Recovered Priorities

Once there was a shopkeeper who was very successful and made a fortune off of the people of his city and the surrounding environs. Virtually every waking minute was taken up with work. Not only did he lack time to learn one word of Torah, this gentleman didn’t even have enough time to daven. Since he worked until late at night it was hard for him to get up on time in the morning. He invariably arrived at shul around the time of borchu. Of course, since he always needed to rush to his business, he would leave early and never remained until aleinu.

When this businessman grew older he started to notice that his hair was turning grey. The shock of his own encroaching mortality inspired him to make a rigorous cheshbon hanefesh. He decided that from that day on he would have a daily seder of several hours of Torah study after davening no matter what.

But his partner wondered why this man, always so regular in the past, did not come to help the moment the store opened at 7:00 AM. When he finally arrived somewhat after ten, his partner was a little annoyed with him. “Where were you?” blurted the partner.

“I couldn’t make it on time today,” he replied vaguely.

The next day the partner in the store anxiously awaited the reformed businessman, but to no avail. When this man finally arrived at the store, his partner virtually pounced on him. “Are you crazy? We cannot run a business this way!”

But the partner who had done teshuvah also did not mince words. “Listen carefully. What would you have done if the malach hamaves had come for me? Would you also insist that I simply may not die because our store is filled with customers? So I want you to imagine that, during those first three hours of business in the morning, I have left the world. Why should it bother you if after a couple of hours I am revived from the dead and come to lend a hand at the business?”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Early Departure”
Siman 132 Seir 2

The story of the shopkeeper is interesting because it’s not about a person who goes from being an atheist to finding God. It’s the story of a religious person who was just too busy for God. That is, until he got his “wake up call.” I’m glad his revelation was as minor as simply noticing he was turning grey and getting older. For some people, it’s more dramatic, like a heart attack, or the death of a loved one due to cancer. It’s a shame we need such “reminders” at all, but that’s human nature. Even as people of faith, we tend to take God and His gifts (wealth, health) for granted until He gives us a reason not to. Of course we should go to God because He is God, but usually we need a “better” reason than that.

OK, there is no better reason to go to God than because He is King, but as we see from the shopkeeper’s example, we can become hopelessly tied up in our day-to-day lives and all of the immediate priorities we feel cannot wait for a few minutes, let alone a few hours. We may even have someone around us like the shopkeeper’s partner who continued to harass this man about the time he diverted away from business in order to meet his obligations to his Creator.

I found this part of the narrative particularly interesting:

So I want you to imagine that, during those first three hours of business in the morning, I have left the world. Why should it bother you if after a couple of hours I am revived from the dead and come to lend a hand at the business?”

The shopkeeper, in meeting with God for the first three hours of his day, effectively exited the world as we know it and was considered “dead” to the pressures and demands of life. He was “revived” upon leaving the presence of God and as he re-entered the world of the living in order to satisfy the requirements of his present existence. This is a concept not unknown in Judaism or Christianity.

I gratefully thank you living and existing King, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your faithfulness. –Modeh Ani

This is the first blessing an observant Jew recites upon awakening in the morning, usually even before getting out of bed. In religious Judaism, some consider sleep to be “made up” of a significant portion of “death”. It’s as if in sleep, we are closer to the realm of death and thus more at risk of entering its “influence” than when we’re awake.

Christianity expresses a similar sentiment, but the blessing is said before going to bed. If you were raised in a Christian family, you may have said this prayer at bedtime when you were a child.

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake.
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I suppose I should mention that in Judaism the Bedtime Shema also contains imagery of entering into a state approaching death and asking God for protection.

The shopkeeper thought he didn’t have time to insert his service to God in his busy life. But when he realized that his life could end at any moment, he knew he didn’t have the same amount of time to devote to business as he did before because he needed to enter into God’s world first.

Why am I writing this? Because I think that “Early Departure” is a moving and meaningful tale, I think that it tells us something we need to be reminded of, and I know that I have put God on the “back burner” more than once because I’ve been too busy.

I also am aware that there are more days behind me than there are ahead and I’ve been arrogant about how I spend my time, ignoring the reality of my existence, which only continues by God’s grace. I suppose this can be considered the latest in a long list of “stop and smell the roses” messages, and as trite as that may sound, it also has the benefit of being true.

Stop for a moment in the middle of your busy day. Take time out today and every day to gratefully thank the King of your life and to let Him know you haven’t forgotten that He is the King.

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