The scariest moment that I ever spent in a movie theater was when I realized that the main character in The Sixth Sense had been dead for most of the movie. What scared me was not the movie itself, but the idea that dead people don’t know that they’re dead. I was terrified because I knew, from my experiences with so many people, that I talk to dead people all the time. I’m not scared of those of us who have passed on. They are part of a peace and a completeness of which we who are so called “living” only have glimpses.
Instead I’m scared for people who think that they’re living, who are walking around in flesh and blood, but who are dead, more dead than those who have passed on could possibly be.
Do you remember the story of Jacob and Esau? Their father was Isaac. The story goes like this: Isaac is on his deathbed. He is anxious to bless his son Esau before he dies. But Jacob disguises himself and receives the blessing instead. That’s the story that many people know. But what people don’t know is that Isaac did not die for another eighty years. I’ll say it again: Isaac was dying for eighty years. The picture I have is of a man who was consumed with himself and his frailties, so absorbed in himself that he was always dying; he did not live his life.
James Joyce wrote a devastating story called “The Dead.” It’s about people who are dead inside. You see all of the characters at a party, apparently having a good time. But by the end of the story, you realize that they are all shades, ghosts. A husband learns that his wife has always mourned a flame from her youth and that she has never loved him in this way. Part of her had died with that young man. The main character sees a continuum between those who are dead while living and those who are in the ground.
Do you remember Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who was jilted at the altar and never got over it? In a sense, many of us are Miss Haversham, sitting in the dark, sitting in our wedding dresses waiting for our original great expectations to be fulfilled. We cannot get past the disappointments of our lives and we just stop living.
I had an aunt who never lived so that she could leave it all behind. She never bought herself a dress. She never went out for dinner. She never spent a dime. She was going to save her money and leave it to her family. She didn’t marry a man who was her companion in her later years because she did not want him to get her money. All that she ever talked about was her money and where it would go when she died. “Besides,” she would say, “I’m in my 60’s and he’s in his 70’s. He’ll never get my money.” But guess what? After she had lived with him for ten years, she died first. He got all her money because their relationship was called a common-law marriage. She was so smart that she outsmarted herself. But her biggest mistake was thinking that her life was over. She should have been living while she was alive.
I asked permission from the person involved to tell this story. A woman calls me. She says it’s not urgent, but could I drop by her house sometime? We make an appointment for a couple of days later. When I ring the bell, I hear her shout, “The door’s open, Rabbi.” I go in, and she’s sitting, in her bathrobe, at the kitchen table. What she wants to tell me is this: “Rabbi, my life’s over.” We talk about it. Her husband and she don’t have much of a relationship. Her kids are grown and out of the house. She talks to them often, every day, but doesn’t see them much. It’s true that she’s perfectly healthy, but she says that she doesn’t know what life is about. We talk about all of the things she could do with her time. I stand on my head, coming up with all sorts of ideas about friends and volunteer work and hobbies and courses, but I know that she’s not going to follow any of my advice. Now that’s bad enough, but what bothers me more is when she starts talking about the earlier stages of her life. When her kids were little, she couldn’t wait for them to grow up. She can’t remember anything good about her childhood, even though she admits that she was very loved by everyone in her family. Whatever stage of life she was in, she was always waiting for the next one. She was never happy about where she was in life. My sixth sense told me that she was a dead person.
There is a story about a man who had passed away but went to G-d with the strong complaint that he had been taken prematurely. He wanted to return to life. G-d finally agreed to let him have a day, but it had to be a day of his life as it had been lived. He chose a day when he was fifteen years old. He found himself in his boyhood room, and his heart beat with joy, for he saw the walls of his home, and he knew he’d see his parents again. So he ran to the kitchen, but was disappointed to see his mother so busy that she did not even lift her eyes from her work; she greeted him perfunctorily and kept working. His father was entirely oblivious because of some urgent things on his mind.
Suddenly, the man realized that the living can be half-dead, and that we are fully alive only in those moments when we are conscious of our treasures.
One of the things I try to tell people is to let go of the things that torment them. I was speaking to a group, and a man followed me out of the hall. He said, “Rabbi, I don’t want to let go of my hatred. I don’t want to forgive or forget. My anger is all I’ve got.” I looked into his eyes and listened to his story. He had a right to be angry. But my sixth sense told me that he was dead.
All of this is un-Jewish. Do you know how we got started as a people? When the Israelites left Egypt, we left a land consumed by death.
Think about the pyramids. Think about all the lives that went into the building of those tombs for the dead. The Egyptians lived for death. We Israelites, coming out of that place, had the opposite view: We lived for life.
We were in Egypt for hundreds of years, but they didn’t persuade us to focus on death. Our sixth sense told us that the Egyptians were all dead.
“Were there no graves in Egypt that you should have brought us out here in the wilderness to die?” the Israelites asked Moses with bitter sarcasm. This sarcastic remark reflects the Egyptian preoccupation with death. They were dead while they were still alive.
The Exodus from Egypt was an Exodus from a land that focused on death. Judaism is a way of life. Judaism believes in life.
Since I’m not only Jewish but American, let me tell you an example of living that I find in America’s pastime.
As I get older, I appreciate baseball more every year. My favorite aspect of baseball is a two-out rally. The team has two outs, just one out left, no one on base, and yet, all of a sudden, they start getting on base and hitting and scoring runs. At any moment, somebody can get out to end the inning, but the rally continues, despite the precariousness of the situation. Think about the attitude that produces two out rallies. You don’t stop playing until there are three outs and not one second before. You focus on every pitch, you run out every grounder.
Now think about the usual attitude. “Oh well, we have two outs. Nothing’s going to happen this inning. Let’s get ready to leave the dugout and go out into the field.” If that’s the attitude, why not just make it two outs instead of three? If you’re going to give up after two outs, why even play the third out? If you’re going to say that we’re too far behind in the ninth inning to win, why even play the ninth inning?
There are people who refuse to play out the game. The woman in “The Dead” stopped living when her young flame did. Miss Haversham stopped playing in the third inning. My aunt stopped playing in the sixth inning and had never bought a uniform because it cost money. My friend the woman in the bathrobe had never really played at all.
But there are people who know how to play this game, and who know all about two-out rallies.
A woman is diagnosed with a terrible, fatal cancer. She is given a life sentence of a few months. Her daughter, a professional, career woman, takes a leave of absence from her firm to be with her mother. They go to all the places her mother had always wanted to go. They go to casinos and shows and beaches. They live out every day, crying together, laughing together, until the mother passes away at her daughter’s house.
That’s the worst possible situation, and the most difficult example of a stage of life in which to find happiness and meaning. And yet it was an incredibly meaningful, loving, important stage in both of their lives. It was an incredible two-out rally.
My point about the stages of life is to make each stage count, to look on each stage for its own positive worth.
Sometimes, people use the last stage of life to repent, to reach out to those from whom they have become estranged, not because the other people deserve it but because they themselves deserve to be whole again. It can be a time to fill in some of the holes, the empty spots in our guts.
There is a woman sitting here tonight, a very special human being, named Rose Howard; she’s the mother of our friend Linda Lippman. At Linda’s suggestion, Rose came to me with a hole that she’d always had in her gut. It seems that when she was ten years old, seventy-five years ago, she was in a Girl Scouts troop, and all of the girls were asked to bring fifty cents. She lost the money, and felt so terrible that she never went back to the Girl Scouts. Being an incredibly good person, this was the only debt, the only unfulfilled obligation that she had in her life. Considering that I have debts from last week, I was very struck by the fact that this was her only debt. But after I recovered from her goodness, I suggested to her that she go pay the Girl Scouts fifty dollars for the fifty cents that she felt that she owed them. She was very happy with this suggestion, and went to the Girl Scouts, told them the story, and offered them 100 dollars. They responded beautifully. Instead of just taking her money, they decided to make her a Girl Scout. And so on August 30th, at the Goodwin-Levine Center at the Jewish Home where she volunteers, Rose Howard became an Honorary Girl Scout. The event was on the front page of the Register and on Channels 3 and 8. She’ll be on Rosie O’Donnell and she’s been called by Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey. I was asked to speak when she became a Girl Scout, but I said no because it was about her. But if I would have said something, I would have said that what Rose did should be a lesson for all of us. We have holes in our guts. It almost doesn’t matter what they are or who’s right or wrong. The trick is to fill the holes.
Rose Howard is living a two-out rally. She filled the hole.
Since I told you a story about Linda Lippman’s mother, and I am an equal opportunity Lippman Rabbi, let me tell you a story about Ira Lippman’s grandmother. She comes into Ellis Island at the age of eighty. The immigration clerk asks her: “Why did you make this terrible voyage at the age of eighty?” Her response: “If I’m going to die, I can as easily die in America as I could have in Russia.” But the punch line is great. She lived until she was 108. Just think: She could have sat in Russia thinking that her life was over. And maybe it would have been.
Instead, she lived in America for twenty-eight years. It was certainly worth the trip.
That was a two-out rally.
Every stage must be lived for what it is. I’m not only talking about the last stage of life, but every stage.
Teenagers keep asking me, “When do I do something for now?” They talk about a life that is so directed toward the future, that is, going to college, that what they are doing at the moment is de-valued. Teachers and parents are always trying to motivate the students by saying, “You need to know this for your SATs” or “You have to get through Algebra I so that you can get to Algebra II.” But what, the kids ask, is important about what they are doing right now? What can give them satisfaction about the subject at hand? And then teachers turn around and comment, “All these kids worry about is their grades. No one likes to learn for the sake of learning.” They’re right: It is the rare child, in the usual system of education today, who does treasure what he or she is learning right now. When I ask kids, “What’s your favorite subject?” the answer is usually the subject that comes most easily to them, not something that they like for its own sake.
I mention this because there is no sense of loving the school years for what they are, instead of what they are leading to. And that is a terrible mistake. Every stage must be lived to the fullest for what it is. That is how we stay alive.
The teenagers are right but they are even more right than they can know. There’s something constructive and wonderful and fun about planning for the future. We must all do future planning in every aspect of our lives. But the present must not be sacrificed to the future. The present must not be sacrificed to the future. You must seek fulfillment and happiness now, not live miserably now in hopes of a happy future.
You’re a young parent who has made a commitment to raise your baby at home for the first few years. There are days when you get low and depressed. You start looking forward to going back to work. That’s fine, but don’t forget that this is a wonderful time, a time of being needed, a time of bonding. And don’t look back on this time as a blur of sleepless nights. Don’t de-value a time of great love, responsibility and giving.
The concept of stages in life says that you do not look back at an earlier stage and de-value it. Do not look back and say, “That was horrible.” Because the truth is usually that it wasn’t all horrible and that you would do better, when you think about your life, to at least be balanced in your memories.
Let’s say that you were married and divorced. How will you look on the years of marriage? After all, there were reasons you got married. There were good things about the person you married and the relationship that you had. Why is it necessary to cast all of those times in a bad light? That there was a divorce is hard enough. Why make it harder by saying that it was all rotten?
Children of marriages that end in divorce want to think that they were born out of happiness and love. They want to be able to remember good things about their childhoods.
The Bible speaks of a person’s life “which he had lived.” Only that part of life counts that can be remembered with satisfaction. Only those days are meaningful when we know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Don’t treasure any one age over the others.
Do you remember the Bruce Springsteen song “Glory Days?” It’s a song about valuing one time of your life at the expense of the others.
Those were the glory days, as opposed to the boring days we live now. “Those were the days my friend we thought they’d never end.” Don’t value one stage more than the others.
The Psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”
We walk the path of life only once. We are children once. We are thirteen at our Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies once. We are 21 once. We are 30 and 40 and 50 once.
The way to live is to cultivate your sixth sense, your sense of who is alive and who is dead.
So here’s Moses, at the end of his life. He says to his people: “Behold, you have before you life and death. Choose life.”
I used to think that was a trite statement. Who wouldn’t choose life over death?
But then, as I learned more about people and life, I realized that it was the most profound of statements.
I see so many people pumping cancer into their lungs. Don’t enough of us get sick without increasing the risks? Why do we choose death?
I have seen so many people numb their problems with alcohol or drugs. Why do we choose death?
And then I see people heroically fighting disease, and my sixth sense tells me that they’re going to make it because they choose life.
Do you know what it means to choose life? It means to take a chance, to do what you really want to do, to see life as an adventure.
It means to stop being so scared of death that you never live.
If you’ve been married and divorced, don’t be so scared of another divorce that you don’t get married again.
If you’ve lost your spouse, don’t be so scared of another grief that you don’t get married again.
Don’t be like the woman in Joyce’s story, who never got over a lost flame and never gave herself to anyone else.
Don’t be like Miss Haversham who never got over her dissappointments.
If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, you better do it, not just because there’ll never be a perfect time and not just because time is running out, but because you need to do it in order to be alive, really alive.
You’re thinking about going to Israel but you’re worried about money, or the trip over the ocean? Don’t be so afraid of life that you never live it. There are certain things that you should do at least once in your life. Going to Israel is one of them. On a simple level of choosing life, of really being alive, you must do these things.
When Joe Lieberman was running against Lowell Weicker for the Senate, I asked him why he would leave a secure, meaningful job for such a risky battle. He gave me one of the greatest choose life answers I’ve ever heard. He said, “I am a very happy man. I have a great job that I love and a wonderful marriage and family. So Hadassah and I talked about it and decided that since we’re so happy with everything, we’re going to run for the Senate and have another baby.” Just think how different things would be if he hadn’t taken those risks.
Use your sixth sense to decide if you are walking around dead. And if you are, choose life.
The second blessing of the Amidah, the Silent Devotion states: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech HaOlam Mechayay Hameytim. Blessed art Thou Ruler of the Universe Who keeps the dead alive. We thank G-d for preserving the souls of our loved ones. But tonight, I have a different interpretation of this essential blessing: Master of the Universe: Teach all of us who are dead while alive to live again. In the coming year, may we find the courage to fight, to try, to experiment, to experience.
Dear G-d, write us in the Book of Life for the next year, not just so that we can survive but so we can truly live.
Kol Nidre 5761