Embracing the World with Open Arms
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Myrtle Silverman, a dynamic, charismatic woman with a wonderful sense of humor died several months ago. At the funeral, her son said that though she suffered from severe dementia, her wit and personality remained intact. On one visit, he found Myrtle reading the Plain Dealer and asked, “What are you doing, Mom?” “Reading the obituaries,” she replied. He asked, “Are you in there?” “I don’t know,” Myrtle said, “I’ve only gotten to the L’s.”
For Jews, even in the darkest times, humor has helped us remain sane and survive. In Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi is asked, “Is there a blessing for the Czar?” You know the rabbi’s answer. “A blessing for the Czar? Of course. May God bless and keep the Czar…..far away from us!”
Judaism is often called “a way of life;” one that emphasizes the here rather than the hereafter. The classic Jewish toast is l’chaim. To life! In Jewish law, saving a life takes precedence over virtually every other religious obligation and prohibition. This distinctive Jewish perspective is illustrated by the story of a priest, a minister, and a rabbi, who were discussing what they hoped people would say about them at their funeral. The priest said, “I hope they say I was a good and faithful servant of the Lord.” The minister said, “I hope they say I deserve to go to Heaven.” The rabbi says, “I hope they say………’Look! He’s breathing!!’”
Nora Ephron, the renowned American and Jewish journalist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, producer, director, humorist and blogger, died in June. Her collection of essays, “I Remember Nothing” concludes with two lists, one of things she wouldn’t miss after she died and another of things she would. On the “won’t miss” list were dry skin, email, Joe Lieberman, Clarence Thomas, mammograms, and the sound of the vacuum cleaner. The “will miss” list began with her kids and husband, included the seasons, a walk in the park, reading in bed, butter, and dinner with friends, and ended this way: Taking a bath. Coming over the bridge to Manhattan. Pie.
While none of these things are particular to Jews, Ephron’s lists seem to me to reflect a Jewish sensibility – the humor and irony, the emphasis on family, the appreciation of natural beauty, the joy of simple pleasures and, despite its major challenges and minor annoyances, the exuberant embrace of life.
David Del Johnson takes things even farther in his book, The 6001Things You Won’t Miss When You’re Dead. His list ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, the cosmic to the comic, and the sacred to the profane. According to Johnson, the things we won’t miss include: The prospect of death, Income tax, Aging, Incurable diseases, Your ex-spouse, Terrorist plots, Telemarketers, Menopause, Your evil boss, The far left, The far right, Trying to please everyone, To Do lists, Murphy’s Law, Potholes, Brain freezes, Snoring, People who chew food with their mouth open, Junk mail, Stress, Having to prove yourself, Counting calories, The fear of failure, and The fear of success. What’s missing is a corresponding list of things that provide meaning and fulfillment, that make life’s burdens and hassles so well worth enduring.
From the standpoint of Judaism, to focus on life’s shortcomings, but neglect to acknowledge our blessings is a moral failure of colossal proportions. Jewish tradition makes this point subtly, but clearly, with the Mourners’ Kaddish. In life’s saddest moments, when our hearts are shattered by the loss of someone dear and irreplaceable, we recite a prayer, hallowed by the generations, that makes no mention of death and, rather, expresses praise and gratitude to the Creator of life. Thus, even in the face of death, we affirm the enduring blessing of our love one’s life and express appreciation for the gift of our own.
Given Judaism’s emphasis on making the most of this life and being grateful for this world, what should we make of the notion, humorous or serious, that we might miss certain things and not others after we’ve died? With regard to what happens after death, Judaism is very, and intentionally, imprecise, refusing to describe the indescribable or make promises it cannot be sure it can keep. Our memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim, asks God to grant our loved ones perfect, peaceful rest in God’s sheltering presence and to bind up their souls in the bond of eternal life. This richly evocative, poetic language leaves ample room for interpretation. It does not assure us, but permits us to hope,
believe, or have faith that we will somehow retain our individual consciousness after our physical death. If we do, we may well miss the people and things that gave our earthly lives purpose and meaning, while nonetheless “resting in peace,” free at last from the problems, preoccupations, and pain of earthly existence.
Whether such a realm of being awaits us or not, making a list of the things we would miss and those we would not is a worthwhile exercise. It can help us clarify our priorities and realign, accordingly, the ways we use our time and the things with which we concern ourselves. Many of life’s challenges, whether petty or major, are unavoidable or beyond our control. Even so, we can, at least, let them occupy less of our emotional and psychic geography. We can stop wasting energy trying to alter what can’t be changed, and invest our efforts in affecting those that can. It’s the people and things we’d miss that warrant our utmost consideration. Investing more time, effort, love and care in those relationships and activities will yield enormous, life-changing benefits.
In other words, thinking about what we’d miss and what we wouldn’t is not really about what happens after we die, but what we do while we’re alive; it doesn’t relate to whether there is life after death, but to the kind of life we fashion beforehand.
The story is told of a wealthy businessman, traveling though Poland, who stopped to visit the home of a renowned rabbi. He was shocked at the rabbi’s spartan surroundings, that all he had in his study was a table and chair. The man
asked, “Where is all your furniture?” The rabbi responded, “Where is yours?” “But rabbi,” the man said, “I’m a traveler. I’m just passing through.” The rabbi replied, “So am I.” And so are we. Reflecting on our mortality can’t stop us from dying, but if we’re wise, it can help us make the most out of living.
The theme of these holy days, and especially this holiest of days is, of course, repentance. While we focus like a laser on the quality of our deeds, on what we’ve done and failed to do, it would be a terrible mistake and a huge missed opportunity to reduce repentance to an annual exercise. Rather, our intensive marathon of reflection should move us to be more reflective in our daily lives. For life isn’t parceled out to us in years, but rather, in days. Thus, Psalm
90 urges us “to count our days wisely, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” And according to the Talmud: Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. Asked his disciples: [Do we] know on which day [we] will die? Said he to them: In that case, we should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow we will die; hence, all our days are passed in a state of repentance.
I don’t take Rabbi Eliezer to mean that we should live our days in regret and self-reproach, but rather, introspectively, not putting off essential deeds of love, healing, kindness, forgiveness, justice and compassion, thinking there will always be another opportunity to accomplish them. In Jewish tradition, repentance is fundamentally an optimistic process because it reflects a profound belief in our capacity for goodness and growth, our ability to repair what is broken in our relationships and our selves, and our power to contribute
something of lasting worth to the world.
Because repentance is optimistic, it is future-oriented. Thus, even as we realize that each day could be our last, we don’t and shouldn’t live as if it actually is. The balance we need to achieve is captured beautifully in Carl Dennis’ poem, A Maxim:
To live each day as if it might be the last
Is an injunction that Marcus Aurelius
Inscribes in his journal to remind himself
That he, too, however privileged, is mortal,
That whatever bounty is destined to reach him
Has reached him already, many times.
But if you take his maxim too literally
And devote your mornings to tinkering with your will,
Your afternoons and evenings to saying farewell
To friends and family, you’ll come to regret it.
Soon your lawyer won’t fit you into his schedule.
Soon your dear ones will hide in a closet
When they hear your heavy step on the porch.
And then your house will slide into disrepair.
If this is my last day, you’ll say to yourself,
Why waste time sealing drafts in the window frames
Or cleaning gutters or patching the driveway?
If you don’t want your heirs to curse the day
You first opened Marcus’s journals,
Take him simply to mean you should find an hour
Each day to pay a debt or forgive one,
Or write a letter of thanks or apology.
No shame in leaving behind some evidence
You were hoping to live beyond the moment.
No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,
Or, better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping
To meet by then someone who’d love to join you,
Two seats near the front so you catch each note.
The sad, beautiful fact of the matter is that we don’t know if we’ll miss things when we’re gone, but as Monkey See, an NPR blog, pointed out, we’re surely going to miss almost everything while we’re here. We will never, for example, see the vast majority of the world’s books, films, television and art. A person who managed to finish a book a week from the age of 15 to 85 would read 3640 books. Yet nearly 300,000 books are published annually in the US alone! If we do the math for any other area of creative endeavor or experience, we realize that “Statistically speaking, [we] will die having missed almost everything.” The realization is sad, but it would be sadder still if humanity had produced so little of cultural value that one person could consume it all in a lifetime. And just as we’re going to miss most of the music, dancing, art, books,
and films that have ever been or will ever be created, there’s something we would love, but won’t be seeing, being published or performed right now, because we’ve chosen to be in this sacred place instead.
Ultimately, the key question is not what we’ll miss, but what we’ll choose. The High Holy Days, like life itself, are about choices, choosing between good and bad and between less and more worthwhile. Jewish tradition seeks to guide us in making those choices by teaching us that we live on in many ways after our physical death. We live on, if we are blessed with progeny, in our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and in the generations yet to come. We live on in the memories of those who knew and cherished us. We live on in the acts of goodness, compassion, and justice that we perform, leaving a lasting impact on the lives of others. We live on in the actions others perform when they are inspired by our example. We live on in the causes and institutions in which we invest our passion, time, effort, and resources, and which are larger, more significant and more enduring than our fleeting, mortal, sometimes lonely and confused selves. And we live on, we hope and pray, in the loving embrace of God who gives us life, both temporal and eternal.
In giving these assurances, Judaism offers us more than a perspective on mortality; it provides an agenda for living wisely and well: devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to family; performing consistently the deeds by which we want most to be remembered; doing our utmost to set the example we hope others
will emulate; instead of spending or squandering our precious life-time, investing it in things that truly matter, that make a difference, that last.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was surely right. We cannot hold the world “close enough.” And yet, as Milton Steinberg reminded us, the things we value above all are never truly ours. We are privileged to enjoy them for a time, but they are and have always been “a loan due to be recalled.” Mortality teaches us both the art of embracing and the art of relinquishing all that matters most. This tension, this fundamental paradox is embedded in the very nature of existence itself. Thus, even as we hold life precious, we must prepare to let it go. Our aspiration, then, in Steinberg’s words, is to “clasp the world, but with relaxed hands,” to “embrace it, but with open arms.” May God, the source of our lives and our ultimate destination, help us clasp the world with relaxed hands and embrace it with open arms, every day, in the New Year now begun.