The days I spent in yeshiva in Israel after graduating college were not overly memorable.
In a futile attempt to integrate quickly into this country, I insisted on going to an Israeli yeshiva. I didn’t want to be with folks from Boston and Detroit; I yearned for peers from Beersheba and Dimona.
In this program, I struggled with the material. I don’t have a great Talmudic mind, and I’m a slow learner. I struggled with the language. I struggled with the weather. Because there was no central heating, it was the coldest winter I had ever experienced, and I’m from Denver.
Most significantly, I struggled with the cultural differences. I learned there that Israelis aren’t the greatest at knocking on doors before entering someone else’s room.
I came from a family where if the door was closed anywhere in the house — even if it was only a door to a sibling’s room — you knocked before bursting in. Even in my university dormitory, folks knocked before barging into a room not their own.
Not here, not in this yeshiva. This annoyed me tremendously. I imagine it would bother me a lot less today, a sign of healthy acculturation.
There are two things I remember well about my short time in this yeshiva.
The first is the reason I left: Yamit.
It was 1982, and then-prime minister Menachem Begin was evacuating the Sinai settlements as part of the 1979 peace accord with Egypt. The entire yeshiva was going down to Yamit to protest.
I wasn’t even an Israeli citizen yet and didn’t feel right protesting against the Israeli government. It just wasn’t me at the time, so I left. I came from a strong Zionist home where the Israeli prime minister was always right and smart and the best, be it David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin or Begin.
Where I came from, we protested in front of a local hotel hosting a visiting trade delegation from the Soviet Union with signs saying “Let My People Go,” not against the Israeli government in the Sinai.
The other thing I remembered about my yeshiva days was the fear of bittul zman: wasting time. This was spoken of often in the yeshiva — that life is short, time is both valuable and precious, and it shouldn’t be wasted on frivolous activities. Especially when you could spend that time learning Torah.
There is something very valuable in this idea, as it trains you to appreciate time and understand that your time is not limitless and that it should not be frittered away. But, like everything else, this idea must be implemented in measure.
Otherwise, bittul zman can drive you nuts.
It can drive you nuts because if taken to the extreme, whenever you are doing one thing, you will always be left wondering if perhaps you shouldn’t be doing something else.
If you’re walking, you should be learning Torah. If you’re learning, you should be working. If you’re working, you’re doing that too much and should be at home with your spouse and kids. The idea of bittul zman, deeply ingrained, can lead to deep dissatisfaction.
The way to deal with that is to parcel out chunks of the day for each activity. Forty-five minutes for exercise; an hour for learning; eight hours for working; two hours for the family, and on and on.
But who wants to go through life with such rigidity? Where’s the spontaneity? Where’s the fun? By the way, where does watching television fit into the mix? And what do you call it: one hour of deliberate time-wasting?
Not only does bittul zman keep you constantly wondering whether you might be better off using your time doing something else, but the fact that you are not doing something else often brings with it a deep sense of guilt.
I learned years ago to come to grips with all this. I learned years ago that to be healthy, you need downtime, where you do nothing or something frivolous, like watching television, and that this is not a bad thing, but actually good for emotional well-being. Humans are not always going to use every minute wisely or productively. Humans, or most humans, are simply not built that way.
At a certain point, I made peace with that realization, and behaved accordingly. Then I met podcasts, and the whole dilemma resurfaced.
On the one hand, podcasts are magical. They enable you to listen to top-notch lectures on any topic imaginable.
Years ago, my father would order college courses on a variety of subjects from a company that would send these courses on cassettes through the mail. It took time to get these courses and they were not cheap. Now, it’s all at your fingertips. Great classes, great lectures, anything you want — immediately.
That’s the upside.
The downside? As a result of this, you can’t relax. Because no matter what you are doing, you could always be listening to something meaningful or educational.
It used to be that I’d drive the car and have no choice but to listen to the news or music on the radio. I liked driving during the hours when there was no news show because I was forced to listen to music.
Now, however, whenever you drive — or even when you’re cleaning the house, cooking dinner, exercising or grocery shopping — you could always be enhancing your knowledge and improving yourself by listening to a podcast. Once upon a time, all those activities would be accompanied by your favorite music. Now you have the option of growing and learning while you are doing something else.
And that creates this guilt-inducing dilemma: Do I listen to what I want to, or to what I feel I should?
I want to listen to Bruce Springsteen, but know I should listen to daf yomi. I want to listen to a history lecture, but know I should be listening to a podcast on the great judicial reform debate. I want to listen to radio music on a drive from Jerusalem to Netanya, but know I would grow more by listening to an audiobook instead.
In the end, on that trip from Jerusalem to Netanya, I went for the audiobook. And what title did I pick? Oliver Burkeman’s Our Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
Reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Post.