Before We Die
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774 — September 5, 2013
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman — Or Chadash
“With every new silver hair sprouting from my scalp, I can’t help but think of the shortening arc ahead of me.” Steven Petrow is in his mid-50s. “For the first time I’m no longer looking up, over and beyond,” he writes. “Rather, my trajectory points downward at the approaching horizon. In this frame of mind, I recently found myself at DeathClock.com, the “Internet’s friendly” — if not scientific — “reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” After [he completed] the short questionnaire, the Death Clock’s algorithm quickly did the math, concluding: “Your personal day of death is Wednesday, April 23, 2031.”
Steven Petrow quickly calculated that it was a scant 18 years away — although the clock gave it to [him] “in seconds left to live.” At the time, it was 563,037,386 … and counting down.
His story continues.
“Old enough not to believe everything I read on the Web, I queried my doctor about my expected longevity. He quickly e-mailed back: “All things being equal, I believe your estimated survival time would be around 72 to 75. Good luck.”
“Good luck? I spent a few moments processing the possible meanings behind “good luck” (none of them particularly appealing), realizing my good doctor had pretty much corroborated the Death Clock’s calculation, then sat there feeling sorry for myself, imagining the hourglass emptying.
“Then, not allowing myself to wallow one grain of sand longer, I decided to quit my day job.”
Steven Petrow isn’t Jewish, but his behavior would have been lauded by our rabbinic sages.
Nearly 2000 years ago, in the Talmud, in Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Ancestors, Rabbi Eliezer was quoted as saying:
“Repent one day before your death. (Pirkei Avot 2:10)
In the days before Deathclock.com could offer such a calculation, he asked his disciples: Is it possible for a person to know on which day he will die?
Rabbi Eliezer continued: Since he cannot, he should continually engage in Teshuva, a turning of his ways; he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die. And so each day he might live with a heightened awareness of his actions and behavior. [TB Shabbat 153a – Translation JMF].
This Rosh Hashanah morning, we enter into our annual engagement with Teshuvah, a turning of our ways, an examining of our lives, a consideration of what new direction we wish to turn toward. Hopefully, with greater awareness of our actions. The words of Rabbi Eliezar encourage us that through Teshuva, we can make those much needed changes.
Teshuvah is often translated as repentence. In fact, our High Holy Day prayerbook — our Machzor – is called Sha’arey Teshuvah, Gates of Repentance. But Teshuvah really means turning, it is changing, it is looking at our lives as they are and deciding that now, right now, we are going to change our future – even if it means quitting our day jobs.
Last night I spoke about the importance of Now and making important changes now rather than waiting for some better time. Steve Petrow understood that when he quit his job to become a writer. He realized his half-billion seconds were ticking by and there were major changes he wanted to make in his life – now.
Most of us, though, need a bit more encouragement, a bit of prodding. And perhaps a bit of help. More on that a little later.
This morning we read and chanted from the Book of Genesis – with the wonderful and beautiful help of some of our Religious School students. The Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah morning is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. But perhaps more important than the near-sacrifice of Isaac, it is the back-story of Abraham preparing to take his son and the son his wife, Sarah, on a three day journey to prove his faith.
We know how it turns out: Isaac is not sacrificed, and Abraham returns to his home in Beer-Sheva, having secured blessings from God for his future generations.
But what we don’t know are the words Abraham and Sarah and even Isaac shared before that journey began. And ordinarily it might not matter so much, but in this instance it does. Why?
Because what happened next — just five verses later — and those five contain only a listing of a few births in Abraham’s family – just five verses later we read that Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah has died. And this shocking news begs the question: What – if anything — was said between Abraham and Isaac and Sarah before the two of them left?
Sarah – 127 years old. A robust 4-Billion seconds. A beloved wife and caring mother, gone.
Midrash is the creative writings of the Rabbis, used to fill in significant words or ideas they felt were missing in our text. The Rabbis of the past have created numerous Midrash to explain the story of Isaac, to justify his near sacrifice, to give details of the journey and the conversations Sarah and Abraham might have had about their son. But despite all this creativity, there is not one Midrash that gives us insight into the feelings of a woman who is at the end of her life. There are no words revealing what her final wishes might have been. There, the Torah and the Rabbis of old are silent.
And so, as we read the story in Genesis, we learn that decisions were made. A grave for her in Machpelah. None of her family present, only Abraham. Her eternal resting place was secured, and no one ever engaged Sarah to determine her wishes, no one ever involved her in the discussion. And no one but her husband to say a kind word about her.
What might she have wanted? Perhaps to return home to her ancestral land of Haran? What was the cause of her death, could it have been delayed? Her life prolonged? Or did she suffer in those final days? What might her family have done differently had they known her wishes?
These are but some of the questions our Midrash might ask and answer. They are the same questions we might ask of our own family members, as well.
Dr. Haider Javed Warraich is a resident in internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. When a patient of his approached him about his dying mother, unsure what her wishes might be about her course of treatment, and perhaps her final days, he asked Dr. Warraich: if it were your mother, doctor, what would you do?
Dr. Warraich thought for a moment before giving his reply: “My mother is the sort of person who spends two hours each day on the treadmill, even during vacations, so that she can eat to her heart’s content. Often described as a “fighter,” any additional moment she can spend with her children or future grandchildren would be worth the extra mile. My father, on the other hand, is someone who avoids getting his blood sugar level tested to evade medications and dreams of spending his last days in the quiet serenity of the village he grew up in. Thus my answer to the question would be very different, as it would be for anyone, depending on which parent you asked me about.
So he has come to believe that the right answer to the question, “If this were your mother, doctor…” is: “Tell me more about your mother.”
Thinking about our matriarch Sarah and what she might have wanted during her final days, can help us prepare for the conversations we should have with our loved ones on that same topic.
This is not easy. But this New Year is a time for making changes, even very difficult ones.
On Rosh Hashanah, on the Jewish New Year, we invoke the words of Avinu Malkeinu, expressing our hopes
– for a good life,
– for a life of blessing,
– a life filled with abundance,
– that our days are contented,
– that our deeds are righteous
– and our flaws forgiven.
And then we are asked to make a Cheshbon ha Nefesh, an inventory and inquiry of the soul. We often see this as a question intended to encourage us to reflect on our behavior during the past year that we might change whatever we can in order to make real our hopes and prayers.
I would suggest that this New Year our Cheshbon ha Nefesh, our inquiry into our souls help us discover the answers to the challenging questions of how we and our loved ones wish to live, and not just for today, but how we and they wish to live during our final hours of life.
We are all subject to the same end. We all need to talk about these matters, whether it is with our parents, our spouses, our children or our friends.
One friend of mine is an attorney who helped me create a will when I lived in Pennsylvania. He reminded me that I needed a new one. That was seven years ago. I have been guilty of avoiding this important matter. And so, this summer, as I began to think about it, I also began talking with my parents about their wishes. As my parents approach their 80s they too know that these are important conversations to have. It was not easy for me to broach the subject. What was amazing to me, however, was how eager they were to talk about it. The conversations are ongoing. But I want to share with you that Or Chadash is joining in a new effort to help all of us — myself included — get these conversations going strong. We are addressing this important topic not just in my sermon to you this morning, but at two programs this Fall.
On Sunday, September 29, Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Rosman, author of the book “Do You Know Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook,” will be with us as she tells us about the mother she lost to cancer at age sixty. There is a brief YouTube video that beautifully captures the essence of this story, and her book is available in our lobby.
Her frank depictions of her dying mother’s last weeks contrast sharply with the obvious absence of any profound conversation they might have had – not at home, not in the doctors’ offices and not even in the hospital. The personal challenges she confronted after the death of her mother to discover what she might have learned about her mom when she was still living serve as a clarion reminder that we need to have these talks today.
Ellen Goodman is the co-founder and director of The Conversation Project. The Conversation Project’s goal is to transform our culture of avoidance and silence when it comes to these discussions. Their workshops help people begin and continue these difficult conversations. For Ellen Goodman, these conversations are not for the hospital room; they are not even for the doctor’s office, but, as she says, they are conversations to be had at the kitchen table.
In the Fall we will be offering workshops using The Conversation Project Starter Kit, a series of programs which Jewish Family Services will be leading with me.
I know that these conversations are not easy. They require that we imagine a time when our loved ones are no longer with us.
They evoke the emotions of fear and anxiety – brought to the surface when we consider that illness or suffering might be in store for our family members. Each one of us will ultimately face that challenge. There is no escape from the limits of our being human. But we can shape the final days of our loved ones’ lives to be in accord with their wishes. We only need to ask them. I hope you will join us.
On this morning of the New Year, we intone the words of our tradition:
Avinu Malkeinu, asey imanu Tzeddaka v’chesed, v’hoshieinu; Avinu Malkeinu, may our deeds be deeds of righteousness, may we find comfort and compassion and may our days — even to the last – be filled with blessing.