Saturday, May 2, 2009

"I decided not to finish my thesis"

שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך
"Repent one day before you die." --Avot 2:13

In a recent comic strip, scientist-cum-cartoonist Jorge Cham explains in naked pink why the war on cancer won't be won anytime soon. Along the way, he wrestles with the insignificance of both art and science in the face of life-threatening disease. In the final panels of this poignant piece, he describes being approached at a booksigning by a chemo patient:


What if you were diagnosed with cancer? If you only had six months to live? How would you change your life?

And why aren't you doing that right now?

--

17 comments:

Sim said...

so...did u decide not to finish ur thesis?

YZF said...

I would teach Sim the letters y and o.

Dave L said...

If you had six months to live, then yes, I would advise you to not finish your thesis (or dissertation). But if you (statistically) had 50 years to live, then if you abandoned writing your thesis and decided to live in a tent on the beach in Hawaii all your life, you might look back after another 30 years and say, “boy I wished that I finished my thesis and did some worthwhile research.” In short, get cracking on becoming Dr. Samurai.

I think that the point of the mishna (quoted above) is not to delay important things, like repentance (i.e. reviewing your actions to determine whether you are acting in a moral fashion), because you may never end up ever accomplishing those things. I think that is really what you mean to say.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Sim,
so...did u decide not to finish ur thesis?

Are you kidding? That's 6 years of work you're talking about! I'm going to finish it... but I'm also going to think hard about what I want to do next.

@YZF,
I would teach Sim the letters y and o.

U r so cr8zy!

@Dave,
if you (statistically) had 50 years to live, then if you abandoned writing your thesis and decided to live in a tent on the beach in Hawaii all your life, you might look back after another 30 years and say, “boy I wished that I finished my thesis and did some worthwhile research.”

Beach on Hawaii... that sounds pretty good right now!

I think you're right, it all boils down to statistics. Although they say no one ever dies saying they wished they could work just one more day. Maybe we should ask the old people what they think... isn't there a book like that?

I think that the point of the mishna (quoted above) is not to delay important things... because you may never end up ever accomplishing those things.

The beauty of that mishna is that it can be read two ways. One way is what you just said. The other way is, Don't repent too early in life or you'll miss all the fun stuff. I like the dichotomy.

Sim said...

"Don't repent too early in life or you'll miss all the fun stuff"

um...really? do you really think that the rabbis intended for their words to be interpreted that way? I mean look at the context- its all about self-control, respecting your friend, not living it up.

IMHO it just means that 'don't think you're so great to not have to repent'; Kehati brings a different story from Avos Derabi Nosson which makes it come out more like Dave's interpretation, to repent every day.

And YZ, oy.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Sim,
do you really think that the rabbis intended for their words to be interpreted that way? I mean look at the context- its all about self-control, respecting your friend, not living it up.

I don't know what they meant. The context of 2:13 tells me very little here - the three statements there are unrelated, as is frequently the case in Avot (note that the last statement is about rabbis losing their temper!). While I agree that Dave's interpretation is the most likely, the one I suggested is not unreasonable. A similar sentiment can be found in the verse "Al t'hi tzadik harbeh - do not be overly righteous."

Note also that (unlike ourselves) the rabbis had few qualms about misinterpeting. Think about "an eye for an eye," which they misinterpreted as "monetary compensation." I am not sure whether this was deliberate or not.

In any case, if I had one day left, I wouldn't spend it in the lab or in the synagogue. A beach in Hawaii? It's a possibility.

Yael said...

I think about this a lot too. Of course I will finish my thesis. Wow, has it been six years already. But what to do next ???? what are the possibilities?

Anonymous said...

if the meaning is right away, yom echad does not seem like the right choice of words.
advice to wait doesn't seem logical either because a person never knows when he is going to die.
maybe it's not referring to the proper time to repent, rather the experience. just repent for one day before your death...and see what happens.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Yael,
I think about this a lot too. Of course I will finish my thesis. Wow, has it been six years already. But what to do next ???? what are the possibilities?

Yeah! Postdoc doesn't seem super appetizing... but in this economy, it's the safest bet. I think it's a good move to do a postdoc in a lab with connections to industry... that way you are in a good position to get a job in academia or biotech after.

@anon,
maybe it's not referring to the proper time to repent, rather the experience. just repent for one day before your death...and see what happens.

Interesting reading ("Repent *some* day before you die"). That would solve the obvious conundrum of "how do you know when you will die?"

Thanks to all for sharing their thoughts... I am thinking of posting the last lecture.

Dave L said...

Just to bolster Sim’s understanding of the mishna in Avot, the same story that Sim quotes from Avot D’Rav Natan is also mentioned in Gemara Shabbat 153a (which is probably an even earlier source than Avot D’Rav Natan).

Sim said...

just a side comment, I think its very possible for one to have an idea that he is close to death, like if he's really sick or something. Statistics right?

About misinterpretations...I'm not sure how much of what you said I was supposed to take seriously, but...

The rabbis had the right to decide halacha- the Torah says go to the judge of your day. They also had tools of interpreting the Torah in the מדות שהתורה נדרשת בהן. (There were more than 13.) So, its possible that at one point Jewish courts were cutting out eyes, but if later on the Rabbis decided that wasn't the correct interpretation, we're supposed to listen to them. It's also possible that the Rabbis had a bias that made them pick the metaphorical interpretation so as to avoid conflict (my friend wrote an interesting article on that topic which I can email you if you're interested). But if courts at some point in Jewish history were de-limbing, its hard for me to imagine that the rabbis 2000 years ago were able to just completely uproot such a custom for all pharisee-following Jews. I think its more likely that from the time of Sinai they interpreted "eye for an eye" metaphorically.

So I'm ok with believing that what G-d says in the Torah is open for interpretation by experts, because I wouldn't assume my first interpretation is always the correct one. But that's because G-d says it. I don't think people try to be ambiguous when attempting to get a point across. That would be strange. So I'm not a fan of 'misinterpreting' what a תנא says in a Mishna.

Anyhoos I'm not claiming that קהלת wouldn't agree with you, just that R' Eliezer wouldn't.

Well this was fun. Looking forward to more Avos posts.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Sim, thanks for your thoughts.

its possible that at one point Jewish courts were cutting out eyes, but if later on the Rabbis decided that wasn't the correct interpretation, we're supposed to listen to them.

This gets into Akavia b. Mehalalel territory (another of my favorite mishnas). But I disagree that the rabbis had the authority to change anything in the Torah.

Anyhoos I'm not claiming that קהלת wouldn't agree with you, just that R' Eliezer wouldn't.

Ironically, I believe R. Eliezer is the only Tanna to hold "an eye for an eye" - literally! And you should see what the Talmud does with that statement (BK 83b-84a).

Well this was fun. Looking forward to more Avos posts.

Me too!

Dave L said...

Sim - You might like the second essay in Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s “Essential Essays on Judaism.” It is entitled “The Nature and Function of Jewish Law.” Just don’t tell any of the guys at the YU Kollel that you are reading him. (Rabbi Berkovits is pretty controversial in most Orthodox circles.)

YZF said...

But I disagree that the rabbis had the authority to change anything in the Torah.Huh? Where is SS, and what have you done with him?

Or are you saying that only rabbis don't have the authority to change the Torah? :p

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave L,
You might like the second essay in Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s “Essential Essays on Judaism.” It is entitled “The Nature and Function of Jewish Law.” Just don’t tell any of the guys at the YU Kollel that you are reading him.

LOL, another Eliezer heard from.

@YZF,
Or are you saying that only rabbis don't have the authority to change the Torah? :p

LOL, yes that is exactly what I meant :)

PS what is up with my bold quotes on this freaking blogger system? At least now I know it's not just me...

shlomo said...

"Think about "an eye for an eye," which they misinterpreted as "monetary compensation." I am not sure whether this was deliberate or not."

Actually, rather than being a misinterpretation, it is a clear reference to the concept of "kofer".

The question is when "kofer" became the obligatory form of punishment. Presumably it was, at latest, around the time Jewish courts stopped performing executions...

Judy Egan said...

That was really a sad story. And I think deciding to whether or not finish the thesis would depend on the circumstance in your life. You can spend years writing your master dissertation paper, but along the way, you can face a life threatening situation that would stop you from continuing your work. Just like what happen to the cancer patient, she was once a PhD student, then became a patient herself that stop her from writing.

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