As it turns out, Lance Armstrong’s true story is not one of courage, tenacity and heroism, but of lies, cheating, and cowardice instead. This week, Armstrong confessed to using illegal substances in an effort to gain a competitive advantage. He has already been stripped of his titles and his endorsements, and now he has lost whatever was left of his reputation. His behavior was deplorable, reprehensible, and indefensible. There is much to learn in watching his monumental downfall from admired hero to disdained villain. It is remarkable to see how easily someone could lose their moral compass when they are driven to succeed at all costs.
In thinking about Armstrong’s confession this week, one thing struck me that perhaps we can learn from in a counter intuitive way. Lance Armstrong threw away his career, his legacy, his titles, and likely his foundation, all because he wanted to gain time on his fellow competitors. In competitive racing, every single minute and indeed, every second, counts. Lance Armstrong was willing to risk it all just to gain a moment of time.
What is the value of time to us and what are we willing to do to take advantage of every moment of it? Of course his means of making up time were disgraceful, but perhaps his drive to value every millisecond is something to be admired. After all, as I have written before, time is the most precious commodity we have, and too many people throw it away as if it means nothing at all.
In truth, valuing time is what differentiates us as free people. In this week’s parsha, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon – “Ha’chodesh ha’zeh lachem rosh chodoshim, rishon hu lachem l’chadshei ha’shanah. This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” At first glance, this gift doesn’t seem like much. After all, you can get free calendars from Publix, Jewish funeral homes, or even the Shul. But of course, the gift is indeed precious and of inestimable value. With this pasuk, Hashem gave man the power to control time and to determine the Jewish calendar.
The real question is why now, why here? The Jewish people have been enslaved and persecuted for more than two centuries. They have just witnessed and paid homage to a series of plagues, a sequence of extraordinary miracles transcending nature. They are poised to be liberated, and out of nowhere they are given this mitzvah, this gift of creating the calendar. If I am Moshe, I am thinking – God, can’t we discuss this when we get out of Egypt? Really, we appreciate the gesture, but can’t this wait? Why now, on the brink of the tenth plague, on the cusp of tasting freedom?
The great 16th century commentator from Rome, R’ Ovadia Seforno, offers an insightful suggestion. A great transition and transformation is about to occur. The people are going to go from slavery to freedom. Slavery is not limited to the physical dimension with physical oppression. Freedom is not expressed solely by the ability to move about and go where you please. Slavery and freedom exist most prominently in the dimension of time. Says the Seforno, the commandment is given right now because it is the greatest expression of freedom from bondage. A slave has no clear notion of time since it is not his to schedule, make use of, or dispose of. Only one who owns his time and controls it is free to fill it with significant matters that sanctify it. Freedom and time are intertwined.
Time is a precious commodity, arguably the most valuable we have. No matter what we do, we cannot expand it or increase it. We cannot make it go slower or last longer. Our relationship with it is finite and undetermined and can cease at any moment. And with all that, we are free only when we own our time and are not owned by it.
My favorite number is 168. There are 168 hours in each and every week. Subtract 50 hours, which is probably an average weekly amount of sleep, leaving 118. Now assume you use another 21 hours a week for basic things like davening, eating, showering, and using the bathroom, and that leaves 97. If you work an 8-hour workday, there goes another 40, leaving 57. You get the idea. The amount of discretionary time we have in a week is actually very small, perhaps no more than fifty hours.
Knowing there are only fifty discretionary hours in a week, now ask yourself – how do you want to spend them? How many hours are you willing to allocate to watching TV or to surfing the web? How many of those do we want to dedicate to our spouses, our children, the pursuit of our own learning and knowledge, helping others, exercising, etc.?
There are so many variables competing for our time, but only we are in control of it. Ultimately, how we use it will determine if we are indeed free or enslaved.
This week many of us our going on vacation as Yeshiva Day Schools take their winter break. Vacation comes from the word vacate reflecting the geographical change to a different place or location. It’s worth noting that vacation references a change of place, but not of a change of pace. Yes, on vacation we slow down, we are much less hectic, busy, and burdened. But I suggest to you that vacation is not a dispensation to waste time; it is a gift to reallocate our time for a short period. Vacation presents an opportunity to spend more time with our family, to expand our mind by reading a book or dedicating more time to learning Torah. It provides the chance to explore, discover, sightsee, and tour. Vacation invites us to reenergize, revitalize, rejuvenate and reinvigorate. But one thing vacation does not mean is a license to kill time, waste time or let time slip away.
Steroids, juicing, and doping are never legitimate means. But taking advantage of every moment of time should be the goal and aspiration of every human being. Wishing you a healthy, safe and prosperous vacation!