A very close friend of mine emailed me the other day to let me know that for his birthday he and his wife had just run – not hiked or strolled – the twenty two miles between the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon in about ten and a half hours. Under any circumstances this is an incredible accomplishment that only select athletes like my friend could fulfill. Even more incredible is the fact that my friend suffers from Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes, a virulent disease with which he struggles every day. I am actually not surprised that my friend did this. Diabetes is not the only serious challenge to his life and happiness that he has faced over the years, yet he responds to these challenges with grace, hope and determination that inspire me constantly. His athletic endeavors are one palpable example of his adamant refusal to succumb to despair or to illness as long as he has the power to resist them.
My friend started out his email with his usual humble nonchalance, “I had it on my bucket list to run across the Grand Canyon,” then proceeded to tell me a bit about the experience. This made me pause briefly between the myriad details of my busy day to think about my own poorly developed bucket list, and whether I even have one. Distraction and a very fuzzy sense of what a bucket list actually is diverted me pretty quickly from that meditation. I moved on to the next item of my overwrought daily agenda after congratulating him, and I sadly forgot to mention his good news to anyone. By coincidence, a few days later as we ate Shabbat lunch, my wife mentioned that she had been bothered of late by other people’s discussions about their bucket lists that they were making. Why, she asked, do so many people’s bucket lists seem to include their desired goals for themselves, with so little mention of the things they would like to do for others or for the world at large? Her comment was completely unrelated to our friend’s genuinely grand Grand Canyon achievement. Nonetheless, it revived my curiosity about bucket lists and what they could or should be, at least in part. Much to my etymological delight, my daughter then explained that the phrase refers to what we would like to do in life before we “kick the bucket,” that is, before we die. My later research revealed that it was first used as the title of a sappy, 2007 movie about two terminally ill men from disparate backgrounds who learn life wisdom as they run around the world doing everything on their bucket lists.
A bucket list does not have to contain improbable goals or fantasies such as running through the Grand Canyon, but it can, and many people’s lists often do. Most of us will not be fortunate enough to do everything we wish before death, yet within reason we should certainly try to do some of them. Inspired by my friend and following my wife’s lead, I suggest that a top priority item for everyone’s bucket list should be to become the bucket. In its humble, unassuming way, a bucket performs three critical functions: it gathers, it carries and it holds. The presence of a bucket when you need it can be a tremendous blessing. A bucket is a wonderful metaphor for a life of hesed, consistent human kindness, as expressed through gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness. What else do kind people do other than gather, carry and hold other people who are in the greatest need of such blessings?
Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, often describes Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, in these bucket-like terms. When the Torah introduces him to us at the beginning of Genesis, chapter 12, God tells him to leave behind everything and everyone he knows in order to follow God on a great life journey. In the first three verses of that chapter, variations of the word brakhah, blessing, are used five times, thus emphasizing God’s “bucket list” goal for Abraham: “He-yeh brakhah,” to be a blessing. Kabbalah explains what that blessing was and is. Abraham was not merely a flesh-and-blood personality but the earthly embodiment of the divine quality of hesed, God’s kindness that blessedly permeates the universe. This divine quality of kindness is an essential building block without which the universe will cease to exist. Abraham, as it were, was the “bucket” gathering, carrying and holding that kindness in the world for God. Though the actual Abraham has long since died, his presence representing God’s kindness in the world endures. As Abraham’s descendants, we have the capacity and the obligation to imitate him.
My friend imitates Abraham every time he educates and advocates for others who suffer from Diabetes. You and I also imitate Abraham when we perform even the smallest, seemingly insignificant act of compassion for another person. Abraham was a like a “bucket filled with the blessing of divine kindness.” Being this kind of a bucket is hopefully an item that we will be able to cross off our own bucket lists daily until the day we die.