Written in 2003 and
Published in the Or Shalom Jewish Community Newsletter
I was talking with a congregant whose father, an 84 year old psychiatrist, was coming to town to give a talk on physician responsibility and the death penalty. Say a government agency contacts a physician and asks “can you give this person on death row something to stop him from being insane so we can execute him?” What’s the physician’s responsibility? This was the topic being tackled by her octogenarian father about to enter retirement.
The congregant was excited. She would get to see her father and her son would get to see his grandfather “in action.” What is most important in our lives and in the lives of our family? How does the link between one generation and another speak to us and prepare us to face our own destiny?
Another congregant is facing a significant decline in her mother’s health. Her mother has lung cancer, and, unfortunately, the cancer is metastasizing to other major organs. How can she keep a sense of her mother alive in her son who is just two years old? What will he remember of Grandma? What can she do to keep her mother in her son’s life long after mom passes?
Another congregant is in cancer treatment; another is in treatment for hepatitis C; another for HIV. We’re a small congregation, which–like any small community–is a microcosm mirroring the macrocosm of life in the greater world.
What matters? Keeping our car in good shape? Keeping our figure? Making sure our cardiovascular system gets a regular workout? Is it more important to have a family vacation or to do what is self-fulfilling with our time off? Is it more important to make time for friends or to make time for work?
Another congregant told me a few months ago that his goal for the new year is to have more beers with dinner. “More beers?” I asked. He responded: “Did you ever hear a person on their deathbed say ‘I wish I had worked harder at my job?’ At the end, what we will probably wish for is that we had more fun.” Since that conversation, I am paying more attention to what I do with my free time.
Each of us needs to find a connection with ru’ach, spirit. If we touch the spiritual on the high holy days, that’s a good thing. It gives us something real in return for the dues we pay to the congregation. But a once a year dose is not enough. Even a spiritual experience once a quarter can’t sustain us through the trials and challenges of everyday life. Like the air we breathe, spirit is available to us at every moment and in every situation. When a person steps onto the spiritual path, the mundane things in life become more fulfilling. Working out, walking the dog, preparing a meal–each can be a spiritual experience if we open to the possibility that the world is a school, we’re signed up for a course and when we pass, life is over and we graduate.
According to the Torah, when Abraham, the first Hebrew and father of many peoples, was mourning the death of his wife Sarah, he went to his neighbors, the Hittites, and asked to purchase a cave from one of them to use as a family burial plot. During the negotiations, Abraham said “geyr v’toshav anochi.” “I am a stranger and a resident alien.” The rabbis asked, what does it mean that Abraham refers to himself as a stranger at the time of Sarah’s death? By then, he had lived in the land of Canaan for approximately 62 years. By what standards was he a stranger or resident alien? The Chassidim say Abraham saw himself as a visitor in this world, and expected to tread lightly upon the land, waiting for the spirit to take him home.
There is a bumper sticker that says “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” It’s true. In this time of suicide bombers and soldiers who are considered to perform heroic acts or atrocities, depending on how one views their actions, it’s important to keep our lives in perspective. What have you done today for tikkun olam (for helping to make the world a better place)? Did you support a cause you believe in? Did you brush your teeth? Can you be altruistic enough to travel across the country to give a paper supporting the rights of criminals on death row whose insanity keeps them alive? Will you make a difference in the lives of those around you today? Will you make a difference in your own life? Can you walk the dog, pick up the dog’s droppings as you go, and still feel wonder as you look at the trees and plants along your way? Can you feel the spirit within you and pay attention to what matters in the world around you all on the same day or in the same breath? Take time out for yourself and your loved ones. Pack the day with memories and good deeds. Take time to smell the flowers and watch the grass grow. Spirit matters and so do you.
 This isn’t a topic I want to debate here, but I do want to let you know that there is a movement afoot in the Bay Area to oppose the death penalty. If you would like to be on their e-mail list or to otherwise obtain information about their activities, let me know.