October 6, 2005
A Critical Question
One of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves, particularly as we approach Yom Kippur, is: How will we be remembered?
An incident in the life of Alfred Nobel illustrates how he was unexpectedly forced to face that important question. It is reported that when Nobel's brother died, the obituary column had a terrible error. Instead of eulogizing Alfred's brother, the paper eulogized him.
The eulogy indicated the following: Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite, one of the most destructive forces known to humanity, died yesterday a wealthy man.
Upon reading his own obituary and seeing how he was to be remembered, he decided to make a change in his life. He took some of the profits from his creation of dynamite and used it for an altruistic purpose.
Today we remember him for the good he achieved in his life.
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize.
The important question we should each ask ourselves during the High Holidays is: How will I be remembered if, God forbid, my life ended today?
If you are not happy with the answer, take the gift of transformation that Yom Kippur offers. Modify the way you speak, the use of your spare time, your charitable habits or the way you vent anger. If you are not treating those in your household or those with whom you work with dignity, pledge to change that.
But begin the work soon for life is fleeting.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of a psychiatrist who suggests that we could probably put the same inscription on 90 percent of all tombstones in the cemetery, "I should have loved them more while I could."
We all make the mistake. Our priorities become confused and we often let the immediate desires drive away the important ones.
Yom Kippur is our spiritual wake-up call. It reminds us that not only our lives, but the lives of those dearest to us will some day end. If we take that seriously, then we should more frequently say, "I love you" to our wife or husband, to our father or mother, to our children, and to our friends.
We should also seek forgiveness ... a difficult task for most of us. Many see apologizing as a sign of weakness. We cannot quite bring ourselves to admit fault to a co-worker, a friend, a parent, a spouse or our children.
Yet, apologizing is a courageous act. Which takes greater strength of character, ignoring a wrong or confronting it? Ask yourself, if someone came to ask your forgiveness, would you not gain respect for such a person?
When a bone is broken in our body one would think that the point of fracture would, after healing, be the weakest part of that bone. Yet the place where the bone healed, in fact, becomes its strongest part.
Confronting those fractured parts of our lives and ourselves makes us stronger as well.
Here, too, however, there is a price for waiting too long.
The Torah recounts the lives of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who have a terrible argument and become alienated from one another. When the day comes that the brothers must face each other for the first time in many years, the Torah says that Esau falls on Jacob's neck and they both cry. But the Torah does not say why they cry.
One explanation that I find particularly moving is that the twin brothers looked into one another's face and each saw how the other had aged. This moment was a reflection of the many years that had passed. Further, as twins, they realized that in each other's eyes they saw a mirror image of themselves. They recognized the wasted years, born of the anger, which consumed them, and they cried for the loss of time.
We can, of course, change our lives and ask forgiveness any day of the year. If, however, you are reading this in the hours before Yom Kippur, think of this sacred day as an opportunity to look into your soul and affirm that life is beautiful, inherently optimistic, yet sometimes fragile. And though our lives seem to pass swiftly, it does not preclude each of us to be forgiven and to forgive while we are here.
What an empty feeling to realize too late that there were words that needed to be said that were never spoken. If you have someone in your life with whom you are estranged -- and would like to reconcile -- take the step.
Then, when the shofar sounds at the end of Yom Kippur, you will leave your synagogue with a full heart, with a soul that has been refreshed and with a renewed vigor to begin the New Year, grateful to God for one of the greatest of all gifts ... the gift of life.
David Woznica is rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org