General Rabbinic spirituality

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

One reply on “The Fragility of Life”

We live in a world of uncertainty; none of us knows exactly what each day will bring. And while we might think we have all the time in the world, sadly, there is no guarantee that we’ll get to say what we want to those that we love. Rabbi Naomi Levy knows this tragic reality all too well. Her father was murdered in a robbery gone bad when she was just fifteen years old. In her book, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times, she relates the following experience: “When I was in high school, after my father’s death, my friend Susan invited me to sleep over at her house on a Friday night. We played piano, sang and gossiped for hours. Her mother was cooking the Sabbath dinner, and the sumptuous smell of roast chicken and onions filled the air. Then her father arrived, and we were all summoned to the dinner table. I had never met her father before. He was short and bald, and he reminded me of my father. We lit the Sabbath candles and stood up as Susan’s dad recited the blessing over the wine. I had forgotten what it felt like to have a father’s presence at the dinner table. At my home, the responsibility of presiding over all the Sabbath blessings had fallen on me. Afterward, Susan’s father hugged her, kissed her lovingly on top of her head, and said, ‘Good Shabbas to you, my little angel.’ I could see that Susan was embarrassed. In my presence she wanted to seem adult and mature, yet her father was treating her like a little girl. She rolled her eyes at me, the way teenagers do, as if to say, ‘I’m so above this childishness.’ But I would have given anything to have my father’s hug and kiss once more…” [3] We don’t know when the conversation we have will be the last one. Let the people in your life know that they matter. Tell the people that you love that you love them – every day.

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