Your one wild and precious life

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September 25, 2011
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Rabbi Chai Levy

As many of you already know, when you lose a parent or another loved one, everything changes. As I discovered this year, with the death of my father and of so many in this community, you realize how short life really is. It’s not that you didn’t know before that we humans are mortal and that everyone dies, but when you come close to death, when you bury in the earth someone you love, you realize how you did actually assume that they and all of us would always be here, and you realize just how temporary this whole being alive thing is.

And on Rosh Hashana, we say that the book of life is open, and we pray that we are written in it. And we also know, more and more so each year as we grow older, that we won’t always make it into the book of life. We see how fragile life is, and how we have just a little time here. As terrifying as this realization is, the high holidays invite us to face this reality and to allow it to inspire us and move us.

Today we read once again the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, and once again, we’re rattled by the story. Why did God have to test Abraham in such a horrific way? Does the Torah really want us to learn that Abraham passed the test by being willing to sacrifice his own son? His beloved son for whom he waited so many years?

What could we learn from this story if we asked different questions? What if we asked not: how could God demand such a test? And did Abraham do the right thing? But instead we asked: how does this story actually reflect the reality of our lives – the reality that our lives, like Isaac’s, are hanging by a thread, that whether we live or die lies with that same unpredictable Voice that says “take your son” and then says “stop, don’t do it.”? What if we read the Akeda not as a test of faith and submission but as a test of how we respond to that capricious quality of life?

If we read the Akeda this way, it goes from being a story of “what would you do?” to a story of “what do we do?” Fortunately, most of us will not face the kind of test of faith that Abraham faced, and if we did, I doubt many of us would pass the test the way Abraham did. But all of us face the other test of the Akeda: that is, how do we live knowing that we live in that moment where there’s a knife held above us? That moment where we wait for the call from our doctor who will say “malignant” or “benign”? That moment where we’ll survive the accident or we won’t? My dear friend, who was expecting now to be celebrating the birth of their first child but who is instead mourning a stillborn, writes: “The distance between heaven and hell is like a strand of hair.” How do we live with this truth? For me, that is the question of the Akeda.

Immediately following the Akeda, the Torah reports that Sarah dies. It doesn’t say how she dies, but the rabbis fill in the details in a midrash. It was the almost-sacrifice of her son that killed her. Even though Isaac is spared in the end, the very knowledge that he could have been killed is too much for her. As Avivah Zornberg teaches it, the Akeda toppled Sarah’s faith in God’s providence and in the world’s coherence. As with other near misses – like when one person escapes a terrorist attack because they happened to be running late that day, but another doesn’t, or when one survives a heart attack but another doesn’t – Isaac was saved by just a hair’s breadth, and this reality is unbearable for Sarah.

The rabbis were very wise in their understanding of the human experience. Centuries before Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), the rabbis characterized, through Sarah’s response to the Akeda, that stage we go through when we say: why bother living when we’re just going to die anyway? Why bother working, caring, doing anything, when life is absurd and random and sometimes even cruel?  Okay, so we have those moments, those moments of responding the way Sarah did, but that’s not the only possible response.

Unlike Sarah, Isaac survives the traumatic experience of almost being killed, but according to a rabbinic midrash, his blindness later in life is the result of the Akeda. According to the rabbis, when Isaac was bound on the altar and Abraham was about to kill him, the heavens opened and the angels saw what was happening and cried. Their tears descended and fell into Isaac’s eyes and caused his blindness. Not only does Isaac lose his vision, but if you pay attention to his character throughout the Torah, it seems that he’s generally shut down after the Akeda.  Unlike the other patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, Isaac is a passive and fairly minor character. It has even been suggested that the covenantal lineage goes more through the character of Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, than through Isaac himself.

Isaac demonstrates another response to the question of: how do we live our life knowing how very precarious it is. We can shut down, close our eyes, not engage, and let life pass us by because it’s too scary, too much trouble, too difficult. Nowadays, we might not be blinded by angels as a way to cope, but we might escape into television, food, alcohol, work, or just mindlessly going through the motions until something wakes us up.

Abraham offers a different response to the Akeda.  Now you might say, “Sure: he was the abuser not the victim,” but the truth is: Abraham experiences the same erratic God and the same life upheaval as Sarah and Isaac. The difference is he continues on, living fully, facing life’s challenges but staying fully present, as he did ever since God sent him on his Lech-Lecha journey years ago. In the Akeda story alone, Abraham three times responds Hineni, “Here I am” when called upon by God, by Isaac, or by an angel.  He says this word, Hineni, which is the Torah’s way of saying: I’m fully here, conscious, ready to serve, ready to face the truth.  Somehow Abraham is able to hold the contradictions of the Akeda – that he must sacrifice his son and believe in God’s promise for the future. Somehow Abraham is able to live with life’s contradictions that include pain and hope, loss and faith and not give in to despair like Sarah or to avoidance like Isaac. And after the Akeda and the death of Sarah, he continues on, looking to the future, fully engaging in life. He finds a wife for Isaac and he himself remarries and has more children.

In this way, Abraham did pass the test of the Akeda after all, but not just in the way we usually think of it, that is, by proving that he was willing to submit to God’s command. Rather Abraham passed the test of being able to experience the volatility of God and the incoherence of life and death, while keeping his spirit intact, along with his hope for the future and his ability to live life fully. Even with everything he had been through, the Torah says that Abraham was “blessed in everything,” (Gen 24:1) And when he died at the age of 175, the Torah says that he was at a good old age, old and full, b’seyva tova zaken v’saveya (Gen 25:8) – full, complete, sated, content.

Like Sarah, Isaac, and Abraham, we, at some point or another, all get this test in our lives. I know there are some people in our community who are in the middle of it right now. I’ve been through it several times in recent years, in part because I have the “luck” of getting lumps that need to be biopsied. Each time there is the two week or so wait from finding the lump to getting for the result of the biopsy. Fortunately, they’ve all been benign, but until I find that out, I know I’m in that hair’s breadth between heaven and hell; I know I’m on that altar like Isaac, suspended in that frightening moment between will I live or will I die?

And just in case we don’t get the test enough in the course of our lives, every year we have these very days, these high holydays, to remind us. One of the central prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is Unetaneh Tokef: “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die?” Why do the High Holydays need to scare us like that? Don’t we face this question enough in normal life? Why is it necessary to face our deaths on these holiest days of the year?

Because each year, we need to wake up from our slumber, to realize how short life is and how precious life is. Because we need to decide now to treasure each moment and to live our lives with the full awareness that life is so fragile. So that we can be like Abraham and say Hineni and be present even with life’s uncertainties. We sound the Shofar to wake us up: people, we don’t have that much time here! This is your life! Live it consciously! Live it fully!

What would we do differently if we lived with the awareness that we don’t have forever? Recently, someone I know who was getting through a life-threatening illness came up to me out of the blue and said: “I want you to know that I love you and you’re an important part of my life.” The person continued, “I know people don’t usually say things like that to each other, but when you’ve had a near-death experience like I’ve had, you tell people how you feel about them and you don’t hold back.”  Here’s a person who has been seriously tested by life but who came through like Abraham, saying Hineni, Here I am. This is how life’s unpredictability, which we emphasize on these days of awe, can motivate us to say and do the things that we might otherwise hold back.

When we know we don’t have much time left, we say the things now that need to be said. I’ll never forget one of the last things my father ever said to me. On the last day before he was moved into the intensive care unit where he would be intubated and unable to speak again, he called me up and said: “I owe you a big apology. I’m sorry. . . I wasn’t able to properly acknowledge your birthday.” “Dad, it’s ok,” I said, with tears welling up, “you were so sick in the hospital, I didn’t expect you to do anything for my birthday.” And I really hadn’t noticed that he hadn’t sent a card or anything. After all, he was critically ill with leukemia. Nevertheless, the apology meant the world to me. See, my dad had not been the kind of man who would apologize for things. I don’t recall him saying “I’m sorry” much throughout his life, even though there were many things I wanted him to apologize for. So I knew that his saying “I owe you an apology, and I’m sorry” wasn’t so much about missing my birthday, rather it carried a lifetime’s worth of healing and forgiveness.

Rather than wait until the end of our lives to say the things that we truly want to say, the high holydays invite us to say those things now. And they invite us to do those things that we truly want to do. People have started writing lists, inspired by the movie The Bucket List, where two terminally ill men try to fulfill a wish list of to-dos before they “kick the bucket.” Lots of people list things like skydiving, travelling the world, or being a contestant on Survivor. I guess it’s almost what the high holidays are about. At least they’re kind of on the right track.

The high holidays ask us to wake up, realize that life is short and decide not necessarily that it’s time to jump out of an airplane, but rather decide how we want to live, how we can better manifest the values that are important to us, and what kind of legacy we want to leave.  I have the honor of delivering eulogies at funerals, and to prepare those eulogies, I ask the family members questions like: “what was his greatest joy? Or what values did she most want to pass down to you? What did you love and admire about him?” This time of year invites us to consider: What do you want to have said about you? How might you make changes in your life so that those things will be said about you?

People who work in hospice talk about “quality of life” for their patients who are dying. But shouldn’t we think about the quality of our lives now? The high holydays remind us to consider the subtle changes that improve the quality of our lives: maybe it’s being more loving to your spouse, doing more volunteer work, spending more time with friends, being more compassionate and not getting so irritated at that person who drives you crazy. What do you have in mind when you hear the sound of the Shofar calling you to wake up, saying life is short, what do you want to change now?

I have in mind Felicia Shpall, a friend of mine from when I lived in New York. At the time, she was studying to be a rabbi, and she was also an incredible singer, actress, Jewish educator, and mother of young children. Her singing was so deeply soulful and powerful, she’d make you cry and knock your socks off at the same time. When I met Felicia, I was dazzled by her talent, her joy, her exuberant and contagious love of life. We lost touch when I moved to California, and last month, I decided to track her down and reconnect. I was listening to a recording of her music in the days after I found out the good news from my recent biopsy: benign, thank God, and I thought: I’d love to get back in touch with Felicia. I Googled her and found many listings about her Klezmer band, her rabbinic work, rave reviews about her performances, and then I found her obituary. She died a few years ago, after a long battle with breast cancer, at the age of 34.

Who shall live and who shall die? That hair’s breadth between benign and malignant, between life and death, is so arbitrary, so unpredictable. So Isaac was saved at the last minute, but not everyone is. How do we live with this reality? It is my hope to honor the spirit of Felicia Shpall, by living with some of the vibrancy and vitality that she had, by appreciating the preciousness of every day, loving as best I can, by celebrating all the beauty and gifts of being alive that I have the privilege to experience and giving back of the abundance I receive, by enjoying music and flowers and friends, and by not complaining about stupid things or being grouchy and mean and irritable. Why I get to live and she didn’t, I don’t know, but I promise to try to be like Abraham, who knows the precariousness of life and responds by saying Hineni, I am here, living fully in each precious moment.

That is the question for us the high holydays: what do we plan to do with the time we’ve been given? How will we respond to the sound of the Shofar calling us to wake up and live as best we can? In the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

I know how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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