It’s true. A few weeks ago, my 95-year old mother passed her driving test. While an uncommon enough occurrence to be noteworthy in its own right, it’s doubtful the event would be deserving of mention on the pages of one of Israel’s leading online news feeds – unless it also held meaning for those beyond that small circle of friends who depend upon her to be ferried from place to place. Which it does, so here it is.
That meaning showed up for me unexpectedly in the High Holiday liturgy. More precisely, in those passages when we plead to be inscribed in the book of life and ask “Who shall live and who shall die? Who at a ripe old age and who before their time?”
Note, the plea is in the plural and the query is not only about the supplicant. It’s not “will I live?” but “who will live?” As with so much of the service, these lines are at least as much about the “other” as they are about the “me.” It’s understandable that as we pray we become preoccupied with our own fate. But if we get stuck there, we’re missing out on something big.
Which brings me back to being blessed with my mother, about whom one of her granddaughters wrote years ago already, “I’m so lucky you’re still alive at this stage of your life.” Cute coming from a six-year old; wouldn’t it be even more special coming from an adult? Which for me is what we should be thinking about when coming face to face with our mortality during this holiday season.
How often do we let someone know we’re glad they’re alive? Do we frequently enough feel – never mind express – appreciation for the people in our lives? Have we said to them, and done with them the things that will ensure when we or they are no longer around that there will be no regrets?
This has been a rough year. It began when I was invited to speak at what used to be called an old-age home and was taken aback to see that those assembled somehow looked just like the people I hang out with. Perhaps it was then that it dawned on me that I wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was my wife, nor our relatives and friends. During the past 12 months, too many of them have received the answer we all dread to the question they posed last Yom Kippur. Others have been struck with life-threatening diseases or life-debilitating conditions. How are we to remain life-affirming in the face of such transience?
Back to mom. Three chapters in her life that contain High Holiday lessons for us all.
One. Back in 1983, nearing the age of 60, she and my father made aliyah and settled on a kibbutz, he as a volunteer dentist and she caring for the babies in the communal nursery. That’s not something a lot of folks from the fleshpots of Long Island are going to do at any age, but theirs was a move that should lead us all to ask what it is that we are doing to shape Israel as the sort of nation we would like it to become, rather than bemoaning the deficiencies it displays.
Two. Even after moving here, my parents continued to divide their time between Israel and the United States. They would arrive in Jerusalem only after Pesach and return to New York just before Rosh Hashanah. There’s no place like home for the holidays, and mom has remained steadfastly adamant about providing that home stateside in order to keep the family there together and tradition intact. What is it that each of us is doing to counter the worrying trends of assimilation and the erosion of both communal and familial Jewish life?
Three. Long before the thought of moving to Israel ever flickered across her mind, mom was a dedicated Hadassah lady, president of her region and mentor to the next generation of leadership. She was also an avid Girl Scout leader. These twin volunteer roles she played meant that I was exposed to a great deal of femininity during my formative years. More to the point, they also meant that I was exposed continually to the example of lives lived meaningfully, perhaps the greatest challenge of all that Yom Kippur poses for us with its mandated soul-searching.
The lesson of all this? In asking about dying, we should be thinking about living – and about the lives of those we have been blessed with the opportunity to share time and space with. Yizkor is about remembering – and cherishing the memories of – those who are no longer with us. During the rest of the day, we should be remembering those who are still here, and cherishing the moments yet to be spent with them. In asking out loud who shall live, our thoughts are best focused on how we are living.
Not everyone is blessed with parents of such longevity that they have multiple opportunities to get things right. And none of us have any time to waste. So now is a good time to start practicing. So many tests to contend with…
By the way, when mom passed hers, the license was renewed for a full ten years. Never one to waste things, I trust she will hang around and let it expire before she does.
May you, too, be sealed in the book of life. Like mom.