In the high school yearbook in one of the schools where I served as principal, students would write a quote beneath their photo that would epitomize the student’s guiding philosophy. One student wrote “time is precious so don’t waste it.” He then, to my chagrin and disappointment, proceeded to lead a life in which time was squandered and misused on countless occasions. He started and stopped his college career several times in order to “find himself,” and after college moved from job to job at the first sign of stress or difficulty. He was engaged three times, over two years to each girl, always using the mantra that “I want to be sure that I am making the right decision.” I saw him again in his 40s, still single and moving from job to job. It was very sad. As a young man, he espoused the value of time; but in practical terms as an adult, he did not fully grasp that time is our most precious commodity. Once gone, it cannot be recaptured and we cannot do a “do-over.” It is a profound, inescapable lesson of life that can haunt us as we get older.
The opening scenes of Castaway set the stage for a meditation on time. A FedEx pickup rolls into a rural Texas farm and picks up a package that is destined for Moscow. We follow the package as it journeys to Russia in the dead of winter. In Moscow, Chuck Noland, a company exec is lecturing Russian workers in the Russian FedEx facility about the need for timely delivery. He shouts: “We live or die by the clock.” He tells them that losing time is a sin, and he berates them for not being more conscientious.
On his return flight to Russia, he overhears that his friend’s wife has cancer and her future is uncertain. Chuck contemplates for a brief moment the precariousness of life, and decides to marry his long-standing girl friend Kelly. Work, however, intervenes and Chuck has to leave before popping the question. Ironically, his last words to her are “I’ll be right back.”
Tragically, Chuck’s plane crashes, and he is marooned on a remote island for four years. At home in Memphis, Kelly, thinking that Chuck is dead, has married and had a child. Life has moved on.
The narrative arc of the movie concludes in Texas where Chuck, played by Tom Hanks, delivers a package that was on the plane the day of the fateful crash. After he delivers it, he returns to a desolate country crossroads, the proverbial fork in the road; and the film closes with Chuck looking out at the various roads he can choose. He is now a wiser man contemplating which direction to take, considering how to make the most out of life and the time he has left.
A fundamental Jewish idea is embedded in this film: the value of time. The Ethics of the Fathers strongly remind us that we should not procrastinate. “If not now, then when,” say our Sages.
Moreover, Rashi, the celebrated medieval Torah scholar, quotes a Talmudic passage in Tractate Pesachim (48b) which urges us to take advantage of every mitzvah, good deed, opportunity that comes our way. He compares the words matza, unleavened bread, and mitzvah and derives that both are intrinsically connected to time. The matza must be prepared in a timely way, and so too should we perform a mitzva in a timely way, immediately, and not postpone doing a good deed. A good deed in Judaism is getting married. Castaway reminds of the fleeting nature of time, implicitly encouraging us not to delay life’s important and most satisfying obligations.