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In and Out of the World
by R' Abraham Twerski MD

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas was accustomed to say: "Morning sleep, midday wine, children's chatter, and sitting at gatherings of the ignorant remove a person from the world." (Mishnah - Avot 3:14) The "morning hours" may also be understood as the early years of a person's life, which are all too often "slept away." On several occasions the Talmud states that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi wept, saying, "It is possible for a person to achieve his entire world in one brief moment" (Avodah Zarah 10b). He would say this when he noticed a person redeem himself after wasting away an entire lifetime. Why would such an observation cause sadness and move him to tears? Because even though a person did redeem himself in one moment, a wasted lifetime is a terrible tragedy. Just think of what that person could have accomplished had he lived properly all his life! This is a particularly important issue in these days, when so many young people go astray, whether into drugs or other self-destructive behavior. They may come to their senses when they are well into their adult years, but the years of their youth, when they were at their highest learning capacity, can never be regained. This is indeed tragic. Obviously, if there were any way to help young people preserve these precious years and avoid squandering them foolishly, this would be an invaluable contribution to them and to mankind as a whole. Children often mimic the behavior of adults. If the values of the mature culture are defective, it is only natural that young people will be apt to adopt them. The term "mature culture" may not be accurate. Yes, there is an adult culture, consisting of people from age 20 to 80-plus, but age does not necessary make for maturity. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the juvenile is "I want what I want and I want it now!" A truly mature person gives greater consideration to the appropriateness of his desires, and if their gratification may have negative consequences, he will forego them. Furthermore, a mature person is able to delay gratification, whereas the child typically wails, "But I want it right now." A 45-year-old executive, who has a graduate degree and functions effectively in operating a large corporation, may indeed be thought of as mature. However, if he lights up a cigarette, and gratifies his desire for nicotine in spite of his knowledge that this may seriously impair his health and endanger his very life, he is exhibiting immature behavior. A group of people whose lust for money results in their polluting the air and water and in upsetting the ecology cannot be thought of as truly mature. An analysis of what the adult culture is doing reveals much juvenile behavior. When it sacrifices decency and morality by exploiting indecency and violence on television in order to bring in lucrative advertisements, it is anything but mature...

Killing Time

The colloquial expression that refers to pastimes as "killing time" is most appropriate. We would be wise to think of the significance of this term. Time is the one commodity which is irreplaceable, and to "kill" it is the height of folly. It has been wisely said that killing time is not murder, but suicide, and such behavior indeed "removes one from the world." Some people may think that sleeping long hours gives the body the rest it needs and is conducive to long life. The author of this Mishnah, Rabbi Dosa, enjoyed longevity (Talmud - Yevamos 17a), and it is he who warns against lingering too long in bed. I was impressed with the autobiography of the Nobel laureate, S.Y. Agnon, who related that his father had to open his store early. He wished to teach his son Torah, and he would wake the child before dawn so that he could learn with him before attending early morning services. Agnon's mother, who was protective of her child, would plead with the father, "Let the child sleep! He is young and needs to grow." The father responded, "What! You want him to grow up ignorant?" One might think that the child would have grown up with marginal health and with a negative attitude toward Torah. After all, he was pulled out of bed on cold winter mornings to study Torah. But this child who was aroused out of his sleep while it was still dark, lived to a ripe old age, remained loyal to Torah study and observance throughout his long life, and brought great pride to his people by his contributions to world literature. Our sages knew what keeps a person in the world and what removes him from it.

Intentions and Outcomes

Western civilization has become very business minded, probably more than in the past. Many more people are invested in the market, and many more people are tuned in to the economy. This preoccupation with economic issues seems to have had a deleterious impact on our personal lives. The rules of economics are based primarily on profit or loss. Thus, if a person goes into a business venture with reckless abandon and takes great risks, and happens to hit it rich and make a windfall profit, he is not thought of as irresponsible. Rather, he is hailed as an economic wizard. On the other hand, if someone takes great caution, assiduously adhering to the rules of economics and seeking advice from the best sources, but his business venture turns out to be a total failure, he is considered a schlimazel. People will flock to the former for advice, and will shun the latter. Why? Because economic "good and bad" are determined by success or failure: Profit is good, loss is bad. How one came to make the decisions that resulted in success or failure is irrelevant. Good and bad are dependent on outcome, not on intentions. That is the way economics operate, and indeed, that is how economics should operate. Morality and ethics, however, are just the reverse. Good moral and ethical behavior is determined by intentions rather than outcome. For example, if a doctor does not believe his patient needs surgery, but tells him that he must undergo an operation because he is money hungry and wishes to collect an exorbitant fee, he is an unscrupulous, unethical doctor. It may happen that when he performs the unnecessary surgery, he may discover a tiny cancerous tumor which had as yet not shown any symptoms. He removes it in its early stages, and he saves the patient's life. Is he a hero? No, he is a scoundrel, and one should avoid this kind of a doctor. The fact that he happened to save the patient's life by accidentally discovering an early cancer does not make him a good doctor, even if this patient is eternally grateful to him. On the other hand, a doctor may have a patient about whom he is very concerned. Without surgery, there is a 75 percent likelihood that the patient will not live a year, and successful surgery can prolong his life. However, the operation is a risky one, and there is a 50 percent chance that the patient will not survive the surgery. The doctor agonizes over this decision, and calls in several consultants for their opinion. After taking all the factors into account and giving it a great amount of thought, he concludes that it would be best to operate. Unfortunately, the patient does not survive the surgery. Is he a bad doctor? No, he is a highly ethical doctor, and one would be wise to be his patient. In these cases, the one who had the successful outcome is bad, while the one who had the failure is good. This is because moral and ethical issues are not dependent on outcome. No one has prophecy to foresee what will happen, and there are many things that are beyond our control. All we can do is the best we can do, setting aside our own desires and trying to do what is best for others. When we behave in this way, we are good, regardless of the outcome.

Life is Not a Business

Clinically, I have come across people who harbor guilt for things that happened, even though they tried to do their best. I have encountered parents whose child has gone astray, either to the use of drugs or other destructive behavior, although they tried their utmost to be responsible and caring parents. The tragic outcome occurred in spite of their best efforts. Yet, they are consumed with guilt. On the other hand, there are instances where parents were selfish and negligent, yet the child turned out to be an excellent scholar who achieved high honors. These are the parents who should have felt guilty for their dereliction, even though their child happened to succeed. In these examples, as in all other phases of ethics and morality, we must not allow the rules of economics to determine our behavior or feelings. One does not play football according to the rules of baseball, and one should not run one's spiritual and personal life according to the rules of economics. The problem is that when we are totally absorbed in economics, we might not even realize that there is another set of rules. We must be able to disengage ourselves from economic concepts and adopt the rules of ethics and morality that are appropriate to our personal and spiritual lives. [W]e must remember that our lives are not business enterprises.

From "VISIONS OF THE FATHERS" - Pirkei Avos commentary. Published by Shaar Press/Mesorah Publications - Reprinted with permission from INNERNET MAGAZINE



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