A new lease on life

A man, whom I’d never met before, approached me a couple years ago in shul, a few days before Yom Kippur. He asked me if he could tell me something. Intrigued, I said, “of course.”

“On the first night of Rosh Hashana, after a moment’s quiet pause, the chazzan intoned the words of “Barechu” at the beginning of the service, and I burst into tears… I had no words with which to thank the Master of the Universe for granting me another year of life to merit to hear the Barechu of yet another Rosh Hashana.”

If you would have seen the youthful purity in this man’s late-middle-aged eyes as he said this, you would have gotten the chills as I did. On Rosh Hashana, as we were asking to be “Remembered for Life,” this man was feeling as alive as ever. In the awareness that he could have died during the course of that year, rushed in the sublime consciousness of life’s preciousness that is the stuff of life itself.

There is a great lie in the world. That “you don’t know what you have until you lose it.”

If we buy into this, we are doomed. It implies that if we do have blessing in our lives — health, wealth, a happy marriage, kids — we cannot possibly appreciate them unless we suffer illness, poverty and loss.

(Pardon my religiousism, but) G-d forbid! What a tragic vision of life!

The correct rendition of this thought is: we cannot appreciate what we have unless we understand that we could lose it.

If we think that being healthy is a given, then we won’t notice that we currently feel no pain or discomfort.

If we can’t imagine losing our job, it’s impossible to feel fortunate for having one.

If we don’t realize how many families can’t spend the holiday together because of infighting amongst siblings or in-laws or whatnot, we will not be able to enjoy the blessing that is to celebrate together at our Rosh Hashana table.

Things which are static are dead. This is why people need to jump out of planes at 13,000 feet to feel alive. For some, it takes a near-death experience to feel like they have a “new lease on life.” When we are made acutely aware by our experiences how fragile life is — that it could be lost — this invisible, amazing thing called Chayim “Life” comes alive and crackles and shines with energy inside of us…

…Until of course it dies down with the monotony of habit. And goes back to its still, silent default state.

Staying truly alive requires constant effort of appreciation. If we are passive, and take life as a given, we slip back into unfeelingness. But proactively, using the gift of our minds to continually perceive what a gift it is to be alive, we resuscitate the awareness that brings life back to life.

It’s been five years to the day, since my friend lost his wife Bracha Elisheva. She was a person, even before she got sick, who was characterized by her love of life. The week before she tragically passed away, after services on the first night of Rosh Hashana, while she was very very ill, she was giving long, personalized blessings to the students of my yeshiva. There was a line of people out the door and around the building waiting to receive their bracha from her. It was chilling to see someone so close to her own death drawing forth such a vibrant life-force to give people hope for a year of blessing and good tidings.

Not long before that, Rebbitzen Tzipporah Heller, one of her teachers, during one of her visits to see her in the hospital said the following to her — a message that I believe cuts to the core of what will bring us to back life this Yom Kippur and throughout this year:

All of us are hanging from a thread, Elisheva. The only difference between you and us, is that you know it.

Life is a gift that can be lost. This is not a morbid thought. It is the thought that brings us back to life. We are so used to thinking about this time in the Jewish calendar as a somber, solemn time, yet the Talmud says that we are meant to emerge from Yom Kippur into the most joyous days of year. Over the course of 12 months, it’s only natural to slip into the slumber of habit. Last week, the wordless voice of the shofar woke us up to that pure, wordless voice inside of us that wants us to return to be the people we know we can be. When we tune into this inner clarity, we are reminded of what life is really about, and naturally cling to it for dear life. We see clearly the important things in life that get lost in the shuffle over time amongst the less important things in life. Yom Kippur is about clinging on to that stuff of life as if our life depends on it — because it does. We will only live this one life we’ve been given to its fullest to the degree to which we understand that it’s been given and is continually given to us as a gift.

God doesn’t judge us because He’s out to get us. He gave us life in the first place because He wants more than anything for us to live a life of Life — a life glowing with the light of Life’s preciousness — every moment in every day an opportunity beyond words — the ultimate gift. Tomorrow, we will stand together and ask together for that life filled with Life, and in so doing, in our recognition that life is not a given, we will be given yet another year of life.

A New Lease on Life (1)

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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