In the grand scheme of things, our lives are extremely short. On average, most of us will only live to 75 or 80. If we’re lucky, maybe we will live 120 joyful years. Perhaps modern medicine will help us to live even longer. But even if science ultimately enables each of us to live 200 years, we still live with the uncomfortable fact that we are inescapably mortal, our time always finite, our days ever numbered.
Recently, I read a book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by journalist and self-described productivity junkie Oliver Burkeman, who puts this truth even more starkly. Burkeman writes that most of us will only have 4,000 weeks to walk this earth. When put that way, when our lifespan is framed as a number of weeks, rather than years, I find that it is easier — and much more terrifying — to recognize just how short our lives really are. Burkeman argues that the greatest impediment to living meaningful, fulfilling lives is our chronic inability to be perpetually mindful of our limited time.
We may recognize that we only have 24 hours in a given day, or seven days in a given week, but few of us think much about how many days or weeks we actually have in total, and what we really want to do with that limited time. As a result, many of us stress about trying to fit as much as possible into each day or week, often (as I am personally guilty of) spending lots of money on books or tools that promise to enable us to fulfill our work or family responsibilities in more streamlined and efficient ways. But as Burkeman persuasively points out, the result of those strategies is often that we fill those newly freed up hours with more responsibilities, contributing to a vicious cycle.
Rarely do we stop to ask the question: is any of this actually worth it? Is this what I want to spend my limited number of days and weeks on this earth doing? Recognizing that my time is the most finite, and therefore the most precious, resource I have, am I using it wisely, spending as much of it as I can on what is truly most valuable to me?
That, I think, is the question posed to us in this week’s parashah. Joseph, the favored son of the patriarch Jacob, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. After his master’s wife falsely accuses him of a crime, he ends up in prison. There, he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants who are both distressed because of mysterious dreams. The first, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, dreamt that he was holding a vine with three clusters of grapes. He crushed the grapes into a cup and gave it to Pharoah. The second man, Pharaoh’s baker, dreamt that he was carrying three baskets filled with baked goods on his head, and birds were eating the food in the basket.
Joseph tells both men that their dreams foretell what was to happen in three days’ time — hence the presence of the number three in both men’s dreams. But Joseph explains that a radically different fate will befall each man after three days — the cupbearer will be released from prison and restored to his position in Pharaoh’s court, while the baker will be executed, and birds will pick the flesh off his decapitated and impaled corpse.
Joseph, it turns out, is exactly right about what the dreams mean. Three days later, Pharaoh restores the cupbearer and kills the baker. While the Torah may be interested in establishing Joseph’s dream-interpreting bonafides, what’s intriguing to me about this story is not the fact that Joseph turns out to be right. Rather, it’s the story’s implication that the cupbearer and baker believe Joseph is correct before it’s proven. Presumably, they have no reason to believe Joseph. For all they know, he’s just a random fellow prisoner! Why do they believe him?
It seems to me they believe Joseph because he offers them the comforting thought that they have more time. In reality, though, this comforting thought is actually a corrupting delusion. True, the baker ultimately learns that he doesn’t have much more time; just three days, to be precise. But, assuming he accepts that truth, he only does so because of Joseph’s positive explanation of the cupbearer’s dream. The baker offers up his own dream for interpretation in the first place only after Joseph has already delivered his upbeat analysis of the cupbearer’s dream. And once the baker sees Joseph as a credible dream-interpreter, he has no choice but to accept the dark truth of Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream. How deep is our desire for more time! How we long to run from the reality that our time is always running out.
But what if the baker is, in a sense, the fortunate one here? That’s hard to say, of course, considering the brutal fate that we know ultimately befalls him. All the more so because he is in the first instance comforted by the prospect that he would have more time, only to be crushed when he learns that in Joseph’s view his time was running out. Surely, one might protest, the cupbearer is much better off. His unsettling dream leaves him expecting the worst, and then the prediction that he would have a new lease on life doubtlessly lifts his spirits. And ultimately, he is released from prison, restored to his prominent position, and allowed to live. How could we say that the cupbearer is worse off?
Because only by confronting our mortality can we truly live. When we fail to recognize that our time is limited, we are much more likely to waste it. When we fail to affirm that life’s very value is in its finitude, we are much more likely to spend it frivolously. By even unconsciously approaching our lives as indefinite, we will inevitably spend too much of our limited time on pursuits that don’t matter. Only by remaining constantly mindful that the clock is ever counting down to the culmination of our all-too-brief sojourn on this earth will we treat our time as profoundly precious, and use it purposefully. The fate that befalls the baker is tragic, to be sure; but sooner or later, in one way or another, it is the same fate, death, that will befall us all. And for that reason, though the news he receives from Joseph may be sad, it’s also profoundly illuminating and extremely valuable. The baker learns the truth of his existence, and the truth sets him free.
The cupbearer, on the other hand, doesn’t get the truth. He gets an uplifting lie, a half-truth at best. Yes, he will survive his current predicament. But he won’t survive his ultimate predicament. Sooner or later, in one way or another, he will meet the same fate as the baker. And for that reason, though the news he receives from Joseph may be happy, it’s also distorting, harmful even. His newfound sense of security is founded upon a falsehood, and the falsehood keeps him captive.
I mean this literally. After this whole ordeal, the cupbearer immediately goes back to doing exactly what he was doing before — toiling as a servant of Pharaoh. He gets the gift of more time, or more accurately he gets the illusion of indefinite time, and in no way does he seem to reevaluate his priorities or alter the shape and texture of his life. His fortunes are restored, but he seems in no way changed. As a matter of fact, we are told that the cupbearer even forgets about Joseph, the person who gave him hope when all seemed to be lost, once he is restored to Pharaoh’s court. The cupbearer may have a new lease on life, but clearly experiences no growth whatsoever. By buying into the delusion of deathlessness, the cupbearer traps himself in the tyranny of a perpetual present, where there can be no motion and no meaning. Sure, he’s technically alive. For now, anyway. But what is his life, really?
True, the Torah doesn’t tell us anything about what those three days are like for the cupbearer and baker, between Joseph interpreting their dreams and those dreams coming true. But I do know the difference between how people live when they know their time is limited and when they don’t. Those who know their time is running out tend to gain clarity about, and then prioritize, what is truly most important to them. Less so for those of us, like the cupbearer, who remain unaware of how little time we actually have.
The truth is that time is constantly running out, for all of us. Maybe you have most of your 4,000 weeks left. Maybe you only have a few hundred, or just a few. Whether you have a lot or a little of the time allotted to you for your sojourn on this earth, that time is inevitably, unalterably, limited, and therefore profoundly precious. Only when we accept this fact, only when we embrace it, only when we live fully cognizant of it and orient our lives in light of it, can we truly, most meaningfully, and most satisfyingly live.
That is not an excuse to shirk the responsibilities of day-to-day life. Just because your time is running out doesn’t mean that you won’t also need to spend some of that time earning a living or standing in line at the DMV. Nor is it an invitation to live recklessly. Just because you will die eventually doesn’t mean you should engage in behavior that could facilitate your demise.
But it does mean we ought all of us reflect deeply on and clarify what matters most to us, what gives our lives meaning, and what we can uniquely contribute to the betterment of our world, and prioritize those pursuits by devoting to them the most precious resource we have — our limited time.
The clock is ticking. Our four thousand weeks are fleeting. Right now is our time to live.