Delay tasks? You’re more a Melville than a Moses

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — I never read the book Moby Dick in my youth. Now that I have more time, I decided to read it in my dotage. I failed miserably.

Even though Moby Dick is considered one of the greatest works of American literature, I found it ponderous and boring. When I had time to read, I hesitated picking it up and quickly put it down. I eventually gave up.

Apparently, I am not the only one who was put off by this work. Its author, Herman Melville, had trouble writing it. Melville was a well-known procrastinator.   He had so much trouble writing his book that he had his wife chain him to his desk until he completed it!

Moshe Rabbeinu was the opposite of Melville when it came to follow-through. When Moses had something to do, he did not hesitate but jumped right in.
We read at the beginning of Sefer B’midbar: “On the first day of the second month,” God says to Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” (Num. 1:2)
A few verses later we learn: “So Moses and Aaron took those men…and on the first day of the second month he convoked the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses…As the Lord had commanded Moses, so he recorded them in the wilderness of Sinai.” (Num. 1:17-19)
The Ramban wrote: “Here we learn how quickly Moshe Rabbeinu responded to God’s commandment. On the very day God commanded him to take the census, he completed it.”
I am more of a Melville than a Moses. While I jump right into a task I want to do, I put those off that I would rather not. Unfortunately, this often results in missed opportunities, forgotten deadlines, and embarrassing apologies.
It is much better to tackle every job as soon as it comes to you. This is especially important when it comes to mitzvot. Noting the linguistic similarity between mitzvah and matzah the rabbis taught that when you have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, you should do it immediately. Just as matzah is spoiled and becomes chametz if you wait too long to bake it, so may the opportunity to perform a mitzvah be spoiled if you procrastinate.
As Bonanza actor Michael Landon said before he passed away of pancreatic cancer at the age of 54: “Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”

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Rabbi Rosenthal is the retiring spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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