Few Moments Of Time Makes The Difference Between Life And Death [Parshat Bo By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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What I do know about physics is that to a man standing on the shore, time passes quicker than to a man on a boat … especially if the  man on the boat is with his wife — Woody Allen

 Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you — Carl Sandburg

This month shall be to you the head of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year.” In the Torah reading this week we come across the very first mitzvah (commandment) given to the nascent Jewish nation, a nation still coming to terms with their transition from serfdom to self-determination. This mitzvah, which seems slightly out of place here, among the plagues, death, sacrifice and general mayhem is that of Kiddush  HaChodesh – the fixing of the lunar calendar (and the recognizing of Nissan as the first month of the year).

The fact that this is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people would seem to indicate its primacy over other mitzvot, and the question is: Why? What is so important about the calendar that could not have waited until Sinai, along with the other 612 commandments? Why here and why now?

Tolkien fans will recognize Gollum’s  famous riddle:

This thing all things devours; Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town; And beats high mountain down.

The answer of course, being Time.

This week we saw how just a few moments of time made the difference between life and death.

Richard Moule and Nicki Biagioni are crane operators working on construction of the Tower, a new skyscraper being built in Central London, not far from the Houses of Parliament. The tiny cabin they work in, at dizzying heights atop the crane, was destroyed this week when a helicopter collided with it. Tragically the helicopter pilot, one of the best in the country, was killed in the accident, as was one other person, but thankfully no others were killed despite this being a very busy area of London.

It is the two crane operators though, who must be thanking their lucky stars, as they escaped death by minutes. Both were on site and about to ascend the crane when it was hit and they were evacuated. Strangely, both of them had overslept and had shown up for work late, and both said it was the first time they had been delayed for work. They missed certain death by minutes.

In many tragedies, amongst the pain and loss of  life, there are those whose lives are spared.

In 2001, Greer Epstein was an executive director at Morgan Stanley, on the 67th floor of the World Trade Centre. Her office took a direct hit. Only a few minutes before, a friend had asked her to step outside for a cigarette.

Rob Herzog worked in Marsh & McLennan’s office on the 96th floor.  He was late for work that day because the express train was too crowded to get on.  He missed the attack by just five minutes, an attack which lost his company hundreds of  lives, many of them friends and colleagues.

Elise O’Kane was a United Airlines flight attendant who tried really hard to change her schedule so she could fly on Flight 175 on 9/11. The system froze as she was trying to make the flight changes, and by the time it cleared she was too late, no more changes were allowed. She missed the flight, and she was angry, but her life was saved.

In all of these stories the difference between life and death was just a few minutes, earlier or later.

Those minutes are always precious, but most of the time we forget just how precious they are. We hear people complain they are bored, they feel time is dragging; sometimes they even try to kill time … because we have forgotten how very valuable every single minute is. The survivors in the stories above appreciate the value of time a little more than most of us: Rob Herzog left his job to start a charity sports league, Elise O’Kane left work to become a nurse and Greer Epstein, now retired, advises everyone she sees to focus less on work and more on family.

Maybe this is the message G-d is hinting at when the very first mitzva given the soon-to-be-freed nation is about the calendar, about the sanctifying and marking of time. A slave has no choice how his time is spent, or with what activities his time is filled. As free men and women we need to appreciate the gift of time, not to let it slip away unused, and we need to make our time holy, to sanctify every moment we pass through.

When every moment of life is valued, when we try not to let the hourglass become empty without achievement, then we can begin to feel that we are fulfilling our mission, making the world we live in a better place for all. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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