Beit Midrash

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Leap Year


Rabbi Berel Wein

This year on the Jewish calendar, 5774, is a leap year. In terms of the Jewish calendar this means that it is a thirteen-month year instead of the usual twelve-month year. This anomaly is accomplished by repeating the month of Adar twice. In the secular calendar every fourth year is also called a leap year. That leap year is identified by having the month of February be twenty-nine days long instead of the usual twenty-eight days.

The scientists who deal with absolute time, as though there is such an actual measurable thing, also have created for us a leap second and there are many other such leap items that abound in our complex universe. I have often thought that there is a unique message that lies in the word leap as it appears in all of these cases regarding the passage of time.

I think that almost all of us, in looking back on our lives tomorrow, will agree that time leaps and does not drag. It goes faster than we wish and allows us little ability to savor the precious moments that it sporadically provides. In the words of the Psalmist: "For it (the time of one’s lifespan) flies away swiftly." Time therefore leaps and does not tarry. Therefore in reality all of our years are leap years for they have all leapt away quickly and sometimes even without notice or remembrance.

That to me has always been the message of calling these leap years, those that have within them an unusual number of days. All of our lives therefore are one long leap, strenuous and swift, dangerous and exhilarating. And we are always leaping into the unknown.

There is a strange idiom that exists in the English language called "killing time." This almost always means wasting time or being forced to wait and/or being delayed from accomplishing a certain task or goal or project that exists before us.

The word "killing" when used in connection with time seems to be a strange choice of a verb. We do not usually think of time as being a living object that is in danger of being killed. Yet by the very use of the idiom we are pointing out to ourselves that disregarding the passage of time and treating time in a wasteful and cavalier fashion is akin somehow to murder.

Time is deemed to be so precious that it is no longer just a measure of life but it is life itself. And therefore it can be killed and snuffed out just as any other form of life that exists on our planet. So when the Torah forbids murder and the unjustified taking of life it is indirectly also forbidding us from destroying and wasting the time that is allotted to us on this earth.

The great men of Lithuanian Mussar had a short poem that sums up all of this: "People concern themselves over the loss of wealth; but they do not concern themselves over the loss of time. Eventually wealth cannot help them; but the days of time will never return." In Hebrew these sentences rhyme. However I think the message is clear in no matter in what language the sentiments are expressed.

One of the great challenges in life is how to deal with time. How do we fill our days? This is a major challenge in the years of life when we are less active, already retired from our professions and enterprises, and thus find ourselves with time on our hands.

There is no magic answer to this problem and one size certainly does not fit all. Yet medically, socially and emotionally our nature is to be busy and occupied. There is an inner drive within us to avoid killing time. This certainly is part of the heritage of the Jewish people.

Maybe in a rueful way it explains why no one in Israel wants to wait in line for any service or attention. The dreaded visit to the post office and its inevitable long line, waiting impatiently for the bus or train to arrive and rushing to get on it when it finally does come, and many other such instances in our daily lives, exhibit our impatience and stem from our innate desire not to waste time.

Deep down we are aware how precious and valuable time is and of the necessity for exploiting it to the utmost in a productive fashion. Just as we abhor the slaughter of innocent people so to are we inclined not to kill time. It is far too precious a commodity to be treated lightly and without profound respect and consideration.
A happy leap year to all!
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