Building Our Souls
Rabbi Richard A. Block
Senior Rabbi, The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Yom Kippur 5776/2015
The story is told of a Jewish man who led an unblemished life. When he died, he presented himself at Heaven’s gate, but the angel in charge didn’t find his name on the admission list and refused to let him enter. “There’s been a terrible mistake!” the man insisted. “I lived a perfect life. I was a faithful, observant Jew. I never sinned. I obeyed all 613 mitzvot. How can you turn me away?!” “Please understand,” the angel replied. “There are many famous people here in heaven. We have Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, Golda Meir, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. None of them were perfect. All of them sinned. They’d be very uncomfortable having you around.”
Though Judaism does not embrace the vivid conceptions of heaven and hell that characterize Christianity, Jewish tradition contains a good deal of reflection on the idea of life after death. And in both ancient and contemporary Jewish sources, some foresee a day of judgment on which we will be called before God to account for our lives and to answer questions God will ask us. This might be considered the ultimate Final Exam.
Some of these questions may surprise you. According to one Talmudic account, the first one God asks is, “Did you taste every fruit that I put on earth?” In the World-to-Come, this text tells us, we will have to justify every good thing that our eyes saw, but of which we did not partake. This passage is reminiscent of a story about Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great 19th century German Jewish rabbi. Toward the end of his life, undertook a walking trip in Switzerland. When his students tried to dissuade him from endangering his frail health, he told them, “When I come before God, I will have to answer for many things, but how will I answer when I’m asked, ‘Have you seen my Alps?’”
For some, the rabbi’s alpine outing will recall The Bucket List, the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as Edward and Carter, terminally ill patients who meet in a hospital and set out on a road trip with a wish list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” In the epilogue, Edward’s assistant deposits a coffee can containing the two men’s ashes on a peak in the Himalayas, and crosses off the last item on the list: to witness something truly majestic. In a voiceover, Carter says Edward would have loved that, because he was “buried on the mountain, and that was against the law.”
The origins of the term “kick the bucket” are unclear, but a common theory is that it refers to being hanged while standing on a bucket or pail. Its earliest appearance as meaning “to die” was in 1785 in The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where that idiom certainly belongs. Since the movie came out, “bucket list” has become widely used for goals one would like to accomplish before dying. There’s even a website, bucketlist.org, on which, as of last Friday, 279,474 members are said to be tracking 3,643,664 goals. The site encourages people to “set your goals and get tips as you go, get inspired with people sharing the same goals, and see how others have achieved their goals.” Popular goals included going ghost hunting, visiting Petra in Jordan, kayaking through caves, walking the Golden Gate Bridge, going camping, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing and pursuing personal goals. On the contrary, it’s healthy and natural. But there is a major difference of perspective between doing something to please ourselves and doing something to please or obey God. It is one thing to climb Mr. Kilimanjaro because it’s on one’s “bucket list,” or because one has “always wanted to do that.” It’s another thing entirely to hike the Alps because experiencing the beauty and wonder of God’s creation is incumbent upon us, and we are accountable for the indifference and ingratitude inherent in failing to do so if we can. The essential difference lies not in the goal, but in the motivation. It is the distinction between option and obligation, between pleasure and meaning, between transience and transcendence, between happiness and gratitude.
Several social science studies suggest that investing time, energy, and resources in experiences is likely to produce more happiness and meaning than acquiring things. So it makes sense that the goals listed on bucketlist.com are almost entirely experiential, implicitly confirming the research findings. But if achieving a list of desired experiences were truly the path to genuine personal fulfillment, we might expect those who fail to complete their list, or at least the top items, to look back on their lives with regret.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Bronnie Ware, an author who spent many years working in palliative care, compiled a list of the five most common regrets expressed by people for whom she cared. They didn’t involve disappointment at missing such things as an all-nighter in Vegas, eating haggis in Scotland, flying first class, floating in the Dead Sea, petting a penguin, or going for a fish pedicure, six more of the bucketlist.com goals. Rather, their regrets were these: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me; I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings; I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; I wish I had let myself be happier.
The first of these regrets, not living a life true to oneself, calls to mind a well-known story about a rabbi named Zusya. As he lay dying, Rav Zusya’s disciples surrounded him and were astonished to see that he was weeping, in fear of death. “Master,” they asked, “why do you fear God’s judgment? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have revered the Divine as did Moses himself.” Rav Zusya took a deep breath and replied, “When I come before the throne of judgment, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘Why were you not as faithful as Abraham? Why were you not as nurturing as Rachel? Why did you not revere me like Moses? These questions I can answer. I am afraid God will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked, how shall I respond?” If someday, God were to ask you or me, “Why were you not more like yourself? More like the person you might have been? More the person I made you capable of becoming?” how will we answer?
The most detailed list of prospective heavenly questions is found in the Talmud. Rava used to say: When they escort a person to the final judgment after death, the heavenly court asks: Did you deal with others in good faith?
Did you set aside time for Torah study? Did you occupy yourself with children? Did you hope for the [Jewish People’s] redemption? Did you seek wisdom and display discernment?
If there’s such a thing as a Jewish bucket list that is it: Good Faith: to conduct ourselves with integrity in every aspect of our lives, treating others with respect and fairness, compassion and consideration; Torah: to enrich our intellectual and spiritual lives by engaging with the unique and priceless treasures of Jewish thought throughout the ages, above all with the Torah, aptly called “a tree of life to those who hold it fast,” and “the fountain of living waters”; Children: to nurture future generations, our own progeny, if we are so blessed, and the children of others, helping them discover and share the unique gift with which God endows each person, so that they, in turn, may bless and nurture others; Redemption: to do our part to strengthen and sustain the Jewish faith, the Jewish People, and the Jewish State, fulfilling the debt we owe to those on whose shoulders we stand, never losing hope for a better future for Jews and the entire human family; Wisdom and Discernment: to realize that wisdom does not derive from intelligence, knowledge, and success alone, but also from pain, loss, failure, and disappointment; these enable us to discern what truly matters and endures and what does not.
As we contemplate the list of final judgment questions, we realize they don’t really relate to heaven at all. They seek, instead, to help us fashion lives of purpose, goodness, and worth. As the renowned neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, wrote in an essay shortly before his recent death, “[W]eak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly…on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”
That, in the end, is what the high holy days are all about. As our prayerbook wisely observes, when we rise from prayer better persons, our prayers have been answered. It reminds us that Judaism is not a mere list of do’s and don’ts, of positive and negative commandments that are ends in themselves. Rather, the Jewish way of life is a curriculum for building and improving our character, for helping us attain, over the course of a lifetime, the inner peace of becoming our best and truest self.
In Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, Owen, a student at the fictitious Westish College, delivers an impromptu eulogy for Guert Affenlight, the college president with whom he had grown close. “You told me once,” Owen says, “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most – that work of building a soul – not for your own benefit but for the benefit of those who knew you. Which is partly why your death is so hard for us. It’s hard to accept that a soul like yours, which took a lifetime to build, could cease to exist. It makes us angry, furious at the universe, not to have you here. But of course your soul does exist, Guert, because you gave of it so unstintingly. It exists in your book, and in this school, and also in each of us.”
As the Day of Atonement nears its close, among the dear ones we recall with love, esteem, and gratitude, are those who, by dint of effort and error, study and love, built worthy, admirable souls, and taught us how to build our own. However long or briefly our loved ones lived among us, we cherish their memories and embrace their legacy. We pray that our lives will prove worthy of those who came before us and will inspire those who come after.
Keyn y’hi l’ratzon. May this be God’s will and our own. Amen.