A renaissance painting of two people, one of them Esau, speaking while crouched over a small flame
"Esau Selling His Birthright" by Hendrick ter Brugghen, ca. 1627, illustrates a scene from Toldot, this week's Torah portion.

We can return to a place, but never to a moment

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 25:19-28:9

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day, and every evening it deletes whatever you failed to use during the day.

What would you do with this windfall?

I bet you would find a way, a meaningful way, to use every dollar, every day. Would you seek out ways of helping and bringing joy to many? Would you leave any dollars on the table, to evaporate when you go to sleep?

The truth is we each have such a bank.

It’s called time.

Every morning it credits us with 86,400 seconds.

Every night it writes off as lost whatever we failed to use, and no leftover balance of time gets passed forward to the next day.

We must live on today’s deposits and invest them wisely. They are truly here today and gone tomorrow.

We live through time, but we are not always conscious of how precious and irreplaceable it is. Too often, the days and weeks go by quickly, and we look back and wonder where they have all gone.

Consider the great difference between time and space. You can return to a place but can never return to a moment. Space waits for us. Time never does. Once the day is done, it’s done.

So the greatest and most urgent question that confronts us is: How should we spend our time?

The stakes could not be higher.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read two different answers to the question, one given by Esau and the other by Esau’s father, Isaac. Esau was asked to trade his spiritual birthright for a bowl of hot lentil soup. Impetuously, he did so, unwilling to delay for even a moment. In his own words: “Behold, I am going to die so of what use is my birthright to me?” (Genesis 25:32)

“Our time on Earth moves by fast,” Esau seemed to be saying. “Therefore, my motto is: ‘Let us eat and drink lentil soup, for tomorrow we die.’”

Why put off pleasure for a deferral that may never come?

Isaac’s response to his own mortality was quite different.

“I am old now,” he said to Esau, “and I don’t know when I may die… Go bring me something to eat so that I may bless you before I die.” (Genesis 27:4)

Isaac understood that the time we are given in this life moves fast. Therefore, his motto was: Let me be a source of blessing to others.

He felt the same sense of urgency about death, but what he chose to do with his remaining time was different. For him, time was short to do good for others.

What then shall we do with the little time we have? We can reach either of two conclusions. The first is that since life is fleeting, we should chase after pleasure, grasping what we can, the moment we can, whenever we can. The second is that precisely because life is short, we should dedicate it to sacred and worthy goals, to make a difference, to being a blessing.

A lovely Jewish tradition can help us live wisely each day. We start with a short prayer that we utter first thing each morning. It is called the Modeh Ani and states: “Thank you, God, for giving me back my life.”

These are the initial words that leave our lips every day — while still in bed. Our first conscious moments are spent thanking God for the gift of life, a new day, and a new deposit of 86,400 opportunities to get better, kinder, wiser and closer to our goals and dreams.

Taking that prayer seriously is to realize that each morning, each day, is like a rebirth. Although a simple prayer, we can sense something momentous is contained in it — nothing less than the Jewish passion for life. Each day is a new beginning. Yesterday may well have been wasted, but today a new chapter in the book of life begins.

The challenge is to make every moment count, to bring joy to others, to be a kinder person, to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend. What makes life meaningful is not what we get but what we give. Everything is possible, every day.

Do we invest time wisely, or do we merely spend it? That is up to us, each 24-hour cycle.

Time is short and that yesterday will never come again. The future is unknown. See each day as a gift from God. Make a blessing over each day as it begins, and turn it into a blessing for others.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.