We could all die tomorrow, or, in fact tonight. The reality is that we don’t know and so it is easy to avoid thinking about. On this holiest of nights, we peel back the façade and take a peek at our lives as they will appear in the rear-view mirror. What is it we see? What is it that we HOPE we will see? And what are we doing about it?
Lives end suddenly, as with the person who turned onto Marilyn Rd. to attend this very service a few years ago and was killed in a car accident. Lives can be extended beyond meaning, robbing us of the core of our being, our memories and connections with loved ones. And sometimes there’s a life-limiting medical diagnosis. No, you are not going to die right now, maybe not in the next 6 months, but you are ill, there is no cure, and your end is in sight.
I was speaking a few months ago with a beloved friend who is facing his own mortality in this very real way. Not as a theoretical possibility in the distant future, but as a diminution of well-ness that is with him daily. Since he is a passionate Type A person, I asked him the question that I ask myself routinely- “Have you written your own eulogy?” I was kind of shocked that he said no, that this person, who has always lived large and in charge, was ready to let go and let others discern his legacy and how best to honor it, once he is gone from this earth.
Not me. My beloved grandfather and I, Papa Hymie, alav hashalom, collaborated on his eulogy for a decade or more. He had a huge binder of cards that he had received, poems he had written and those written for him, articles of interest, and he used to routinely pull out that binder and review with me precisely what he wanted me to include when the time came. Naturally, I honored his request, though I’m not sure he requested the opening line, “Only the good die young!” He was 93 and a notorious character. Papa Hymie and I are not the only ones. Mickey Greenberg, Aunt Mick in honor of her niece who was my very close friend, penned a letter that she wanted read at her own funeral. A writer by trade, she began as follows:
Wow! If you are reading this I must be dead! Dead – that’s a powerful word. It means that my life is finished and I never finish anything (except butterscotch sundaes). There are so many things I meant to finish – cleaning closets – straightening drawers – putting pictures in albums. I always meant to do these things “tomorrow” and now there will be no more tomorrows. That’s what happens when you are a procrastinator. I am sorry my loved ones will have to figure out all the things I didn’t finish. The 12 files folders marked “misc.” contains papers I meant to define. It probably doesn’t make any difference now. I’m sorry about all the other things that remain undone. The books I didn’t read: the letters I didn’t write; the stories I didn’t commit to paper. But most of all I regret the words which were never spoken. Words to express my love for my family and friends; words to ask forgiveness for hurt I may have caused others; words to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt me. Aunt Mick goes on from there.
I am writing my own eulogy in my head all the time, and it occurs to me that I really ought to write it down- get it out of my head and onto paper so that, perhaps, I can let it go and find some peace. Yom Kippur is the exact moment when we each should be thinking about our own eulogy and our own legacy.
So here goes- Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell (Okay, that’s a true confession. Yes, Jane is my middle name- I never liked it and I don’t particularly care for Bonnie either. That’s part of the reason that I much prefer being called Rabbi Koppell rather than Rabbi Bonnie; but, I digress). Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell was born in Brooklyn, NY, the eldest of Sandy and Leo’s 3 children. She is survived by her 2 brothers, Michael and Philip. (Okay, obviously I’m projecting here but why not protect my younger brothers?) She described her childhood in Brooklyn as “idyllic,” a loving family, grandparents close by, a great Jewish community, lots of friends, safety and security to enjoy the culture that the city had to offer.
What’s important in life? For me- family is number one. Sitting with bereaved families preparing for a funeral service, I often ask, “What were the values that animated this person? What were their top priorities?’ The answer is, almost always, “family, first and foremost.” Would you give the same answer? If so, how are you expressing this value while you still have the opportunity to do so? A couple of weeks ago I had to be in NYC for a meeting. As you can imagine, this is a fairly busy time of year for rabbis, and I was concerned about being away. My 85 year old mom lives in NY, and this was also a great opportunity to spend time with her. I thought hard about taking an earlier flight home, and decided that it was more important to spend the time with my mother; I don’t have plans to see her again until January. What a great decision! We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon together, a day that, one friend noted, I will remember 20 years from now. I was inspired by someone who shared how his mother used to almost beg him, “Why do you never visit? Don’t you have half an hour to stop by?” Now that he is older and she is gone, he understands the depth of her pain, longing for a connection to her only son. How he wishes he could travel back in time and prioritize spending time with her! We can’t travel back in time, we can only move forward. If we are fortunate enough to be blessed with a loving family, how can we prioritize time with them in the year ahead?
My eulogy might continue like this- Bonnie was also blessed by many close friends. Many. It might seem impossible to have SO many genuinely good friends, but Bonnie really worked hard to maintain relationships. She was the catalyst who made sure that connections were strong, that the next date was scheduled. She was rewarded by a strong community. It’s true. I DO feel blessed to have so many people I enjoy being with and who love and support me. And it DOES take effort. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend. Close friendships have been shown to be an important factor in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Is there someone you love, someone you keep meaning to reach out to but just haven’t made the time? You know those friends who, time passes and yet when you get together, you have an immediate connection? NOW is the time. Is there someone you’ve been thinking you’d like to get to know better? Make that phone call and reach out. You may be richly rewarded as I was. A number of years ago, Sharona Silverman convened a remarkable group which she called, “Women in Transition.” Women of a certain age, gathering to share life’s lessons and life’s journey. When the group ended, I called one of the participants and invited her to meet for coffee. We met, and at the end of the hour she asked, “Why did you want to get together?” I replied, because I didn’t get enough! I took a risk, and gained a best friend, along with evidence that it is never too late to make new relationships. Family, friends, work is the third component that adds meaning to my life. I was blessed to serve in the military for 38 years, and touch so many lives. As a rabbi, my days are filled with a sense of purpose, providing an abundance of opportunities for constant learning and my own spiritual growth. Viktor Frankl noted that one who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. Being a rabbi has certainly given me a why to live. A good eulogy is honest. It speaks to the essence of a person, not just the public persona they wished to convey. And so my eulogy includes these words- She was aware of her many flaws- her impatience primary among them. She struggled with how to honor every human being, and knew that sometimes she could be defensive. On this Yom haDin this Day of Judgment, yes- I judge myself. But that judgment is not only to induce a sense of shame. It is to prod me- and each of us- towards cheshbon ha-nefesh, spiritual accounting. We hold ourselves accountable, and we renew our commitment to our vision of our highest selves.
Well- I’m not sure how this eulogy ends. I hope that it will end with a peaceful and painless death, at a ripe old age. I have made every provision to ensure that my end of life wishes are well-documented, and I will never cease encouraging you to do the same.
So what will be your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? Save the date for our Feb. 23d workshop on the theme of “The Next Chapter,” where we will share resources for creating legacy videos, ethical wills, end of life planning, and generally holding each other’s hands as we confront the prospect of our own inevitable demise.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen, in his book What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy, suggests the notion of “reverse engineering” your life, that is, starting with the end in mind and consciously living in such a way as to bring our vision to reality. He writes about the gift of choice and how we exercise that divine capacity each and every day. Do we choose the path of kindness? Of goodness? Of meaning? The path of lifelong learning and personal growth? Do we strive to see the holiness in each person we meet, and the potential for holiness in every moment, or are we too judgmental and just too distracted? “When we die,” he warns, “we won’t be judged against someone else’s life but against our own potential.” Rabbi Cohen says that, “When I wake up in the morning, I not only declare my belief in God but God’s belief in me.” Writing in “The Atlantic,” Arthur C. Brooks suggests a “reverse bucket list.” In an article ominously titled, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” he writes, “What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away and shape something out of. I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out things, obligations, and relationships until I can clearly see my refined self in its best form.” He quotes E. M. Forester- “Death destroys a man,” but, “the idea of Death saves him.” Brooks recommends a number of strategies as we focus our perspective on living lives of meaning. Surprisingly, he begins by suggesting that we explore our spiritual selves. As a rabbi, I have to love that. He also notes that happiness throughout our lives is “tied directly to the health and plentifulness of one’s relationships.” It strikes me that he did NOT say “the plentifulness of our bank accounts.”
If only we could believe in ourselves as much as God believes in us. If only we could live in awe of each day and its potential for goodness. If only we could reverse engineer our lives and live so that every decision we make move us towards that goal of how we want to be remembered.
On Rosh HaShanah we read, (p. 290)- “Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to use it well, counting each moment precious- a chance to apprehend some truth, to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to ease some suffering, to love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth. There is promise within each of us that only we can fulfill. Let us live our lives so that someday it will be true to say of us: the world is a little better, because, for just one moment, they lived in it.” What a legacy that would be! One of the things that touches me most in the Yom Kippur machzor are the words-“Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.” What does that mean? What does it mean to you? Are you read for a near-death experience in these next 24 hours? What will your eulogy say, what will your legacy be, and how do you want to be remembered?