Imagine standing on a vast plain (imagine Martis Valley), surrounded by everyone you know, everyone in your community, listening to the final words of your leader or teacher as you stand on the border of the land promised to you. You know there are giants in that land, and you are trying with all your might to believe that the One who has been guiding everyone for all your life really does have your back.
Your teacher/leader is telling you that you have a choice: you can choose life and good or death and evil. It’s your choice. Every decision you make: whether to smile or frown, whether to snap or laugh, whether to send an angry email or wait until you are calmer, whether to share or keep to yourself, whether to help out or stay home. It’s all up to you. Every single decision. And not only will your choices affect you, but your children after you.
That seems overwhelming, doesn’t it?
And yet, it makes sense. We know about the cycle of violence: how the actions of one generation affect subsequent ones.
But so often we don’t recognize that we have a choice, or indeed are even making one. How often do we say to ourselves, or our family, “I couldn’t help it.”
I recently heard a story of a man whose co-workers persuaded him to diet because they were concerned about his health. He was grateful for their concern and for days and days, brought healthy lunches to eat with them. They were horrified the day he arrived with a rich, beautiful chocolate cake. They asked him what happened, and his response was – he drove by his favorite bakery, and he thought, if he got parking space right out front, he would know it was a sign he should stop. And lo! There was a parking space RIGHT OUT front… the eighth time around the block…
The torah portion I will chant in a few minutes, Nitzavim, is about choice. God is setting before us life and good on one side and death and adversity on the other, and is asking us, pleading with us to choose life. Right before this, we are reminded that what we need to know—the teachings of the torah, are close to us: in our hearts and mouths.
One way of considering the choices we make is to think about our regrets. Australian hospice nurse Bonnie Ware collected the dying epiphanies of her patients into a collection called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. It turns out they are all about choosing life while we are still alive. Her experience seems to mirror Jewish teachings, so I thought we could look at them together.
The first one is: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Ware says it is the most common regret. People let their dreams slip away, live the lives they were expected to live, or live with the stress that they are handed. Rarely do people recognize that this is a choice.
On the other hand, how many of us have launched second careers because the one we started with was more to please our parents, or to make money but did not really benefit us? My uncle started his working life as an engineer, like his older brother, my father. When my father died unexpectedly at 40, his younger brother decided not to waste any more time doing something he didn’t like, and traded it in for being a litigator. He loved his work from then on.
How many of you have experienced that? How many of you wish that you could make that change, without worrying about your family’s security?
Among our students: how many of you do the things your friends do, rather than what sings to your heart of hearts?
Now. today, is the time to question that and follow your heart.
Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man instructs us to ask ourselves “What is the question for which my life is the answer?” Each of us has a purpose on this earth and in this life, and identifying that purpose and seeking to fulfill it is one way to avoid this regret.
You may know the story of Reb Zusya. This happy and pious man was worried as he approached death, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?” We need to make sure we are ourselves, our authentic selves. Part of our life task is to answer the question and then live it.
Teshuvah itself is part of the practice to help us be our authentic selves. Teacher and therapist Estelle Frankel wrote, “We all have within us a reference point for wholeness to which we can return – a spiritual essence encoded within our souls that enables us to remember who we really are. Teshuvah is not something one does once and for all; rather, it is a lifelong journey, a journey of spiritual homecoming.”
That lifelong journey of being yourself and coming back to yourself will leave you with no regrets. That is choosing life.
The second regret is I wish I didn’t work so hard.
Ms. Ware heard from every male patient she cared for. They had missed their children’s youth and family life. Women spoke of it, but less often.
At least one of us this year struggled through a hellish year at work, until she experienced a panic attack—you know, the ones that masquerade as a heart attack—and was sent to the emergency room. Not long after that, she quit her job and left it up to God or the universe, plus her extensive experience and her kind heart and her training, and is significantly happier and healthier in her new job. I wonder how long she would have stayed in the old job, had her body not screamed at her to leave. I wonder how many of us feel trapped and can’t see the choices we have. We need our health insurance. We need the salary to pay for our children’s activities. Might we find other alternatives or balance our lives and priorities differently.
We Jews have been proponents of family time since the first family. When I think Jew, the words mother, child, family, celebration all come to mind.
In terms of balancing your life, Jewish tradition points to the need for family, work, study, prayer, radical amazement and enjoyment. For example, Hillel taught “Do not say, “When I have [free] time, I will study,” lest you never have [free] time..” It’s not unlike what some of us need to do for exercise: make a date to do it.
And the Jerusalem Talmud quotes r. Chizkiyah, quoting R. Cohen in the name of Rav: A person will have to give an accounting for all that their eye beheld that they did not eat (Kiddushin 4:12), or as 19th Century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch phrased it: “Have you seen my Alps?” Or we might say, “Have you seen my Lake Tahoe?”
For Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish/Egyptian sage, the right path, God’s way, is that of the middle ground, the Golden Mean, moderation. We should “neither be easily angered nor be like one dead who does not feel” (MT. Deot 1:4). He taught, in his masterwork, the Mishneh Torah, that we should try to live a simple life.
He wrote: “Don’t desire except those things your body needs, without which you could not live. Do not become obsessed with your work. Remember its basic purpose is to secure the necessities of life” (1:4), not to become the center of it. To achieve this Golden Mean, Maimonides recommended practicing the measured response until it became ingrained, what we would call today forging a neural pathway.
On the other hand, we all want to feel like our jobs matter and contribute to the common good. Harvard professor Tal Ben Sha’ar, in his book Happier, offers a poignant example of how much our perception matters. Someone conducted a study of maintenance workers at a hospital, that asked about job satisfaction and monitored for stress and health. One group saw their work as nothing more than a “job—boring and meaningless.” Another group saw their work as adding to the well-being of patients and staff. The latter group believed they were aiding in the patients’ recovery and supporting the nursing staff to do their job. Which group do you think was happier, healthier and missed fewer days of work? I can hear echoes of Hamlet in this, who noted that “there is nothing either so good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet II:2).
Making conscious choices to live life fully and in balance is another way to choose life.
The third regret is I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Is there a person in this room who gets this one right all the time? (Well, actually, I do know a few of you never hesitate to express your feelings.) I was the rabbi for a woman who was dying of cancer, and knew it. She was trying to tie up all her loose ends. I grew to love her in the six months I sat beside her. She was straightforward most of the time. But her oldest friend, who had gone on Jewish teen retreats with her, been maid of honor at her wedding and vice versa, and she had had a falling out, and she couldn’t quite get over that hurt. It had been a big falling out, years before, but now she was at her last moments. The woman’s son, daughter, sister and I all tried to bring her to some peace here, and failed, and we could see the sadness in her ex-friend’s face when she appeared at the funeral, with the pain not resolved.
How many of you haven’t told the people you love how much they mean to you on a regular basis? How many of you bury your feelings because someone taught you boys don’t cry, or you should stifle yourself? Don’t believe them!
Too many of us silence ourselves in order to “keep the peace”—only to have it backfire in the long run. This afternoon we will be reading from the torah portion Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, which will tell us not to hate our kin in our hearts, we shall surely rebuke our neighbor and we shall love our neighbor as ourselves. These two verses tell us that we have to speak out when we see someone close to us doing something wrong—but that we must do it from a place of love, not hatred.
If you turn to the familiar verse of the Shema – v’ahavta et YHWH elohecha, b’col l’vavcha, u’vkol nafshecha u’v’kol meodecha – you shall love the Ground of Being with all your heart, all your soul and all your everything (or might)… we see that we are supposed to bring everything, our whole being, to the table in our relationships. If this is how we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine energy, then how much more so with each other?
The fourth regret is I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
One of my favorite teachings in the Torah (if you’ve ever been to a wedding I’ve officiated, you may remember it) is that when God was busy creating the world, we recall that everything was good. Sun, moon, earth, sky, water, dry land, animals, all good. The first thing that was not good? For a person to be alone. This is how the first human got a partner, an ezer k’negdo, And our old friends are the ones who know us the best, who knew us when… who will be there when we might be alone, after widowhood or divorce. We need each other.
In the earliest layer of the Talmud in Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Ancestors, we are told – Acquire for yourself a friend. Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura (a 15th century Italian rabbi) explains that the sages used the word Acquire, rather than, say, find, because friends are worth more than money.
Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi (12th Century Spanish rabbi) taught that “one needs a good friend for several purposes: one benefit is that of receiving sound advice. When one has a good friend, one is able to take counsel with them and seek assistance in all areas. A friend also serves as a confidant.” How often do we need that?
Rabbeinu Yonah’s comments 900 years ago closely align with the Mayo Clinic’s findings that “[f]riends prevent loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too. Friends can also: Increase your sense of belonging and purpose; boost your happiness; reduce stress; improve your self-worth; help you cope with traumas.”
We live longer when we are engaged with community, involvement in your synagogue, bowling leagues, bridge and mah jongg, community activities, but also having friends and family. Close community has been one of the less well kept secrets of Jewish survival over the millennia. Without the support of communities throughout the diaspora and without the support of Jews taking us in when we were strangers in town, we might easily have disappeared.
Come around and visit, participate, meet some wonderful folks, and live longer, happier and healthier.
And the final regret, I wish that I had let myself be happier. Ms. Ware noted that, to her, this was a “surprisingly common” regret, and that many people did not realize until the end of their life that happiness is a choice.
That, my dear ones, is what the High Holy Days are about: recognizing that we have choice, that every decision we make is our own decision and that we can choose old patterns and habits or we can try something different. Let us remember that we are making choices, either consciously or unconsciously at almost every moment. The awesome power of Yom Kippur is to recognize this and bring the unconscious into our conscious, to acknowledge our choices, indeed to revel in the opportunity to have choice, the radical human freedom.
We can choose life. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness. Shabbat shalom. Gmar chatimah tovah.
 Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy, p. 129.
 Tal Ben-Shaar, Happier, p. 106.
 Mayo Clinic, Adult Health: Friendships http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/friendships/MH00125. Accessed 8/28/13.