Sunday, September 4, 2011

Things people say on their deathbeds

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

The other day I heard someone use the old line, "No one ever said on their deathbed, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'" (I've seen it attributed to Paul Tsongas, but I don't know that he originated it.) I've been at deathbeds, and I can tell you that this is false.

The facile nature of popular aphorisms should come as no surprise; this is only one of many pieces of 'wisdom' which don't stand up to examination. Like, "Your mind is like an umbrella – it only works when it's open." Who says? Maybe your mind is like a bottle-cap – it only works when it's twisted. Or your mind is like bulghur wheat - it only works when it's cracked. Or your mind is like a fire door – it only works when it's closed. Or your mind is like a seat belt – it only works when it's buckled… But back to our point.

People do say, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office", just in different words. They say, "I wish I had provided for my wife." They say, "I wish I had been a better role model for my kids' work ethic." They say, "I wish I had made a mark on the world."

So why do we devalue the time spent at the office?

Maybe it's because we disconnect the effort from the results, because the effort can be so frustrating, or because the effort does not necessarily lead to the results in any case, or because the effort itself [lining up widgets, managing accounts, calculating risks] seems meaningless. So we value the results, and we reject the process.

In the secular world this isn't a big deal, because devaluing work isn't a big deal so long as you do the work. But I think the same phenomenon exists in many Jews' attitude toward Judaism, where it's religiously dangerous. To Judaism, the process, the mitzvah, is often more important than the results, and shorting the process is the same as shorting the result.

Example: People run out of minyan before its over, or, if they are tzaddikim gemurim with endless resources of patience, the moment it's over. [I'm guilty of this, too, although that's generally because I can't be late to drop my kids off at school and arrive at the beis medrash.] We value what comes from davening – the connection to Gd, the reality check of where we are as Jews, the feeling of humility – but we devalue the work/mitzvah that brings us there, even though that work has inherent value.

Example: People want to learn Torah in the most expedient, quickest way possible. They want their children to learn in the most efficient way, so that they will be able to pack in other studies. We want to know, we want our children to know – but the process itself is not valued. For many, Talmud Torah is valued as a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

So it's fine if people don't say, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" - that's not the end of the world, as long as they work. But if Jews don’t say, "I wish I'd spent more time at minyan," "I wish I'd spent more time learning Torah," there will be problematic consequences.


  1. The saying is also tied to a stereotype, the workaholic who is choosing a career and earning money for a high lifestyle over spending time with family and friends.

    Think of Chapin's "The Cat's in the Cradle" or if you only listen to Jewish Music, Destiny's "Teach Me Father".

    I find it incredibly irritating, speaking as someone who is working 50+ hour weeks just to make the bills for a large family. This assumption that work is a taavah, a yeitzer hara, an alternative to parenting that someone escapes to.

  2. R' Micha-
    I agree - a lot of it is about the stereotype and that assumption of a taavah. It's also about an assumption of poor judgment, I think.