This week’s parasha, a discussion of the sabbatical year, should serve as a reminder that the most precious thing we have is free time. And it’s time we stopped wasting it in front of the television.
In the interest of time, I’ll keep this column short.
Maybe then more of you will find the time to read it. You, after all, have other things going on in your lives: More than 85 percent of you, if you’re male, and 66 percent, if you’re female, work more than 40 hours each week. On average, you work 137 more hours a year than your counterparts in Japan and 260 hours more than your friends in Britain. Don’t even get me started about Germany: If the average Berliner wanted to catch up, he’d have to put in a staggering 499 hours, which is slightly more than 20 days. Then there’s the absence of paid parental leave—a virtue we share with virtually no other industrialized nation on earth—and the pitifully small number of vacation days we take each year (13, as opposed to a cool 30 in Finland) and all the other predatory policies that make these here United States among the least amenable in the world to true family values.
But you probably know all of this, and I’m not here to waste your time. What I am here to talk about is leisure.
Each summer, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its American Time Use Survey, a minute-by-minute breakdown of precisely what it is that we’re doing with our lives. For the most part, the serious analysis is devoted to tracking fluctuations in productivity, which is a good thing. But leisure matters just as much—what we choose to do when the work clock stops running tells us a lot about what sort of nation we are.
So, what is it that we choose to do with the five unscheduled hours that those of us 15 and older enjoy, on average, each day? Might we pick up a book and read? We do, for 20 minutes. Relax, think, daydream? Another 15. Play sports? Give it 19 minutes, tops. Socializing with friends? Thirty-eight minutes and we’re done. Even the Internet and computer games, those perennially invoked bugaboos, don’t make much of a dent; we spend no more than 23 minutes per day, according to the survey, “using computer for leisure.” Tack on an additional 17 minutes of various other leisurely activities—since this is a family publication, let us not dare to define them—and you’re left with a healthy 2.8 hours. And that is how much time the average American spends each day watching TV.
Now, far be it from me to criticize the pleasures of gawking at the screen. As someone who treats Hoarders like it was a Dickens novel and is uncomfortably familiar with the ins and outs of the hormonal hordes that populate MTV’s Teen Mom 2, I’m probably the last one to talk. But even I have my red lines, and they run well south of the three-hours-per-day mark. I believe in indulgence, but I believe in mindfulness even more.
It’s a principle made clear by this week’s parasha, in which God instructs Moses on the laws of the sabbatical year. Work the land for six years, the Almighty commands, and in the seventh let it rest and let people and beasts alike freely consume its produce. And every 50 years, he adds, celebrate a jubilee, release the servants, and return all ancestral estates to their original owners. We moderns, of course, may feel removed from such commandments. Fifty years, after all, is the time it takes some of us to pay off our mortgages, and most of us will never work our land with anything more than a lawnmower. But the spirit of the sabbatical year has never been more relevant. Work, the Torah tells us this week, can be demanding, but it must never be allowed to eclipse our deeper, spiritual commitments. And in whatever precious leisure time we have—one year in seven isn’t that much—we should reflect on the fundamental truths: that productivity is not an absolute good; that the mind withers unless permitted, every now and then, to do nothing; and that even the beasts of the field, from time to time, deserve a free lunch.
The saddest thing about reading the time-use survey is realizing how willingly we’ve all sacrificed these sacred ideas. When given free time, we squander it on the couch. When awarded the chance to regenerate, we reach for the remote instead. No greedy corporation did this to us, no narrow-minded legislator; this is a catastrophe of our own making. The sooner we can recall that leisure is holy—holy enough for the Lord himself to make it mandatory—the more likely we are to begin taking back our most precious, unrenewable resource: our time.
To that end, I propose a sabbatical of sorts, only in reverse, geared not to mitigate work but to balance out our misused free time. Let each of us select one day next week—for me, it would most likely be Tuesday, when nothing good is on anyway—and vow to keep away from the tube. Instead, let us talk or read or go for a walk, anything that doesn’t merely pacify our minds but challenges them and forces them to rethink and renew.
Marking the first anniversary of his father’s death, a son reflects on the deceased’s once-powerful frame and how its legacy and memory continue to give him strength