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How Would You Spend Your Last 38 Minutes?

How Would You Spend Your Last 38 Minutes?

You don’t have to be from Hawaii to live like you were dying.


On Saturday morning, residents of Hawaii received an emergency alert on their phones: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

With the increased tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, Hawaiians panicked, believing they were the target of a nuclear attack. Some ran into basements, others under tables; some even climbed down manholes in the street.

It took 38 minutes until the state issued a correction, explaining that the warning was in fact a false alarm. The emergency operations center later informed the world that one of its employees had simply pressed the wrong button, later adding, “The individual has been temporarily reassigned within our Emergency Operations Center pending the outcome of our internal investigation.”


For 38 minutes, 1.4 million people scrambled to secure their safety, but they also did something else. Thinking a catastrophic attack was imminent, they were forced to consider how they wanted to spend their last moments on Earth. Thank God, the warning was a false alarm and the extent of the damage was the anxiety it unnecessarily caused.

Nevertheless, there is a lesson for all of us in their unfortunate experience. If you had 38 minutes to live, how would you spend them? What would you do? Would you open a Torah text and study? A prayer book? Would you reach for the phone to tell someone you love them? Would you contact someone from whom you have become alienated in order to reconcile?

Take a few moments and think about what you would do if you thought you had a limited amount of time to live.

Why aren’t you doing it now?

Hillel cautioned us, “Don’t say ‘when I have free time I will learn’, for you may never have free time” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5). We cannot predict the length of our lives and if we procrastinate and delay we may never in fact get to what we claim are our goals and aspirations.

This week’s Torah portion cautions, “U’shemartem es ha’matzot, guard the matzah from becoming chametz.” Rashi quotes the Midrash that encourages us to read the verse as if it were punctuated u’shemartem es ha’mitzvot, safeguard the commandments. If a positive opportunity comes your way, don’t allow it to turn into chametz through procrastination and laziness. Rather, embrace it, run with it, and do it right away before it is too late.

Death has always been one of the most potent motivators. Buddhist author Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.” The Talmud (Shabbos 153a) records that Rabbi Eliezer taught, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “But does a man know on what day he will die?”

“That is exactly the point!” he replied. “Let a man repent today lest he die tomorrow, and in this way he will live all his days in repentance.”

An insightful country song includes a powerful chorus, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” The people of Hawaii had that chance last week. We don’t need to wait to get an urgent alert. Ask yourself what you would do with minutes to live and then don’t wait, do it right now.

January 17, 2018

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Emil Friedman, January 29, 2018 4:24 PM

I would have been too busy trying to find a place of safety.

In addition, learning is only worthwhile if you get a chance to apply what you have learned.

(3) Rachel, January 19, 2018 10:24 AM

Shabbat morning

While my heart goes out to all the people in Hawai'i who believed they were in imminent danger, I think this demonstrates the great blessing of "tuning out" during Shabbat. Every week, we admit that we don't need to be part of the 24/7 news cycle, sometimes with mistakes.

(2) Mike, January 18, 2018 11:50 PM

Rabbi Goldberg you made an excellent observation. You have given me something to consider.

(1) Helen Stanbro, January 18, 2018 2:41 PM

“What better thing..?”

The question reminds me of a beautiful Bach recording by Wanda Landowska. The music is flawless, of course, but in the background there are progressively louder booming noises: the Germans bombing the area around the recording studio. The recording was made during WWII and an air raid erupted in the middle of the session. As the bombs fell closer and closer, the technicians urged Madame Landowska to take shelter, but she calmly replied, “And if the Germans will be killing me now, what better thing could I be doing than playing my beloved harpsichord?”

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