John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s greatest founders and presidents, were, at different points in their lives, bitter rivals and the closest of friends. Though they differed radically in personality and temperament, they were drawn together by a shared idealism, common interests, and perhaps most of all, extremely lengthy retirements. Adams completed his only term as President in 1800, while Jefferson capped his presidency and active political life in 1809. Fortunately – both for their own sake and for the sake of posterity – the two men enjoyed a long retirement and correspondence that lasted until July 4th, 1826, when both men passed away on the same day.
How did these extraordinary men spend their golden years of retirement? In a fascinating letter to Adams, Jefferson laments that much of his day is occupied with responding to mail: “From sunrise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burden of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)
Jefferson’s frustration is understandable; a thoughtful man advanced in years, he was well aware that his time on this earth was limited. Why, then, did he take the time to answer letters that did not interest him, from people he did not know? Jefferson’s explanation – “it is hard to refuse them civil answers” – boils down to two words: social obligation. Though he deeply sensed the preciousness of the limited time available to him, Jefferson could not bring himself to shirk what he perceived as a basic social obligation – responding to mail from strangers!
Joseph Epstein, a brilliant writer in his late seventies, expressed a similar frustration: “I felt my roster of friends and acquaintances… was altogether too large as it stood. I was already seeing more people – for lunches, coffees, dinners with them and their wives and husbands – than I really liked. But to my mild fraudulence was added a deep social cowardice—an inability to break things off with people who were of only peripheral interest to me. I sometimes felt I was the perfect customer for a much-needed but never-produced Hallmark card that would read ‘We’ve been friends for a very long time,’ followed on the inside by ‘What do you say we stop?'” (Joseph Epstein, Friendship: An Exposé)
“Life he requested (שָׁאַל) of You, You gave it to him; length of days forever and ever.” (Psalms, 21:5) Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, analyzing this verse in the context of Abraham’s old age, translates the word “שָׁאַל” not as “request,” but rather as “borrow.” He explains that in the righteous man’s perspective, life itself is fundamentally “borrowed” from God, belonging to man only temporarily. Sensing always – with the eyes of an old man – that he is living on “borrowed” time, the righteous man uses his time wisely and with intensity, immersing himself constantly in holiness, for at any moment, he may have to return his “borrowed” life to its owner. Having lived his life this way, the righteous man is rewarded with “length of days forever and ever” – the bliss of eternal life in the next world. (Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, Noam Elimelech, Vayera)
Our lives are filled with important obligations; to our jobs, to our communities and to our families. We are squeezed for time, finding it difficult to focus on the things that matter most. And yet we continuously surrender our limited free time to the incessant demands of social obligation, unable to break free of the myriad dinners and parties that swallow up our days. And so I ask you – are we social cowards, or just too clueless to appreciate the value of our time?