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Chayei Sarah

The Value of Time

A rivalry between Baghdad's wealthiest Jews leads to an unbelievable bet, the life of our magnificent matriarch Sarah, and killing time.

The Value of Time
In one of the many and splendorous Jewish communities in Iraq there were two wealthy men, Eliyahu and Menashe. While the residents of the city were, by their nature, generous and giving, the bigheartedness of Eliyahu and Menashe was seemingly on a whole other level: the amounts they donated, the frequency with which they gave, and the smiles and warmth which accompanied their contributions to the city’s needs were truly an inspiration; however, all was not as it seemed.

Eliyahu and Menashe, despite their wealth and magnanimity, were not completely happy men. (“What?!” you ask. “They weren’t happy even though they were rich?!” Come on… were you seriously expecting to read that “Eliyahu and Menashe were so wealthy that they were always in a state of ecstatic happiness! Yes, despite everything you’ve heard from your parents and teachers, money is the secret to true happiness and meaning in life!”?) Unfortunately, though both Eliyahu and Menashe were content to be philanthropists in their community, each one of them wanted to be the philanthropist of the city: neither man was content to be second-best in the eyes of the city.

For years, a secret competition raged between Eliyahu and Menashe in which they constantly strove to outperform the other. Every charity drive turned into a personal contest-for-two with the winner being the one who gave the most money. Communal events were simply a function of which of the two was accorded more honor. For the longest time, Eliyahu and Menashe faced ongoing disharmony because they both were convinced that they were the wealthiest resident in their hometown and that they were deserving of the utmost honor, to the exclusion of everybody else (regardless of how wealthy anybody else was).

Finally, Eliyahu sent an emissary to Menashe with a message and a proposal. Their feud had carried on for far too long and it was time to settle the argument once and for all. Eliyahu suggested that they, jointly, invite the city’s residents to the nearest lake for a day of feasting and festivities with all expenses paid for by the two of them. With all of their neighbors gathered together, Eliyahu and Menashe would each take a sacksful of their golden coins, rent a couple of boats, and sail one hundred meters into the middle of the lake. Then, in the presence of all their friends and family, they would cast their golden coins, one at a time, into the depths of the lake: first Eliyahu, then Menashe, then Eliyahu, and then Menashe. How would such a contest determine who was truly the wealthiest individual and (in Eliyahu’s perverse logic) the person deserving of the most dignity? Quite simply: the individual who stopped first, either pained by the loss of his gold or too terrified to toss out more of his wealth, was clearly not the richest man in their city. Menashe cackled to himself with delight and the bet was set.

A couple of weeks later, with the city’s inhabitants waiting with baited breath, Eliyahu and Menashe set sail, leaving the shore behind them. With the eyes of their neighbors upon them, they dropped anchor and turned to their audience. Casually, Eliyahu opened his sack, picked out a gold coin from the nearly-overflowing bag, lifted it high above his head to show the crowd, and dropped it straight into the lake. Not to be outdone, Menashe, as well, made a production of juggling a few coins in the air before tossing one overboard. The eyes of the masses were glued upon them, shocked at the spectacle they were witnessing.

Eliyahu threw a second gold coin into the water (with considerably less fanfare) and his coin was followed a few moments afterwards by Menashe’s gold. Like a microwavable bag of Orville Redenbacher “Pour Over Movie Theater Butter” popcorn, the sounds of the coins hitting the surface of the water started out slowly but quickly sped up to a furious clip: for a few minutes the gold was streaming out of their hands so quickly that both boats almost looked like they had begun leaking gold.

The frenetic pace was kept up by both Eliyahu and Menashe until, like Orville’s tert-Butylhydroquinone-laden Gourmet Popping Corn, Eliyahu’s pace began to subtly slow. (Side note: if you don’t know what TBHQ is – or even how to properly pronounce it – should you really be consuming microwave popcorn? I’m just saying…) At first Eliyahu’s lag was barely noticeable; however, three minutes after that original hesitation, his stall was noticeable to the onlookers on shore. Doubtlessly, Eliyahu was having second thoughts: the frequency with which he threw his gold into the sea (in contrast with Menashe’s constant, never-tiring pace) accompanied by ever-increasing expression of pain on his face signaled to the audience that we were about to witness a brutal, financial knockout in the second round.

Indeed, two minutes later, Eliyahu’s gold, clutched in his outstretch, trembling hand, was not released into the water; instead, he put it back into his bag. With a cry of triumph and victory, Menashe joyfully sailed back to the shore, awaiting the honor and recognition he’d known all along was is.

(WARNING: Do not continue reading if you were secretly rooting for Menashe all along. Seriously… if you don’t want spoilers, read something else!)

How did Menashe calmly and confidently throw his gold overboard? (All people but especially) rich people hate losing money![1] Quite simply: Menashe wasn’t throwing gold coins overboard, he was throwing counterfeit gold coins overboard. For Eliyahu, the challenge of throwing away his precious gold was finally too much for him; however, for Menashe, the “gold” meant nothing to him and so it was a piece of cake to throw it into the lake’s waters.

“Kill time” – what a tragic but appropriate expression. Despite the moniker of “free time,” time is anything but free; when a moment passes, it will never be replaced. Like a fleeting life, when time’s up, time’s up. Time on this earth is perhaps the most valuable gift given to us by the Almighty. How, then, can people spend so much time in their life killing time? The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, explains that many people don’t realize the value of time. Like Menashe, it’s simple for them to “waste” it because – to them – it simply doesn’t have value.

Sarah Imeinu was a woman who lived her life as though time mattered. She realized that every moment on earth was a gold coin not be tossed aside lightly. “Sarah’s life was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; years of Sarah’s life.”[2] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch comments:
All these years together are called Chayei Sarah: she lived in all of them. All of the 127 years of her life were chayim, vital and joyful life, good and meaningful life, and there was not a moment of it that she would have preferred not to have lived…. There is not a day, not a minute of such a life, that is not recorded in the Book of Remembrance before God; in the 127 years of such a life in this world, there is not a day that is unimportant.

Every day of your life was given to you by God because He knows that you can transform it into something meaningful. The years of your life can also be “vital and joyful life, good and meaningful life” if that’s the choice that you make. The first step towards a meaningful life, though, is realizing that life is meaningful, that your time on this planet is valuable and not to be thrown away. Start living your life instead of killing time and you’ll find “there is not a day that is unimportant.”
[1] See Menachos 86a.
[2] Bereishis 23:1.