerous contemporary popular books on the subject of time management, made a lifelong impression upon me.
It was long after my encounter with these elderly gentlemen that I first realized that their lesson was implicit in a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot.
The Irishman, we’ll call him Dr. McHugh, was a master psychotherapist with 50 years of experience under his belt. A small group of us gathered in his office every Tuesday evening. We went there not only for his wisdom, but for the warm and comfortable furnishings and splendid view of the city of Washington.
He was an existentialist philosophically, heavily influenced by his encounters with Martin Buber, and because of this he felt a special affinity to me, thinking that since Buber and I were both Jewish, we must have had much in common. He wasn’t aware that my Judaism was very different from Buber’s, but I wasn’t about to disabuse him of his assumption.
Dr. McHugh was a diligent and persistent teacher and, true to his philosophical perspective, doggedly encouraged us to appreciate the human core of the patients we were treating. He was convinced that he had a foolproof method of comprehending that human core. “Tell me how the patient uses his time, how he organizes his daily schedule, and I will tell you the secret foundation of his soul.”
He firmly believed that you knew all you needed to know about a person if you knew how he used his time. Or, as he put it, “if he used his time, and how he used it.” He would then make his lesson more personal, and would ask, carefully making eye contact with each of us, “How do you busy yourself?”
In the summer following that postgraduate course, I took advantage of the rare opportunity of hearing the ethical discourses, the mussar shmuessen, of the revered Rabbi Elya Lapian. He too spoke of the fundamental importance of one’s use of time, and he too, though he did not even know the term, was quite an existentialist.
He began his remarks quietly, almost in a whisper. Gradually his voice reached its crescendo, and when it did he uttered the words I will never forget: “Der velt sagt,” he said in Yiddish, “the world says that time is money. But I say time is life!” I was a young man then, but not too young to appreciate the profound meaningfulness of that simple statement. Time is life.
He went on to say that we all allow ourselves to become busy, and busyness detracts from life.
It was quite a few years later that it dawned upon me that the Irish psychiatrist and the Jewish spiritual guide were preceded in their teaching by the 18th century ethicist and mystic, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, known by the initials of his name as the Ramchal. Furthermore, the Ramchal was preceded in antiquity by none other than the Pharaoh himself.
In the second chapter of his widely studied ethical treatise, Mesillat “Yesharim, Path of the Upright,” Ramchal writes of the tactics of the yetzer, the personification of the evil urge which is buried within each of us:
“A man who goes through life without taking the time to consider his ways is like a blind man who walks along the edge of a river. … This is, in fact, one of the cunning artifices of the evil yetzer, who always imposes upon men such strenuous tasks that they have no time left to note wither they are drifting. For he knows that, if they would pay the least attention to their conduct, they would change their ways instantly. …
“This ingenuity is somewhat like that of Pharaoh, who commanded, ‘Let the heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein, and let them not regard lying words’ (Exodus 5:9). For Pharaoh’s purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or take counsel against him, but by subjecting them to unceasing toil, to deprive them also of the opportunity to reflect.”
To become so busy and have no time to reflect, no time to really live, is bondage. Ramchal’s insight into Pharaoh’s scheme epitomizes the essential nature of our years of exile in Egypt. To have no time, that is slavery.
How prescient were the words of Rav Elya Lapian. Time is life. And how germane is his teaching for contemporary man, who despite the “time-saving” technological devices which surround him is even busier than those who came before him. Contemporary man has no time for himself, certainly no quality time, and thus no life. Time is life.
Millennia ago, an Egyptian tyrant knew this secret.
Centuries ago, an Italian Jewish mystic was keenly aware of it.
Decades ago, I learned it from a gentile existentialist psychiatrist and a gentle and pious rabbi.
It is the secret of spiritual time management, and it is the secret of life. Would that we would learn it today.