“Making Each Day Count”
(updated and revised from Rosh Hashana 5764-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter (1847-1905), the second Gerrer rebbe and leader of Polish Jewry, was also known as the Sefat Emet, which is the name of the book of discourses on the Torah and other subjects that he authored.

The Sefat Emet passed away when he was only 58 years old. And yet, his son, the Imrei Emet (Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter) eulogized his father by stating that he was zocheh to יָמִים אֲרֻכִּים that he merited length of days. He explained that although his father did not have the merit of “shanim aruchim”–length of years, he definitely did have length of days. What the Imrei Emet meant was that although his father, the Sefat Emet, died at a relatively young age, he accomplished so much in his life because each day was very full of accomplishments.

With the High Holiday season upon us (Rosh Hashana this year begins on Sunday night, September 25th and concludes on Tuesday night, September 27th) we really need to reflect on the quality of our daily lives. The verses selected from the Book of Psalms and Ecclesiastes that are recited before the Yizkor (memorial) prayer, powerfully express the human need to reflect on the value of the time allotted us:

O L-rd what is the human being, that You must regard him, or the son of man that You think of him? The human being is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow. You (G-d) sweep men away, they are like a dream, like grass which is renewed in the morning, in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore, yet their pride is but toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away. So, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Mark the blameless person and behold the upright for there is posterity for the person of peace. Surely G-d will ransom my soul from the grave, for He will receive me indeed. The L-rd redeems the souls of His servants, none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned. The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to G-d who gave it.

So how do we learn to appreciate each day of our life? The Ethics of the Fathers (2:21) teaches us, in the name of Rabbi Tarfon: לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר , you are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it. In effect, Rabbi Tarfon is teaching to always keep moving, even if it is uphill. While it’s true that we will never achieve perfection–only G-d can achieve perfection–yet we are bidden to strive for perfection and completion. That is why our rabbis advise us that we should live every day as if it’s our last. Not that Jews should be constantly depressed or morbid. But rather, that we should try to accomplish as much as we can within our allotted time and avoid wasting time. Because “wasting time” is much more than just wasting time–it is a waste of life. If we recognize this fact, then time will become much more significant. That is why we read in the Rosh Hashana liturgy of Un’taneh Tokef, the beautiful words of Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullem of Mayence (11th century) attributed to Rav Amnon:

On Rosh Hashana their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass and how many shall be created. Who shall live and who shall die, who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end? Who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall be at ease and who shall wander about? Who shall be at peace and who shall be molested, who shall have comfort and who shall be tormented, who shall become poor and who shall become rich, who shall be lowered and who shall be raised?

This is the challenge of the High Holidays, to acknowledge our mortality, and to focus on the infinite preciousness of time.

Several years ago, a most meaningful piece was sent to me by the Aish HaTorah Shabbat Shalom Fax entitled The Value of Time, author unknown. It read as follows:

To realize the value of one year
Ask a student who has failed his final exam.

To realize the value of one month
Ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.

To realize the value of one week
Ask an editor of a weekly newspaper.

To realize the value of one day
Ask a daily wage laborer who has ten kids to feed.

To realize the value of one hour
Ask a couple waiting for the wedding ceremony.

To realize the value of one minute
Ask a person who has missed the train.

To realize the value of one second
Ask a person who has survived an accident.

To realize the value of one millisecond
Ask the person who has won a silver medal in the Olympics.

Time is our Divine gift. We must use it wisely.

Wishing you and all of yours a very happy and healthy New Year.
Shana Tova.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Rosh Hashana 5783  is observed this year on Sunday evening, September 25th, and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 26 and 27, 2022.

Rosh Hashana is followed immediately by The Fast of Gedaliah, that will be will be observed on Wednesday, September 28, 2022, from dawn until nightfall.

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Friday night and Saturday, September 30th and October 1st, is known as Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of repentance.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה Shana Tova, a very happy and healthy New Year.