Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35
“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” is a familiar maxim attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Unfortunately, though, many of us don’t follow this advice as well as we should.
Instead we may more readily appreciate the statement that could be a procrastinator’s creed, “Why do something today if you can put it off till tomorrow?”
We see several places in the Torah, including in this week’s parshah, that our tradition falls much more strongly on the side of Jefferson and his jump to it attitude. When telling Moses to go to see Pharaoh prior to the seventh plague, the plague of hail, God says, “Early in the morning station yourself before Pharaoh.”
This is not the only time this verb is used. Among other instances, it is the same verb used when Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac, “v’yashkem Avraham baboker” (So, early next morning, Abraham).
There is a sense of urgency in these situations. Moses and Abraham see the importance of their tasks and do not wish to delay getting right to them.
What is striking is that we often delay in some of the most important decisions and actions we should take. How many people — mostly but not exclusively young adults — know that they should prepare a will but don’t take the steps needed to do so? This is something that I did shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, but I recall specifically when the lawyer said that, while we were supposed to hand copies of the will to various people named as guardians of our children or executors of our estate, he knew that they might just sit in our home wherever we first put them down. Boy, was he right! To this day they are sitting on the top shelf of our office bookcase gathering dust. By now we really should get the will redone, but that is for another day.
So, the Torah is telling us to fight against the voices in our heads while those voices telling us that there is always tomorrow, that there will always be time to write that will, save for retirement or get the roof looked at. We also might delay in other important acts — calling an old friend, writing a note of appreciation to someone or telling someone we love them.
Setting priorities can sometimes be hard but we must take the time to determine what it is that is most important to us. For Abraham, it was devotion to God. For Moses, it was freeing the slaves from slavery. The possible causes toward which we may direct our energies are endless.
This in itself may lead one to procrastinate, saying, “If I can’t do it all, why should I even start?” Bringing together two familiar texts from Pirke Avot (Sayings of our Ancestors) gives us an answer to this question. Rabbi Tarfon teaches us, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at free to exempt yourself from it,” and Hillel teaches us, “If not now, when?”
Delay is easy and getting going on some of the important things can sometimes be hard but the Torah is clear in its message: Don’t wait. Do it now.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)