Choose Life

Danielle was finishing medical school when I met her. Always a caretaker, she decided to be a doctor when she was just ten years old. She wanted to provide the best care possible for her patients. Danielle had a tight-knit family with cousins, aunts and uncles, and a few very close friends who felt like family. Soft-spoken, she preferred a quiet dinner with friends to a party or the bar scene any day. She could cook an incredible feast on little notice and had a sense of humor that left all of us in fits of laughter. She loved to bike and even rode in a marathon or two.

When she developed a cough that wouldn’t go away, she knew something was wrong. Soon she received the diagnosis: stage 4 lung cancer. Danielle was 32 years old. She went through treatments, all while completing her degree, and devoting herself to maternal-fetal medical research, her passion. Despite the extent of her illness, she made impressive progress in all of her work. But as time passed, she grew sicker and weaker. It became clear that Danielle would not recover; she had weeks to live.

Danielle wasn’t surprised by this news. Once it was clear no more treatments were available, she turned her attention away from the idea of recovery. Instead, she focused on the well-being of those she would leave behind. She had private meetings with family members, asking them to look out for one another. She had a never-ending stream of friends and relatives with whom she laughed, shared stories, and talked about the legacy she wished to leave. She worked with family members to set up a foundation in her honor, furthering the research to which she had been so devoted. And when it was time, she let go.

A few days after Danielle’s death, I sat in her living room with her family and friends. We ate and shared stories, just as Danielle would have wanted. Her mom turned to me, crying, and smiling, saying words that I have never forgotten: “Her life was short—far too short. But boy, did she live.”

Boy, did she live.

Danielle hadn’t had a chance to get married to the boyfriend she loved, or to have children of her own. She hadn’t finished her research. She hadn’t had a chance to go on the big trip she had planned. She hadn’t lived a lavish lifestyle. What, then, did it mean to say that Danielle fully lived?

What does it mean for any of us to live fully?

“Today, I place before you the choice between life and death and good and evil. Choose life so you and your children will live.”[1]

Today Jews all over the world read this piece of Torah, taken from the end of the book of Deuteronomy. These are among Moses’ last words to the Jewish people, reminding them and us to “choose life,” to, in essence, fully live.

Yom Kippur is an auspicious day for such a text, as we refrain from food and drink and deprive ourselves of luxuries such as leather shoes. Today, we offer a vidui, confession—a practice otherwise offered on one’s deathbed. We spend our day praying and repenting. In short, today, we rehearse our deaths.

Yom Kippur confronts us with everything we avoid thinking about throughout the year: our vulnerability, our fallibility, and our mortality.

I find the U’netaneh Tokef prayer to be the most challenging piece of High Holy Day liturgy, because it reminds us so clearly of our mortality.

On Rosh HaShanah this is written;  on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: 

How many will pass away from this world,  how many will be born into it; 

who will live and who will die; 

who will reach the ripeness of age, 

who will be taken before their time; 

who by fire and who by water; 

We do not and cannot know what the journey before us looks like.

This isn’t news to any of this, and yet we need the reminder. Most of us spend our lives avoiding thinking about life’s brevity and limitations. We put on face creams, makeup, and hair dye to look young. We avoid sharing our age. We put off writing a will or purchasing our plot at the cemetery. We may be weary of visiting friends in the hospital or consoling mourners as if death is something that can be caught rather than the natural extension of life.

Instead of accepting our limitations, we seek distractions or settle into a routine without much thought of our life’s purpose and meaning. We spend time doing things that aren’t important to us because we convince ourselves that there is enough time to do them while also focusing on what truly matters. Too often, our biggest dreams and aspirations, the things that matter most, are pushed to the side, and we tell ourselves that one day we will get to them as if we are guaranteed all the time in the world.

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded that we are not. This isn’t meant to depress or diminish us. On the contrary, it is meant to inspire us to treat our time and energy as the precious commodity it is, and to cherish this one wild and fragile life we are given.

As Swedish philosopher Martin [Hegg-lund] Hägglund explains, “If I believed that my life would last forever, I could never take my life to be at stake, and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time.”[2] Life’s limitations can heighten our sense of awareness and our motivation to make the most of this one wild and fragile life we are given.

My daughter, Talia, is on a soccer team. Each week they try their hardest to score points and defend their goals. The game is slow, often tied zero-zero for much of the game. But then, the fourth quarter comes, and the girls snap to attention. They play with more focus in that last quarter than they had in the first three put together. Ever notice just how much is accomplished in the last two minutes of a football game? In that final baseball inning?

The urgency of the game’s finality brings everything into sharper focus.

This is also true with life.

It was certainly true for Danielle. As I sat by her bed in her final days, we greeted a never-ending stream of family members, friends, and colleagues and discussed the legacy that she would leave. She was laser-focused on laying the groundwork for a foundation in her honor to continue the research to which she had been so dedicated. Her final inning had been infused with meaning, connection, and purpose. Despite her considerable discomfort and pain, she felt at peace because she said everything she wanted to express. She had worked with others to form a legacy that would continue her research.

This was a sentiment I had heard a few times before from dying people. Rather than focus on their loss and impending death, they chose to live each moment that remained.

And boy, did she live.

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded of our mortality, so we need not wait for the final inning to sharpen our focus and inspire us to live fully.

We may not be perfect, not achieve every goal, or predict the future, but we are blessed with life now. No day is without purpose and no moment with meaning. [3]

Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv lived this way. He became a great scholar and community leader, teaching and mentoring thousands of people during his 102 years on this earth. He was friends with many renowned rabbis, each of whom would have been honored to speak at his funeral. But as death grew near, he had just one request: to not have a single eulogy on the day of his burial. He explained that he had lived his life according to his deepest values. No eulogy was necessary. His eulogy was his life. It was noted in the books he wrote, the lessons he delivered, and the relationships he nurtured.

We wish to live our lives in such a way that our legacy is readily apparent to everyone who knew us. Remarkably, Rabbi Elyashiv could achieve this, but for most of us, so much of what truly matters goes unsaid in the business our everyday lives.

I have sat at too many bedsides where words were spoken at the end of life that could have deepened relationships earlier. I held too many hands of people who wished they had picked up the phone when they had the chance.

The Torah is full of stories of patriarchs on their deathbeds, offering the wisdom, lessons, and advice they had longed to share. If only they had spoken these words earlier. What might their relationships have looked like?

A couple of months ago, I decided to teach a class about ethical wills, helping participants record the stories and values by which they wish to be remembered. Ethical wills were once almost exclusively letters written by a father to his children, though they could be written to any person or group that is desired. They provide an opportunity to bequeath a legacy to loved ones not based on material goods but rather something far more precious: the hard heard-earned lessons garnered through life experience.

But my goal for this class wasn’t to inspire people to write notes that could be found after they died. To the contrary, I wanted to inspire for participants to think deeply about their lives and to have meaningful conversations with loved ones now.

In the words of Rabbi Jack Riemer “ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives. They can make people, who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for.”[4]

Ethical wills offer a forum to think about what we do with the limited time we have. It is as much about living every day with meaning as offering wisdom to those who receive it.

I worried about whether people would take a class about wills and legacy, but to my amazement, 50 people signed up. I was blown away that so many people were ready to embrace our mortality and talk about our life’s meaning. We discussed our deepest values and the lessons we wished to pass on to those we loved. I asked everyone to write about powerful moments in their lives and what they learned from the experiences. It was then that something magical happened.

Most ethical wills share stories and values. They offer advice and well wishes. In short, they show the very best of the person who was writing them. But in class, people began to speak up. “I want to share my mistakes, too.” one person said. “And my struggles.”

“I want to talk about overcoming my addiction.” Another said. Participants talked about sharing moments of doubt and uncertainty and moments of failure so that loved ones could learn from their experiences. I was deeply touched.

I thought about how the Torah discusses all our matriarchs and patriarchs. Even our greatest leaders are depicted as human, imperfect, and prone to mistakes, but also with moments of brilliance, courage, and fortitude. We learn from their successes and perhaps even more from their failings.

I was moved that participants wanted to share their vulnerabilities with others and even more that they were willing to delve into them now. I was grateful they were planning conversations with children, spouses, grandchildren, and friends. As one person said, “my family in the holocaust didn’t have an opportunity to share what mattered to them and what they learned along the way, but I can, so I will.”

The average lifespan is a mere 4000 weeks, points out author Oliver Burkeman. “It is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair,” he writes “Once you accept the tragedy, uncertainty, and limitations of life, “you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count,”[5] and “the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.”[6] The more recognize the limitations of our one messy and wonderful life, the more we can infuse it with meaning and purpose.

After noting the brevity of our lives, Oliver Burkeman then turns the notion of 40,000 weeks on its head. He writes, “why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born?” He continues, “…maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.” [7]

We do not know what tomorrow may bring, but we do know that we are here today, and our very existence is a blessing. We are taught that the day we were born was the day that God decided the world couldn’t exist without us.[8] We are here to live lives not of perfection or infinite expanse but of meaning and sanctity.

Like Danielle and Rabbi Elyashiv, we hope to leave to make an imprint on this world, to know that it is a bit better for us to have lived. Like Danielle and Rabbi Elyashiv, we want to have conversations of meaning while we have the chance.

Let us not wait until our final weeks to think about our legacy and what we wish to live on when we can start today.

I’ll end with a quote by William Penn, who wrote:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

This Yom Kippur, choose life.

[1] Deuteronomy 30:19

[2] Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 62). Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[3] Cohen, Daniel. What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone?: Creating a Life of Legacy (pp. 189).

[4] Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathan Stampfer. Ethical Wills And How To Prepare Them (p. xxvi)

[5] Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 232-233). Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[6] Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 32). Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[7] Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 66). Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[8] Rabbi Nachman of Braslov

Categories Rabbi

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