The daily morning prayers in the siddur asks the question “ma chayenu”… what is our life? Most of us read the passage but don’t stop to reflect upon the series of questions.
What are we? What is our life? What is our strength? What is our purpose?
It tells us, like Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) that all is vanity. But it goes on to remind us that we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that we are bound to Hashem by a covenant, that each one of us is important and has a mission to fulfill in our lifetime.
I am reminded how fleeting life is, how transient we are, how many tragedies we have witnessed. Three incidents, in particular, are embedded in my memory.
A young father was brushing his teeth on a Shabbat morning, in preparation to dress and go to shul to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of his only son. And suddenly, with no warning, the man slumped down to the floor….dead.
My oldest and dearest friend in Israel and I were dancing together at the wedding of his son seven years ago. He was rejoicing that he could lead his beloved son to the chuppah. I had not seen him glow with such radiant happiness in years. Ten days later, the teachers of the school in which he had been Principal made a retirement party in his honor. He arrived with his wife and greeted all the assembled friends and colleagues. In a matter of moments he felt ill and asked to be taken to hospital. A few hours later he was dead. Cerebral hemorrhage. No warning. I recited a eulogy at his burial in the local cemetery.
The healthy fifty-six year old son-in-law of our cherished friends in Rishon Lezion went grocery shopping at the supermarket. He carried his groceries to his car and suddenly felt chest pains. The supermarket personnel called for an ambulance. He was taken to Assaf Harofeh hospital with a massive heart attack. In coma for three weeks, on a respirator to breathe and on a machine to artificially pump his heart.
A man goes shopping and has a meeting with death.
Ma chayenu? What is our life? We chase after riches and prestige and to what avail?
It is like chasing after the wind which eludes us and which we cannot grasp nor conquer.
The first thing a Jew says upon arising each morning is “Modeh ani…” I thank you, Almighty God, living King, who has restored my soul unto my body…… We thank God for a new day, a rebirth, and we resolve to fill that day with meaning and faith.
At night, as we retire and lay our head upon a pillow, we recite the Shema prayer, the central credo of our ancient faith, and we thank God for having given us a beautiful day and we pray for many more days (years). Too many of us take our lives and the lives of our dear ones for granted. Life is only lent to us. At funerals we recite “Hashem natan, Hashem lakach, yehi shem Hashem mevorach”…God has given, and God has taken that which He has given, praised and blessed be the name of our God. Words first uttered by a non-Jew in the biblical Book of Job. We acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands and we bless Him.
Life must never be taken for granted. We must be thankful for eyes that see, for ears that hear, for hands which embrace, for feet which carry us to our destination, for a heart that beats.
We need to remind our loved ones frequently that they are loved. One day, we will be unable to speak those words. Life fleets by before our eyes. Once we were young and now we are old. Ma chayenu? What is our life? What purpose has our being on this earth achieved? How can we enhance that purpose, that goal, that opportunity to live life as a Jew should live it…. with hesed, emunah and rachmanut…. righteousness, faith and mercy?
For me, it is by remembering the roots from which we grew… sons and daughters of patriarchs and matriarchs, of priests and prophets, of kings and judges, of rabbis and teachers. And by understanding that it is our obligation and responsibility to transmit it to the generations who will follow us. How will they answer the question “ma chayenu”… what is our life?