Rabbi Rachel Ain – September 23, 2015
THE FAMOUS Neurologist, OLIVER SACHS SAID-
“Eighty! I can hardly believe it.
I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.
I am sorry I have wasted so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking, but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, li ved sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.”
I don’t know what it means to be 80 but hopefully, one day, I will. But until then, I know that I am fortunate to know people of all ages and stages, who often take time to reflect on the life they have been given.
Last week on Rosh Hashanah, WE TALKED ABOUT
What are we called for?
I asked if we, this year, would be prepared
to respond “HINENI”-I am here.
Today, on Yom Kippur, let us fast forward to the end our lives and ask –
ARE WE SATISFIED WITH HOW WE LIVED THE LIFE THAT WAS GIVEN TO US?
DAVID BROOKS WROTE
“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral —
WERE you kind,…. brave,… honest….. faithful.
Were you capable of deep love?
DID YOU HELP YOUR FRIENDS,… FAMILY…. COMMUNITY?
So how do we begin to get to a place where we are building the inner character that we want to be not pretending to be someone we are not?
A return to our patriarch Abraham helps us explore this further:
The Talmud teaches that love cancels out the dignified conducted expected of our heroes. We are told that the morning of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Abraham saddled his own donkey-why? Because though wealthy, Abraham knew that he needed to do this work himself. Our first step is making commitments based on love and acting authentically, even if we look strange to others.
Anna Quindlen wrote, ‘Sometimes I meet young writers, and I like to share with them the overwhelming feeling we all have about our work, the feeling that every story has already been told… Except that each writer brings to the table, … something that no one else in the history of time ever has. That is her own personality, her own voice. If her books reflect her character, the authentic shape of her life and her mind, then she may well be giving readers a new and wonderful gift.”
What gift can we give? Are we proud of what we have done?
We have been taught that we will have to answer quite a few questions when we get to heaven!
The most profound question might be
DID YOU LEAVE A LEGACY?
Not did you have children?
Whether we have children or not-
Each one of us is responsible for taking care of the next generation
through teaching, mentoring, and being there.
Biology is a piece of the legacy puzzle, but so is love. Once I saw a napkin said-anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.
How we spend our time with others-how we share our gifts, how we speak to those we care about it, reflect the legacy that we will leave behind.
Our Biblical Patriarch Jacob is a perfect example.
At the end of the book of Genesis we hear some of Jacob’s thoughts, as he was lying on his deathbed watching Joseph, who is the second in command in Egypt, and with an Egyptian name no less, and wonders, is this it? Has all this work, all this sibling rivalry been for naught? Is the brit, the covenant going to die with me or will my family eventually go back to the promised land?
Jacob knows that this is his hineni moment and he summons every last bit of his strength
so that the covenant that has been so dear,
so vital, so paramount to his family, will continue
Jacob says to Joseph “Bring my grandsons up to me,” “that I may bless them.”
He says, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
…Bless my boys.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”
Why would this be the prayer? It seems so simple? But it is the simple truth. Jacob’s final wish is to have his children and grandchildren remember that they are deeply connected to their families who lived before them.
And then Jacob said “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers” When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”
Jacob’s words still resonate with us today. When the covenant is on the line we need to be able to articulate the things that are important to us and them. And then, we need to hope and pray that things work out.
Let me share two stories from people who recently wrote about their beloved after their passing.
Esther Kustanowitz remembers her mother, Shulamit Kustanowitz, z”l
Holiday cycles are reliable – annual, expected; we follow a liturgy and order of prayer, we meet with family and friends and eat too much. But grief has no set holiday cycle; it insinuates itself inextricably into the fabric of time. And while the loss itself is an event, loss really continues post-event, as a state of being.
In my loss-state reality, I continue to remember the lessons my mother taught me; they don’t pour forth in a cascade, but pop up at various and unexpected points.
My mother often spoke of shopping trips with her mother; finding none of the things on their list, my grandmother would buy a small trinket, like a saltshaker, just so the trip wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time.
I still try to find that metaphorical “saltshaker” that will redeem the time I’ve spent pursuing something elusive. Sometimes I go looking for one memory, but find another. And even if these memories hurt by reminding me of what I’ve lost, they help me anchor my mother’s teachings in my reality – telling her stories, imparting her lessons, and widening the impact of her wisdom.
Jared Sichel recently wrote about his brother Aaron’s passing
Death also has a built-in silver lining. It’s what gives time meaning. Death limits time. Economics 101: The less of something there is, the more valuable it is. Aaron’s struggle with death didn’t only force him to think about the Big Questions. It forced me, and, I presume, all those who loved Aaron, to ask themselves the Big Questions. The most important one: If I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret about my life?
Aaron’s passing taught that this is the most important question to living a meaningful life. Knowing that my defining fear in life is having regrets has influenced how I spend my time every day. I more clearly understand that every second really does matter, and sadly, it takes flirtation with death to make that obvious.
Randy pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, died a few years ago. Before he died he gave his LAST LECTURE-This was his way of sharing what life meant to him.
He said “I thought hard about how I defined myself: as a teacher, a computer scientist, a husband, a father, a son, a friend, a brother, a mentor to my students. Those were all roles I valued. But did any of those roles really set me apart?
Though I’ve always had a healthy sense of self, I know this lecture needed more than just bravado. I asked myself: “What do I , alone, truly have to offer?”
And then, it came to my in a flash. Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child, and in the ways I had managed to fulfill almost all of them….I realized that I was a lucky man because I had lived out those dreams. If I was able to tell my story with the passion I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their dreams. And finally I had a title for the lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
Randy gives us inspiration-we don’t need to wait to be diagnosed with cancer to think about our childhood dreams. We can use this new year as our impetus.
In Pirke Avot, ethics of our ancestors, the question is asked, Who is Rich? The answer is perfect: A rich person is one who is satisfied with their portion. A rich person understands the difference between a resume virtue and a eulogy virtue.
In a final piece in the NY Times, written just weeks before he died, Oliver Sacks shared the following in a piece called “The Sabbath.” In December 2014, I completed my memoir, and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to face the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
We call Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of all Shabbats, regardless of what day of the week it is on. This year, may all of us, understand what we are called for, achieve our hineni moment, and be able to rest.
G’mar Chatima Tova.