Archive for the ‘Living a Fuller Life’ category

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

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Stages

June 10, 2012

We live our lives in stages.  I have found myself having to confront and make peace with this reality as of late, as my wife and I have started the long and arduous process of dismantling our home of 27 years, as we prepare to sell our house and downsize to a 2 bedroom rented condominium.  Considering where we are in our lives – with all our children now living away from home, and indeed my wife living primarily in Detroit – this dramatic shift makes sense.  Why maintain a 4 bedroom house, when most of the time only one person is living there, with that number only growing to 3 every other weekend.  So ends the home ownership stage of our lives and so will begin the stage of returning to smaller dwellings.  Yes, returning.  For when we first were married, 37 years ago, for three years we lived in rented apartments – in the newlywed stage of our lives – as we eagerly looked forward to, and saved for, that time when we would enter our home ownership stage, and the raising of a family.

Yes, we live our lives in stages.  If we are blessed, then most of our journeys from stage to stage are joyous adventures; starting school, no longer needing a babysitter, getting a driver’s license, going off to college, getting married, buying a home, giving birth to children, watching our own children travel through their own set of stages.  Even the stages in the later periods of our lives can be wondrous adventures, such as grandparenthood and retirement.  Yet, when all is considered, the various stages of our lives have more to do with what we make of them than what they make of us.

Still, even as we live so much of our lives in stages, there are – or should be – certain constants present as well.  Love should be one such constant.  It can grow, as we enfold more people into our circle of love, but we should work very hard never to let it diminish or disappear.  Our love for our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, their spouses, their children, our relatives and friends, should never be treated as stages in our lives.  We should never grow out of love with these people who have found a place in our hearts and in whose hearts we have found a place.  Yes, there will be days when we find that our feelings for these people will either rise or wane, but they should never disappear.

The same should hold true for our feelings toward God, faith, and the Jewish people.    Belief in God, our practice of religion, and our attachment to the Jewish people should never be considered as a stage or a phase in our lives.  We should never find ourselves saying, “Yes.  Jewish living used to be important to me.  I used to pray.  I used to study.  I used to be involved in the Jewish community, but since then I moved on.  I’ve grown out of that phase.”  God, faith, the Jewish people are not meant to be likened to the width of our ties, the length of our skirts, the style of our hair, or even the type of car we drive or the home we live in.  Connecting with God should be more of a continual desire than whether or not we feel that minivans are still functional in our lives.  Rather we should approach our relationship with God, faith, and the Jewish people more in the manner in which we approach our relationships with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our family, our friends.  Like with those relationships, our bonds to God, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people, will over time change, evolve, and hopefully grow.  There will be good times.  There will be bad times.  There will be those times when these relationships raise us up to the heights, and there may be times as well when we find them bending almost to the breaking point.  Almost to the breaking point; but we should never let them break.  For when they break, whether or not we realize it, we break as well.

Just as with our loved ones, no matter how busy our lives may be, we need to carve out time to be with God and the Jewish people.  For if we do make time for them, we will find that just as with our loved ones, there is miraculous healing and strength to be found.

Chasing Twilight

January 6, 2012

Last July, my part time Cantor, full time U.S. Army civilian employee, wife, Gail, was transferred, along with her entire department, from the Rock Island Arsenal to the Army installation in Warren, Michigan.  So now she lives most of the time in Detroit while I continue to reside in Davenport, Iowa.  Gail comes home for approximately 36 hours every two week, over the weekend.  Being a rabbi, I do not have the opportunity to visit her nearly that often.  So, when Winter Break arrived this year, and our youngest, Helene, came home from her first semester at college, Helene & I jumped at the chance to go to Detroit to visit her mother and my wife.

As Helene and I were driving home from our visit – a seven hour drive – day morphed into night, just like it says in the MaAriv Aravim prayer where it describes God as “rolling light away from darkness.”  Since we were traveling westward, even though we were engulfed in the darkness of the new night, across the length of the horizon, we could still see that strikingly beautiful band of the flaming orange sky of sunset.  As we continued to move at highway speeds, I pointed out to Helene that the band was growing larger, the further west we traveled.  There­fore, at least theoretically, if we drove fast enough, it could be possible for us to travel from night into twilight.  As Helene was quick to point out, “Time Travel.”  We could go backward in time instead of ahead.  That is a mind blowing thought!

But when you think about it, all too many of us spend far too much of our lives aspiring to do just that – go backward in time – but on a far larger scale than a mere step from night into twilight.  We fantasize about turning the clock back not just a few hours but rather several years.  We yearn for the past; the “good old days,” as we are so fond of calling them.  We yearn to return to a time in our lives which we perceive as having been both simpler and happier; when we were better and so was our life.  Indeed, such perceptions become the fodder of many of the political candidates who are quick to proclaim that the present stinks and what we need is to return to the glories and the wonders of the past.

In our journey through life, our memories are fascinating companions.  They most certainly have the capacity to be warm and wonderful, but they also can be remarkably deceptive.  That so many people idealize the past is a testimony to such deception.  For if we are to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that while there are many good things to remember about our past, there is also much we choose to forget.  We choose to forget it either because it was truly painful or because, in light of today’s standards, it was simply a less comfortable way of life.  For example, who would want to return to the days before such dishwashers or clothes dryers or air conditioning, nevertheless cell phones, computers, and the internet?  Being as antique as I am, I remember them all, and far more.  I remember scrubbing dishes and pots in the sink.  I remember my mother hanging up the laundry on the clothesline in our backyard and praying that it would not rain.  I remember laying uncomfortably awake at night in my bed, soaked in sweat, unable to sleep.  I remember sitting on the stairs of my home, talking on the telephone, tethered to its base by the line connecting the handset.  I remember writing sermons on legal pads, with all sorts of scratch outs, circled texts, and arrows, meant to direct my secretary for when she had to type it out for me.  Of course, I remember far lower prices but I also remember even lower income levels that made those items at those low prices all the more unattainable.

My point here is that yearning for a return to the “good old days” is even more elusive and futile than racing down the highway trying to recapture the twilight.  The past is the past.  That our memory re­frames it with a focus on all that was good and pleasant about it is a gracious gift but not an accurate presentation.  Rather, we need to live more in the moment.  There is nothing we can do to recapture the past but there is much that we can do to reconstruct the present; to transform our present into a far better time in our lives.  By so doing, we have the power not only to impact our present but also our future and the future of those whose lives we touch.  While the “good old days” can be a mixture of fact and illusion, if we so choose, we can create for ourselves the “good new days.”  We can make today the best day of our lives and tomorrow even better.  The choice is ours.

Room With a View Into the Soul

October 1, 2011

So there I was, laying in a bed in a hospital room at the Mayo Clinic.  When I woke up that morning, it was all still kind of a blur.  I had driven to Rochester the morning before in order to have what I expected to be a cut-&-dry post surgical follow-up appointment that afternoon.  Take a quick x-ray.  Have a consultation with the surgeon.  Receive the good news – or the bad news – concerning the success or failure of my surgery.  If necessary, make plans for any future work.  Check into my hotel.  Go out for a nice dinner.  Relax in my room, and be on my way back home the next morning.

But that was not how the day before shook out.  Honestly, I had expected to be told that some of the stitches of the surgery had given way, for I had been experiencing increased breathlessness, in two instances very seriously, which surprised me considering how well my recovery had been going up until just a few days before.  But the x-rays were golden.  The surgery had been a complete success.  So why the breathlessness?  This concerned the surgeon enough to rush me to the emergency room where I was admitted ahead of all those other folks in the waiting room.

There was a lot of lying around and poking, prodding, and sticking before they took me for a CT scan.  They wanted to get a better look at my lungs.  I cannot say that they filled me with confidence as I lay there in radiology, for from the conversation I was overhearing it was quite obvious that the radiologist considered the nurse to be totally incompetent, and she returned the sentiment.  Then it was back to the emergency room and more laying around until a doctor I never met before arrived to inform me that I was being admitted, and then accompanied me to my room.  He told me that I had some blood clots in my lungs but that I should be out of the hospital in a day or two.

Once in my room, I found myself engaged in some heavy negotiations with the staff.  For I have sleep apnea which requires that I sleep with a breathing machine or I cannot sleep at all.  Now I had brought my machine with me, but had planned to use it in my hotel, not in a hospital room.  So it was sitting safely in my car, in the hospital parking structure.  You would think that it would be a simple matter of saying, “Here are the keys to my car.  This is where I parked it and this is what it looks like.  So would you please send someone to get me my cpap machine?”  But it was not, for it seemed that no one had the authority to go into my car; that is until they located a security guard who was willing to brave the dangers of the garage.

It was sometime around 2:00 in the morning when they woke me and took me back to radiology to do an ultrasound of my leg.

So there I was the next morning, laying in my hospital room when yet another doctor walked in.  He was either the fourth or fifth I had seen since coming to the hospital, each one wanting me to tell them my story.  So I asked him up front:  “Am I going to see you again, or am I going to have to go through more doctors before I get out of here?”  “No,” he said.  “I will be the doctor who says good bye to you on the day you are released.”  “Great!” I responded.  “Now tell me.  What’s the story here?”  “You have some clots in your lungs and your leg, so we are going to put you on blood thinners and keep you here another 4 or 5 days.”  “4 or 5 days!” I responded in utter disbelief.  “No one stays in a hospital any more for 4 or 5 days!”  He simply shook his head and said, “You don’t seem to understand.  You are very sick.  You almost died.”

Those words struck me like a hammer.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there was one attack of breathlessness which I had experienced just a few days before, while visiting Shira in Louisville, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever catch my breath again.  Now I knew that small nagging doubt was not just the product of panic but actually an accurate assessment of my situation.  I almost died.

As you can imagine, almost dying gives one pause for thought.  I know it gave me pause for thought.

I suspect that you will think it mere bravado when I tell you that personally, I am not afraid of dying.  But I mean it.  I really am not afraid of dying.  For this was not the first time that I almost died.  There was another time, when I was about 14, 15 years old.  My sister, who was six years my senior, had a very close friend by the name of Essie Hochstein, and Essie had a sister my age named Rosie, with whom I was very close.  The Hochsteins left New York and moved to Florida.  One time, when they returned for a visit, Rosie and I went swimming in their hotel’s outdoor swimming pool.  While in the pool, swimming in the deep end, I found myself getting tired, so I started to swim for the side.  I did some strokes and reached for the side of the pool but it was not there.  So I swam some more and reached out again.  Still, no pool to grab.  That was when I realized that for all my stroking, I was going nowhere.  So I panicked and started to drown.  I went down once, twice, three times, only to discover that going down for the third time was more than an old wive’s tale.  It was a fact.  I had had it.  There was no more fight left in me.  All I could do was surrender to my fate.  So I let go and waited for the end, lying in the water in the classic position of the dead man’s float.  I have to tell you.  I never felt better in my entire life.  I was completely relaxed, both in body and mind.  It was a sensation of absolute peace and tranquility.  Then I started seeing things that logically I shouldn’t have been seeing.  I was looking up from below as I watched my body floating in the water.  Then the next thing I knew, I was floating way above the pool, looking down.  I was struck by the fact that the pool was built in the shape of the letter “R”, which stood for the name of the hotel, the Riverdale Hotel.  It was only momentary, for then I found myself on the side of the pool, on my back, having been rescued by the life guard.

The whole incident took place in just a matter of a few minutes, but they were life changing minutes for me.  For during that short span of time I learned two very important facts – not theories but facts:  1 – Death brings with it profound peace and tranquility.  When we “shed this mortal coil,” with it we shed all the angst and pain and worry and doubt; all the discomfort which is so much a part of living that there are aspects of it that we do not even realize are there until they are truly gone.  Death brings with it an indescribable healing of the soul.  And 2 – That there is a soul; that there is a part of us apart from the body.  I had what is commonly called an out-of-body experience.  You will never convince me that it was an illusion or a fantasy.  It was real; as real as any “in-body” experience which I have ever had.  Having had such an experience, I was privileged to possess, at least for myself, indisputable evidence of the existence of the soul; a spiritual, incorporeal entity in which our consciousness and identity reside, and continue to reside, even when outside of our bodies.  It is the actual energy of who we are.  As the physicists have taught us through the Law of Conservation of Energy,  energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  It simply exists, it always has existed and will continue to exist forever.  Therefore the soul – the energy of who we are – also will continue to exist, long after our bodies have ceased to be.

So as I stated earlier, I am not afraid of dying for I know that dying is not the end but rather a transition into what appeared to me to be a better and higher realm of existence.  So when my time comes, I will welcome that eternity of the blissful tranquility I briefly tasted in that swimming pool so many years ago.

But still, laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, did give me great pause for thought.  Those thoughts did not center around any fear of death but rather upon the urgency of life.  For even while death is nothing that I fear, still it constitutes a very real sense of loss.  For in order to enter into the blissful spiritual realm of the afterlife, one has to surrender the realm of this life, with all that we cherish of this life as well as all that we will gladly shed of it.  There is where the urgency lies.

Are we ready to surrender that which we cherish?  Have we left things undone or unfinished?  Have we maximized the expenditure of our time and energies, both physical and emotional, on those things which are truly important to us or have we squandered our time and energies on matters which, at the end of all things, really mattered little?  These are the questions I found myself asking myself, and these are the questions which each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, even if we do not believe we have been confronted with the imminent possibility of our own demise.

If I had died in that hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, or in that hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, or anywhere in between, would I have died with a life fulfilled or with regrets of opportunities missed and opportunities squandered?  For you see, while I do not fear dying, what I do fear is living a life in which I have wasted too much of myself and my energies on things which, in the long run, really do not matter or at least do not deserve the amount of time and energy I have invested into them.

There are those who easily could choose to interpret such thinking as selfishness and self-indulgence, and indeed, one could turn such thoughts in such directions.  They easily could fuel the drive to a totally self-centered and self-important life.  But for anyone who would take them in such a direction, they would have missed the point all together.  For one to live a life that is solely centered upon oneself is not only to live a life which is meaningless but also, in the final analysis, lonely.  For people who are too full of themselves, leave little if any room for others.  And usually others find in their own lives, little room or patience for those who focus only on themselves.

Of course there is a part of all of us which would love it if we immersed ourselves in self-indulgence.  No one would deny that a certain amount of self-indulgence is not only nice but actually necessary if we are to fuel our own sense of self-value.  Yet while self-indulgence should have a place in the creation of a meaningful life, it should not capture the center stage.  There is both a time when we should center our lives upon ourselves and a time when we need to center our lives upon others.  Indeed, this is what our own great sage, Hillel, tried to teach us when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, drove home for me the message we all need to hear:  Time is short for we do not know how much time we have.  Therefore let us turn our attentions to striking that balance in our lives.  How much for ourselves?  How much for others?

Of course, the issue should go far beyond questions of “How much?”   There is also the question of “What?”  What are the matters that we should hold as important, and what are the matters that we should place on the back burner, if not in the trash?  What are the things that we really would be proud of having accomplished during our time on earth?  What pursuits that seem to have the ability to capture our attention are really in and of themselves either vain or meaningless, or both?  What we choose to do with our lives – what directions we choose to take; what battles we choose to fight; what causes we choose to champion; what relationships we choose to raise up; what goals we choose to pursue; what ideals we choose to uphold; what people we choose to make of ourselves – these are what make all the difference between a life well lived and a life which is wasted.

Make no mistake about it, making such choices and living such a life is not just a matter of the big picture.  It is not just big issues and big choices but it also is small issues and small choices.  The devil is truly in the details of our lives.  These are questions both of massive import and of day-to-day living.  You can make yourself into a hero in the war against cancer or poverty or prejudice, but what does it all mean if you are a nothing or a failure, or even a villain in the struggles to build a family or nurture a friendship or be a good neighbor or be respected in your place of business?

To live a good life is to be able to die with little or no regrets and with a true sense of pride in the person we have made of ourselves.  We will always die with some of that left unfinished, for when it comes to such efforts, there will always be more we can do.  Personal perfection is always at least a step ahead of where we are today.  Yet our hunger should always be to draw as near to that goal as possible.  Every night, we should strive to be able to go to sleep feeling and believing, “If I do not wake, I will leave this world with little, if any, regrets.”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, was a difficult and harsh reminder that there are no guarantees that we have all the time in the world to get our lives in order.  The end can come at any moment.  If that be the case, then we need to make each moment count.  We need to invest ourselves totally in the task of closing the gap between the person who we are today and the person we truly wish to be.

Daily Dayenu

May 10, 2011

At this year’s Congregational Seder, while we were singing and reciting “Dayenu,” I could not help but be struck by the spiritual confluence of 3 events which took place within the last few months:  my surgery and subsequent illness, my congregation’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and Passover.

The message of the “Dayenu” is summed up by its title, for the translation of dayenu is “It would have been enough for us.”  The text takes us through the story of the Exodus and breaks it down into each of the blessings our people experienced in the course of that event.  Recounting each of those blessings, we respond by saying “Dayenu!” – if this had been the only blessing which we experienced then “it would have been enough for us.”  But of course, each of those blessings was not the only one from which our people benefited.  The story of the Exodus is one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  However, even as we retell the story, we seem to take those manifold blessings for granted.  Therefore the task of “Dayenu” is to recount each individual blessing, and in so doing, reveal to us the magnificent tapestry of blessings which constitute the true miracle of Passover.

The Exodus was not the only time when we have experienced blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  More often than we appreciate, our lives are a tapestry of blessings.  We live among miracles but do not always recognize them.  This brings me back to my congregation’s 150th anniversary and to my recent illness.

The fact that Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa has survived and prospered for 150 years is the direct result of a long chain of blessings.  There have been so many dayenu moments in the history of our congregation and there have been so many dayenu people – both laity and clergy – who have made that history and our very existence possible.  Each of these moments and each of these people was a special gift – a blessing – for our congregation.  Each one brought to us their own brand of miracle.  Indeed, it was their collective miracles which made us the congregation we are today.  But whether or not we realize it, the blessings and the miracles continue today.  They are to be found in so many of the people who give and do so much and who labor to keep our congregation alive, vibrant and meaningful.  These are our current dayenu people and they are busy continuing to create our dayenu moments.

As for my illness, it has awakened within me a sense of the dayenu in the course of daily living.  There is an old joke about a doctor coming out of surgery, informing the family that the operation was successful but the patient died.  These days I resonate with that joke for my surgery was successful but I almost died from  post surgical blood clots.  Indeed, I would be dead today had it not been for my coincidentally going to the Mayo Clinic for my 6-week post surgical follow-up.  After experiencing my symptoms and being instructed by the physician’s assistant in my pulmonologist’s office that all I needed to do was depend more on my asthma medications, it was the doctors at the Mayo Clinic who quickly picked up on the seriousness of my life threatening condition and hospitalized me.  There is nothing like a near death experience to help one to appreciate the fragility and impermanence of our lives!  We tend to live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow when the harsh reality is that there is no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow.  Today – this very moment – may be all that we have left.  If we find ourselves awakening in the morning, we should recognize that we have been blessed with the gift of another day.  In fact, in our Jewish tradition, there is a prayer we are supposed to offer upon awakening – “Modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla.  Rabbah emunatecha – I give thanks before You, everlasting Sovereign, for You have returned my soul to me.  Great is Your faithfulness.”  Every morning is a dayenu moment.  Life is far shorter than we choose to believe.  All our moments are precious, for any one of them could be our last.  It is up to us to choose whether we treasure them – whether we embrace them with the appreciation of a dayenu – or we squander them.  Likewise, when it comes to illness and the other trying times in our lives, we are quick to discover who are our dayenu people; who are those people whose concern and caring bring into our darkest moments the brilliant miracle of a healing of the spirit.  There are too many people who we take for granted; too many people who we think of in terms of “What have you done for me lately.”  Yet the fact that they populate our lives and fill it with their love and concern, and their eager willingness to help and comfort, is most certainly deserving of a heartfelt dayenu; a dayenu for each and every one of them.  They each are a blessing which we should never take for granted.

May each and every one of us come to appreciate the dayenu moments and the dayenu people in our lives!

Funeral Pre-Planning

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur eve.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, I mentioned that there is only one rabbi buried in our cemetery, Mt. Nebo. That rabbi is Rabbi Isaac Fall, the very first rabbi of this congregation. Someday, there will be a second rabbi buried in our cemetery, and that rabbi will be me. For when the time comes, it will be in Mount Nebo that both I and the Cantor, along with our son Josh, will be laid to rest. I know that for a fact because we already have purchased the graves.

No, we are not expecting to use any of those graves in the foreseeable future. Death is not knocking at our doorstep, at least not that we know of. It is simply that we have started a process of pre-planning for that eventuality.

In fact, for quite some time, I have been an advocate of funeral pre-planning. Many have been the congregants that I have counseled to do just that, both in order to relieve their family of the burdens and the costs of making funeral arrangements at a time when the last thing they need is something more to anguish over, and in order to assure that the details of their funerals are according to their wishes and not someone else’s.

I have been doing such counseling for years but I have to admit that aside from the Cantor and I drawing up our wills, we have put off doing such planning ourselves. That is until last year, when the Board discussed raising the cost of burial plots in our cemetery. It was in the light of that discussion that the Cantor and I decided that if we are going to buy our graves, now’s the time to do so, for why wait and pay more? You see, after 25 years of serving this congregation; after 25 years of welcoming your infants into the covenant of our people, teaching your children and preparing them for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah services and their Confirmations, officiating at their weddings, and sadly, officiating at the funerals of your parents, spouses, siblings, and sometimes even your children; after 25 years of living in this community and raising our own children here, we have come to think of this as our home, and we have neither the intention nor desire to spend the rest of our lives anyplace else. So it was only logical for us to buy our graves before the price went up.

Then this summer, the Cantor’s father passed away. So there we were, in Detroit, sitting around her brother’s living room with the rest of the family, meeting with the funeral director and the rabbi, arranging for her father’s funeral, often agreeing, but sometimes disagreeing about what Seymour would have wanted. We didn’t argue. We just grappled with trying to find the right answers so that in the end we could render him the most appropriate honor. Would he like this casket or that casket? Did he want to be buried in a suit or in tachrichim, the traditional funeral garb? Questions both big and small. What would Seymour want?

It was after we returned home that the Cantor and I decided that we wanted all those questions resolved before we died, so that our children would not have to grapple them. And not only that, but we wanted it all paid for in advance so that after our loved ones laid us to rest, they would not have to confront a multi thousand dollar bill and hope that our estate would be able to cover the cost. The pain of a loss is pain enough to bear when a loved one dies. Those who will mourn for us should not have to endure the pain of funeral arrangements as well.

So we have been going about the process of pre-planning our funerals. We have met with both David Deuth of Weerts and Steve Presley of Wheelan’s, for both these funeral directors have been very caring of our Jewish community and we wanted to give both of them the opportunity to “bid the job” as it were. We discussed caskets. We discussed vaults. We discussed whether or not we want the Hevre Kadisha to ritually prepare our bodies. We discussed limousines. We even talked about having chocolate in the family room – a nice touch we experienced at Gail’s father’s funeral – and we both love chocolate, though by that time we personally wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but others would. And then we met with Mr. Carvel, at the cemetery, and set up a program to pre-pay our grave opening fees. In our planning, we want every detail taken care of so that our heirs need not be challenged by them.

Our next step – and we have discussed this – will be to write ethical wills. Writing an ethical will is a beautiful Jewish tradition. Through it, you transmit to your heirs, not your material possessions but rather your spiritual ones; the teachings, values, and principles which you hold dearest to your heart and which you sincerely wish that your loved ones will strive to incorporate into their own lives, and by so doing, keep your spiritual legacy alive. It is also a vehicle through which you can express certain wishes when it comes to the funeral service itself. If my father-in-law had written an ethical will, it most certainly would have included the fact that he wanted a Dixieland band to accompany him to the grave. In any event, we knew that because he told us so on countless occasions. Now, I would not include a Dixieland band in my ethical will, but I very well might include the desire to have someone sing the Peter, Paul, & Mary song, “One Kind Favor.” That song has always touched me and I always have wanted it sung at my funeral.

But when all that is said and done, the hard facts on the ground are that there is far more to funeral pre-planning than all the items I have listed so far and the other countless related details which I neglected to mention, such as flowers. These other aspects of funeral pre-planning are not things that you can take care of with a funeral director, or any other functionary for the ceremony. And without question or doubt, these are the more significant elements that contribute to the beauty and meaning of your funeral service.

My father-in-law, Seymour Posner, had a beautiful funeral but the most beautiful part of it was not the result of our conversations with the funeral director or the rabbi. It had nothing to do with the casket we chose or the chocolate in the family room. And while my brother-in-law, and my niece, and a family friend, and the rabbi offered lovely eulogies, even they only contributed to the greater beauty in a limited sense. What made his funeral so strikingly beautiful was the fact that over 750 people attended. Over 750 people felt it important enough to take the time out of their busy lives to come to the mortuary in order to pay their last respects to this man, my father-in-law. That type of turn out – that type of demonstration of love – is not something that you can arrange for in advance by hammering out details with funeral directors and setting up payment schedules.

When it comes to that aspect of funeral pre-planning, that type of pre-planning takes a lifetime; a lifetime of living one’s life in such a way that one effectively touches the lives of others.

In the past, I have told you that traditionally Jews are supposed to wear their kittel on Yom Kippur. The kittel is a white linen robe which serves as a burial shroud. For on this day, more than any other, we are instructed to dress for the grave. For on this day, we need to confront our own mortality, and in so doing, commit ourselves to engage in this most important aspect of our funeral pre-planning. For it is up to each and every one of us, and no one else, who that person will be that they are burying on the day of our funeral. We can plan the details of the casket and the vault and the flowers till the cows come home, and we can pay all those bills in advance, but all those plans are meaningless unless we truly invest ourselves into planning to transform ourselves into the type of people whose very nature and character inspire others to take time out of their busy lives to attend our funerals and show us the respect we have earned.

That is what we are supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to be looking at our lives – at the people we are, the people we have become – and seriously ask ourselves: “Is this the person I want to be? Is this the type of person who will inspire others to render me honor by attending my funeral?”

The name of the game here is touching the lives of others in positive and loving ways. All too often we are so wrapped up in our own personal pursuits. We spend so much of our time seeking comfort and pleasure for ourselves. We measure ourselves by material standards; how much we earn, how much we have, what we wear, where we live, what we drive, where we eat, where we go on vacation. In so doing, we miss the point entirely. It is not a matter of what we have and what we gain, but rather a matter of what we share and what we give. Our comfort, our ease, our luxury only pleases us. Others may compliment us. Others may envy us. But trust me, no one loves us because of it. People never love you for what you have. They love you for who you are, and how you share yourselves with them. It is not how easy your life is, how much pleasure you enjoy. It is how you have helped to make their life a little easier, a little more pleasurable.

I wish to share with you a true story; the story of a man whose funeral I officiated at some 13 years ago. Some of you, or maybe many of you, may have heard this story before, but it is worth retelling.

Actually it is the story of two men; the man I buried and his brother. These two were as different as night and day. The deceased lived his whole life here in the Quad Cities, while the brother went off to college, entered business, experienced growing success and ultimately wound up as a major New York corporate executive; a very wealthy and powerful man. The brother who remained in our community led a rather simple life. He never made a lot of money. He never seemed to need a lot of money. He was neither famous nor powerful, and these things did not seem to matter to him. His wealthy brother truly loved him but also didn’t really think that much of him. He felt that his brother never really made much of his life.

And it was true, materially speaking that is. He hadn’t done much. He hadn’t made much. But he did accomplish something, but it wasn’t anything you could take to the bank or buy a car with.

You see, this simple brother loved sports. Particularly high school sports. Even more particularly, Moline High School sports. Whatever the sport – whatever the team Moline High School fielded – he was their biggest fan. For years, he was their biggest fan. He was such a big fan that he actually became an unofficial part of their sports program. Whenever a Moline High School team played, his seat was not in the stands, but on the bench, along with the players. And while sitting on that bench, he constantly gave the players words of encouragement, and sticks of gum. He loved them and they loved him.

Then the man died and his wealthy brother arranged for the funeral. After all, he needed to take care of his poor brother. And financially, he did so. But when it came to the funeral itself, he was in for a great shock. For the room was packed; filled with student athletes and with graduates. A massive number of people whose lives this simple man lovingly touched. Graveside, at the conclusion of the interment service, all these young people marched by the open grave, each one dropping into it a stick of gum.

The wealthy brother was more than flabbergasted. For while he loved his sibling, in truth, he thought of him more or less as a nebish, never really amounting to much. But here, at this funeral, he came to discover that his brother who may have been lacking in material possessions was rich in friends; was beloved by many. The more he considered what he was witnessing, the more it shook him. It shook him so because he came to realize that it was not through wealth or power that his brother had amassed such a loyal and loving following. It was through the gifts of his heart. It was through all the efforts that he had expended, over so many years, in showing others how much he cared for them. And what probably shook the wealthy brother the most was the growing realization that when he died, the chances were slim that there would be anywhere near an equal demonstration of affection at his funeral. Yes, today, there were many who catered to his every whim, but he knew in his heart of hearts that they did so, not so much because they loved him, but rather because of his position and the power he wielded over their lives. But when he dies, that power will be gone, and so might they. Now he found himself questioning his long held perceptions. Who truly was the wealthiest brother? He with his possessions and his power, or his brother with his army of devoted friends?

Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved. Even those who protest that they don’t want to be loved, deep down, they really do; perhaps more than most. It is natural for us. Being loved lifts us to the clouds. It makes us feel as though the entire world is ours. There is no greater high. How wonderful it feels when we encounter people who are truly happy to see us. The smiles that fill their faces warm our hearts as little else can. Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved.

Yet the sad truth is that for many of us, we are not nearly as loved as we would like to be. We may know a lot of people, and many of them may actually like us, but how many of them really love us? Perhaps all too few. Whether or not we realize it – we acknowledge it – that fact is our misfortune.

But who is responsible for that? We are, and no one else. For we are the ones who are in control of whether or not we are loved by others. For if we want others to love us, then we must love them, and show them our love. Admittedly, sometimes loving others can be a challenge, for it can call upon us to put others before ourselves; to place their needs before our needs. These days, in a world which tends to focus on the pursuit of self-satisfaction, this can appear to us to be an insurmountable challenge. But it is not. For the magic of it is that the more we care for others, the more we find that we are also caring for ourselves. There is a personal healing imbedded in acts of selflessness; when we reach out to touch the lives of others in positive ways. It provides us with a pleasure more satisfying, more long lasting, than any material possession or self-indulgence will ever offer.

Each and every one of us has the power to become that person. All that is necessary is that we decide to do so. This is precisely what Yom Kippur calls upon us to do. This is precisely what God calls upon us to do. God has blessed us with the capacity to perform countless acts of loving kindness; to live a life of loving kindness, but it is purely up to us to do so. And if we do so, we will find that when we are laid to rest, our funeral pre-planning will have paid off. For those whose lives we touched will be there with us, accompanying us to the grave. They will say prayers and many may weep; they may weep real tears as they bid us farewell.

So what will it matter to us, some of you may wonder? We will be dead, beyond the touch of their tears. But it will matter. It will matter because it means that our life will have had lasting meaning. It will have been a life well spent, for in it we have sowed the seeds of love wherever we went. Those seeds have taken root, grown and flourished. And now that we are gone, those who shed tears for us, will spend at least some of the rest of their lives gathering the seeds of love we sowed within them and sharing those seeds with others. It is that river of love, flowing from us, through us, and back to us again, that has the power to transform our funeral from an exercise in ritual to a testimony to a life which has changed the world and changed it for the better.

The Gift of Elul

August 15, 2010

I write this on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Now to far too many American Jews, that statement is practically meaningless.  And that is a source of great sadness for me.  For the month of Elul offers us Jews a very special gift; the gift of spiritual self examination and preparedness.  Yet too many of us are either unaware of the gift, choose to ignore it, or intentionally cast it aside.

Elul is the month which precedes our High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.  For we Jews, these holy days are supposed to be dedicated to profound introspection and personal redirection.  They are a time to consider our lives as we have lived them so far – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and to honestly challenge ourselves as to how we can choose to change for the better.  How can we make of ourselves better Jews, better parents, better children, better siblings, better relatives, better friends, better neighbors, better co-workers, better organization members, better citizens in our local communities, our states, our nation, and our world, better human beings in the eyes of our fellow human beings and God.

Such a serious task cannot begin to take place overnight, or even in the course of the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Putting aside the actualization of those necessary changes, even the task of serious self-examination requires more time than the holy days permit.  And this is where the month of Elul comes in.  For this entire month we should be honestly thinking about ourselves, the people we are and the people we aspire to become.  This is the month of introspection, so that when the Holy Days themselves arrive, we can focus our attention not so much on what changes are needed in our lives but rather how can we best go about successfully making those changes.

A long time ago someone correctly pointed out to me that while we think of ourselves as one, we are really three.  There is the person who we actually are, the person who others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be.  As long as those three are separate and apart from each other, we can never truly find happiness or satisfaction in our lives.  It is only when we successfully bring the three into alignment – so that the person we are and the person others perceive us to be, are identical to the person we aspire to be – that we can truly be happy with ourselves and satisfied with our lives.  It is this process which is the heart and soul of the true High Holy Day experience.  But in order to successfully achieve it, we cannot begin this quest on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  We must begin in the month of Elul, as early as possible.

Yet I am saddened by the fact that so many of my fellow Jews are so far removed from any of this.  They choose to ignore the gift of Elul, and many of them reject the meaning and purpose of the High Holy Days themselves.  So many of these Jews see the High Holy Days as little more than an annual gathering of the clan; as an annual Jewish check-in time.  They go to synagogue, they greet old friends and acquaintances, many of whom they may not have seen in a year, and they leave satisfied that they have fulfilled their Jewish duty for yet another year.  They have done their ethnic thing, for that is what Judaism has become to them; some sort of vague ethnic identity and nothing more.

I have to admit that as a rabbi I am stymied as to how I can help reawaken in such Jews a spiritual awareness, nevertheless a spiritual hunger.  The whole purpose of the Jewish religion, and especially the High Holy Days, is to strengthen our connections with God and with others.  What these people seem to be missing is the fact that the spiritual aspect of our lives is not mere mythology but concrete reality.  Spiritual health is just as essential to our well being as physical health.  One can maintain a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, and run marathons.  But even as their bodies are in excellent physical condition, if these individuals insist upon leaving the life of their souls untended, they will forever remain spiritual invalids.  True, they may not perceive of themselves as invalids, but they are like a person with a born physical or mental disability who, having known nothing else in their life, they have no appreciation for what they are missing.  Spiritually, they are like my son Joshua – a 27 year old man with autism – who has not got the foggiest idea of what it means to live an adult’s life with adult pleasures; who lives in his closed off world of children’s videos and the fulfillment of his basic physical needs.  Like Joshua, who is unaware of what it means to live an adult life, such people are unaware of what it means to live a true spiritual life.  While many of them claim that they believe in God, none of them have ever really let God into their lives.  They have no idea of what it means to live with God as a true companion; as a real presence in their life.  This is because the God they claim to believe in is an abstract rather than a reality.  We do not walk with abstracts.  We do not talk with abstracts.  And abstracts most certainly neither walk nor talk with us.

Now you may consider me a freak or a weirdo but I openly admit that I talk with God, and more importantly, God talks with me.  Indeed, without question, these are the most important and meaningful conversations that I hold in my life.  When God and I do not talk, that is when I am at my loneliest.

When do we talk the most?  During the month of Elul.  This is the greatest gift of Elul.  Conversing with God.  As I consider my life – my strengths and my weaknesses, my successes and my failures – God is my closest adviser, serving as both fan and critic.  It is God more than anyone else who helps me to grasp where I have gone wrong and where I can do better, as well as how I can preserve the best parts of who I am.  Now this is the same God who is available to each and every one of us for consultation.  As God helps me, God can help you.  All you need to do is believe – truly believe – and reach out; open the conversation.  God will talk with those who talk with God.

Once you permit yourself to connect with God in such a way, while you will find that there is still a pleasant ethnic aspect to the High Holy Days, it will be their spiritual aspect which will move you and shape you.  You will sense the hunger for personal change and you will understand that in sincerely seeking such change, you are never alone in the task.  You have a companion and co-worker, counselor and adviser, role model and friend; the truest of all.  The One who will never desert you.