Today I buried a man who had everything to live for. He was youthful and handsome with a beautiful young family. He stemmed from prosperity and had charisma and an electrifying personality.
He had been through a rough patch.
Had he lived to see his fortieth birthday – which he died just shy of – I would have shared with him what I learned from that milestone.
On the night that I turned 40 I stayed awake waiting for “it” to hit me like a freight train. The “it” was the promised wisdom from the words of the sages: At forty a man becomes wise.
I had thought myself smart but not wise and I knew the famous Jewish saying about the difference between the two: the smart man can extricate himself from a situation into which the wise man would never have gotten himself into in the first place.
I wanted to be wise. I wanted the great secret of life, the nugget of wisdom that was going to make it all better. The granule of knowledge passed on from the ancients that would make life simple, smooth, and effortless. I wanted the esoteric secret that render life seamless, bereft of challenge and struggle.
It did not come.
Not that night, not that year, and not the next year. I was sorely disappointed. I felt cheated. I told my wife that the wisdom did not arrive. That I still did not have the answers to life’s great questions. Life for me was still a struggle.
And then, at about age 44, it finally happened. It arrived. The wisdom I had always waited for, the secret that had long eluded me.
It was this.
There is no great wisdom, there is no great secret, that will ever make life’s struggle easier. The essence of wisdom is to know that we will never know. Life will always be challenging. It would always demand great effort.
For each and every one of us it would be a struggle to be happily married. It would be challenging to raise good and purposeful children. It would be a battle to maintain healthy self-esteem. It would be a struggle to reject corrosive values.
It would never get easier and the struggle was worth it.
The ancient Rabbis said that an olive releases its oil only when pressed, a grape produces wine when squeezed.
But my friend was too young to hear that message. The struggle too painful, the road too rough.
He too sought the means by which to alleviate the struggle but found it in radically different way. And there but for the grace of God….
The funeral of a young person renders many lessons but none greater than this: go home and hug your children. Tell them that amid our attempts to hammer and chisel them into perfection we do so knowing all the while that they are already perfect.
I called my daughter who’s studying at University. “Baby girl, if I found a genie in a bottle on a beach who would give me unlimited power to change anything in the world, I wouldn’t change a single thing about you.”
Our children so often hear the opposite message. That we love them but we want to modify things about them. That they’re great kids, but why did you get a “C”. That you’re worthy, but you can always be more deserving.
Once one of my children’s teachers called to complain that our son was speaking during class. He asked me to reprimand him. I called my son into my office. “Do you know why I want to speak to you?” My son responded, “Yes, because the teacher called to complain about me and said I wasn’t behaving in class.”
“That’s not right,” I said. “I called you into my office to tell you that I love you. That I don’t say it enough. That you’re the most amazing son and you give me endless pride. That no matter what you do I will always love you …. And by the way, don’t interrupt your teacher in class.”
Go home and tell your wives how beautiful they are. Make them feel valued and appreciated. Give them your attention and limitless affection. Go home and tell your husbands that they’re not just ATM’s. That they’re cherished and admired for more than what they provide.
Honor and visit your parents. Love and treasure your grandparents.
Let us never allow loss to be our teacher. Let us learn to love and laugh not because life is short but rather because it is infinitely precious.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.