For the next few days I will be sending some High Holiday sermons I shared in past couple of years. May they be a source of inspiration and blessing. Shanah Tovah to you and your families.
The story is told of Alfred Nobel, the chemist who invented dynamite. Accidentally, when his brother Ludvig passed away, a French newspaper mistakenly wrote an obituary about Arthur entitled “The Merchant of Death.” Shocked that he was viewed as the curator of death, Alfred did some soul searching and decided to leave a different mark on the word by endowing the Nobel Prize with his wealth.
Alfred Nobel had the advantage of seeing his eulogy in print. It was his wake up call and he chose to alter his life and legacy.
For us, we rarely get that kind of preview to hear another person’s perception of us as we are ushered into the next world.
From today’s headlines you might get the impression that the wake-up call is quadrennial. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are asking us whether we are better off now than four years ago.
Often are awakening occurs at a funeral, G-d-forbid, a sickness, or when we experience a life transition or new job. It could be a life affirming moment such as the birth of a child or a wedding. We will all experience these moments when we gain clarity of mind and purpose and yearn to lead our lives a little bit fuller and better.
How long does the awakening last or do we go into a slumber again?
Today, we have the gift of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement serves as a vehicle to enlighten us to the fragility and focus of our lives. The day challenges us to sustain this moment of clarity.
In reality, the High Holiday season, the Yamim Noraim, is truly a time when our lives are on the line. I know it sounds odd. We say the words – who shall live and who shall die…but do we really internalize their significance.
Think about today as the culmination of our annual check up…not by a doctor but by the Almighty. Why is this season in the Jewish calendar appropriate for this appointment with the master of the world?
According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of mankind. On Rosh Hashanah, 5773 years ago, G-d endowed Adam and Eve with the breath of life and a mission. Mankind was not created simply to enjoy the earth but with a purpose. Each human being is created in the image of G-d. We have a responsibility while on earth to emulate G-d in our ways. The value of our lives is based on how well we align ourselves with this holy mission. Are we givers or are we takers? Do we destroy or do we build? Do we waste time or sanctify it?
Every year, G-d evaluates us and we look deep inside to see how well we are living up to this mission. Are we worthy of the gift of life? Are we maximizing our time and are we realizing our potential?
Here we stand at the threshold of another new year. We reflect on the past and hope for the future. We look around the room and see new faces and miss some others. As much as we define today by community, we understand that the challenge and calling of Rosh Hashanah is a very personal one.
It is precisely today’s brush with our own mortality that inspires us to lead lives of greater impact and import. How long will that inspiration last?
This past year, Stephen Covey passed away. He was best known for his seven strategies for highly effective people. One of his principles is “Begin with the end in mind.” This is a very Jewish concept and is embodied in the teaching in Ethics our Fathers: Consider three things and we will be protected from sin. The Sages teach – Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear and that all of our deeds are recorded by G-d for posterity.
I would like to explore with you this morning the chance to live your life backwards.
This thought exercise is at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience. There is a word that appears over and over again in our liturgy. The word is Remember. We beseech G-d to remember us for life.
The central part of the additional service on Rosh Hashanah is entitled Zichronot – Remembrances. We ask G-d to remember the merits of our ancestors and particularly the binding of Isaac…symbolized by the sounding of the shofar.
Think about it for a moment…G-d does not forget events in the past. In fact, we specifically state on Rosh Hashanah that G-d remembers all that is forgotten. Why do we ask G-d to remember?
We ask G-d to remember not for G-d’s sake but for our sake. We do forget what is truly important.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur beckon us to move beyond one flash of clarity and embrace the journey of life with sustained awareness of the supreme significance of day to day, hour to hour and moment to moment.
Last spring, a palliative nurse in Australia conducted a survey which gives us a clue to our universal aspirations and serves as a personal guide. She recorded the most common regrets of the dying.
Bronnie Ware spent years in hospice care, tending to patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their epiphanies and put her observations into a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”.
She writes that the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gained at the end of their lives offered wisdom for leading our lives. Common themes surfaced again and again.
Here are the five:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I had not worked so hard.
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
What would be your biggest regret if this was the last day of your life?
As Bronnie reflects in her book, there was no mention of more bungee jumping or another movie but when people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, they see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled and know it was due to choices that they had made or not made.
She writes, “Health brings a freedom few realize until they no longer have it”.
Yom Kippur challenges us to lead the lives now for which we truly want to be remembered.
The challenge is not simply to wish or dream that our lives would have been different but to truly commit to making them so through our actions.
How do we live our lives backwards? What steps can we take now to enrich our lives and ensure lives of greater impact? A legacy is build moment by moment.
The question – “What will they say about you?” triggers this realization.
I often get asked by people how I decide what goes into a tribute at a funeral. Someone once said to me. “I want a good eulogy.” The statement intuitively affirms our awareness that we will be remembered…the question is by whom and for what…
When I sit down with a family to compose a eulogy, I ask the loved ones to focus on the nature of the person. Was he family oriented, was she generous of spirit? How would you describe the kind of person he/she was? It is not uncommon for someone to tell me that the deceased never missed a Yankees game or even a Mets game or loved to watch T.V, but I try to dig deeper. The family gets it. We get it. We all recognize that rabid baseball or football fans come and go but the strength of one’s character and influence endures forever.
Let’s try the following exercise to clarify this idea.
Name three noble traits – one to which we all aspire. Think about it.
How about trustworthy, kind, and family oriented?
We may hear at a funeral –
“He was a man of his word. We could trust him.”
Yet, although this is a simple description, its significance is profound. We all would like to be remembered this way but it will not happen without the ability of other people to bear testimony to our honesty.
We will be known as honest if….in every interaction and in every encounter we did our utmost to be a person others could count on.
We will be known as kind if ….we can affirm that we rarely if ever spoke ill no matter the temptation.
We will be known as family oriented if…we truly make our families a priority every day.
This idea hit home when I asked the participants in one of my classes, “What would your children say about you at your funeral? Would they know what to say?”
One of the people responded, “Well, I guess I could tell them what they should say.”
In an instant, we all realized the foolishness of this answer. Our children should know what to say about us not because we tell them what to say but because we live our lives embodying our core values.
As Bob Dylan once said, “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them”.
Listen closely to a secret I am about to share – it will transform the way we live and the way we will be remembered.
We do not remember days, we remember moments.
Think back on the lives of people close to you…what stands out…usually it is an experience we shared with them or a moment in time. The days become a blur but the best of memories are when it seems that time stands still and we will never forget that shared experience.
Do we appreciate the impact of memories we create in the hearts and minds of family and friends?
One of the happiest moments of my life was walking to synagogue with my father in the pouring rain. Although we were soaked, my spirit soared. There was no place I would rather be at that moment than holding my father’s hand on the way to shul.
In a dramatic and poignant way, this idea further resonated within me at a funeral this past year. I encouraged one of the daughters to speak. Her relationship with her mother was challenging yet I urged her to take the opportunity to thank her mother and reflect albeit briefly on her legacy. She spoke for only a few minutes and introduced her remarks by stating that from over 50 years with her mother two memories stood out. This is one of them that she shared.
I will never forget when I was 8 years old. I was fast asleep. My mother came into my room around midnight. It was snowing outside and she woke me. I was startled and wondered why she disturbed my sleep. I will never forget was she said and that night. She told me she wanted to me to get dressed so we could play together in the fresh snow outside. The daughter knew her mom for fifty years and it is this moment that her mother spontaneously created that endures.
How do we create such moments?
I think the answer lies in insuring that we are living in these moments.
Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.
Time does go by so quickly but if we pause and reflect on the second we are experiencing and sense the opportunity within…to be present with a spouse, a friend, a child, to lend a hand, make a blessing, study one insight…the fleeting moment can be eternalized.
What will happen is not only will these memories be etched into our hearts but our lives now will be so much more meaningful. One of the greatest tributes given to a person at the end of his life was to Abraham, the first Jew. The Torah comments that he was an individual who was old, coming in his days. It is a very odd language. The commentators explain the description signifies that he was not only old in years but that he maximized every day. Every day and every moment he saw as a new gift.
With this perspective, we will be able to transform our lives and those around us… one step at a time.
How will we be remembered? As an optimist, a person of faith or one who despaired and lost hope? It will depend on what we say and how we act today.
Today is the first day of the New Year. G-d renews our lease on life. With this gift, we are called upon to create the new memories with our G-d, our family friends and community to lead life of greater impact and legacy.
I began with the eulogy of Alfred Nobel and wish to conclude with a message from the passing of one of the great Jewish sages of our time, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who died this past summer at the age of 102. He delivered lectures to his students until six months before his passing. Due to his humility, he requested no eulogies at his funeral.
You might wonder whether this was because people did not know him nor had little to say? Yet, 250,000 people attended in the streets of Jerusalem and only Psalms were recited. Why no eulogies?
It was remarked that for a man who lived to his fullest every day and was revered by so many, no eulogies were necessary. This is our goal and this is our destiny. If we embody the awakening of Yom Kippur, we will live inspired, we will touch thousands and we will be known for our very best selves now and forever.