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Time Difference

By Richard Greenberg

"Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven."
-- Koheles 3:1

The top executives of a suburban Washington, D.C., software company called MicroStrategy Inc., recently agreed to pay fines totaling more than $1 million to settle a fraud case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC had accused the company of overstating its revenues and earnings through various improper practices, including booking millions of dollars in proceeds from deals that had yet to be finalized.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this case -- from a Jewish perspective, at least -- stems from published comments made by Michael J. Saylor, chairman of the company, long before the suspected irregularities had come to light. The subject: Revenue timing, of all things.

"In the public world there's a difference between 11:59 and 12:01 the last day of March," Saylor told the Washington Post. "There's a tangible difference. One of them is, you go to jail if the thing gets signed at 12:01 [and you book it the day before]. One of them is, the stock is up $500 million. And the other one is, you've just torched the life and livelihood of a thousand families."

I have no idea whether Saylor is Jewish, but he nonetheless expressed some very Jewish thoughts in that irony-tinged interview. One deals with ethical obligations, the other with . . . time. Yes, time.

Judaism, as it turns out, is not only timely -- as in relevant -- but also deeply concerned with time itself. Time as a commodity. Time as a boundary-setter. Time as a vehicle for holiness. Time, above all, as a precious resource that is not to be squandered. In Judaism, every moment counts.

Consequently, punctuality, order and self-discipline are encouraged in our tradition, while laziness, disarray and procrastination are, of course, frowned upon. This emphasis on industriousness and prompt action is evident throughout one of our most accessible holy texts, Pirkei Avos (Chapters of our Fathers), a compendium of moral and ethical teachings dating to the Mishnaic period.

Pirkei Avos advises us via Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas to make the most of our day by not sleeping late (3:14), and in the ringing words of Hillel, it asks: ". . . And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (1:14). Rabbi Tarfon picks up the anti-sloth theme, informing us that the "The day is short, the task is abundant . . ." (2:20). Meanwhile, Ben Azzai impores us to: "Run to perform even a `minor' mitzvah and flee from sin. . ."(4:2). Not to be outdone, Yehuda ben Tema urges us to be ". . . swift as a deer . . . to carry out the will of your Father in heaven." (5:23).

The overriding message: So much to do, so little time. So many distractions. So many impediments to holy service, good deeds and Torah study. Procrastination is chief among them, which no doubt prompted Hillel to issue this famous warning: ". . . do not say, `When I am free I will study [Torah],' for perhaps you will not become free."(Avos 2:5).

Judaism has several paradigms of punctuality, including Avraham, who hurried to carry out the will of God and perform mitzvahs even when they were personally painful. Self-discipline and selflessness were among his hallmarks. Punctuality, however, is not only a sign of extraordinary religious zeal. It is also a mark of respect for others. A person who consistently shows up late for appointments or even informal get-togethers is communicating selfishness and a lack of concern for others.

"Whether you feel like doing something should not be your major criterion," wrote Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in his book "Growth Through Torah." He added: "Rather, ask yourself `What is the proper thing to do right now?' Once something is proper to do, act with an enthusiasm that comes from an inner acceptance of the importance of doing the right thing."

Sometimes, however, the right thing might be counterintuitive. As Shimon ben Elazar cautions in Pirkei Avos (4:23): "Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger . . ." In other words, let him cool off or your attempt at reconciliation might be counterproductive. Again, timing is critical.

And so it is in matters of repentance, as well. Rabbi Eliezer said: ~"Repent one day before your death." His disciples asked him: "But does a person know on what day he is going to die?" Said Rabbi Eliezer: "All the more reason, therefore to repent today, lest one die tomorrow." (Talmud, Shabbos 153a).

Judaism's focus on timeliness asserts itself early each day during morning blessings when we ask that our prayers to God "be at an opportune time." (Psalms 69:14). Three times daily, prayers are recited during finite intervals that have been fixed by our Sages based on the times offerings were brought in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem. The aim, I think, is not simply to be punctilious, but to engender self-discipline and ensure performance. As we all know, without deadlines, things sometimes don't get done.

It is human nature to dally, rationalize and ultimately, allow valuable opportunities to slip away -- in this case, the opportunity to talk with God in a uniquely Jewish way. The establishment of fixed prayer times helps guard against that. The sad reality is that if minchah, for example, doesn't begin at hour X sharp, it might not happen at all. Likewise, unless the candles are lit at the proper time on Friday night, one may end up never experiencing Shabbos.

Time provides a framework, a support structure for Judaism's system of distinctions and delineations, its marking of the boundary between the holy and the mundane, between festivals and ordinary days, and mostly importantly, between the rest of the week and Shabbos. One moment it's late Friday afternoon. The next moment, Shabbos has begun. As MicroStrategy's Michael Saylor would say, a "tangible difference" suddenly exists, which in Judaism, however, translates into the carving out of a sacred space. And the ensuing 25 hours will be unique and holy because of it. The transformation is not only timely, but timeless.

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