Rabbis Without Borders
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I have no idea how many b’nai mitzvah, baby namings, brises, et al I have officiated at. Nor how many funerals. But I do know that while there is something to be learned at every life cycle event, I have learned the most at funerals. In fact, it is my hospice chaplaincy work, meeting with grieving families and walking from gravesides that I learn most of all.
And the lesson is, simply, that a few key character traits are most worthy of pursuit. I am not speaking of careers per se, in which great amounts of good can be accomplished but, rather, of the matters that define a personality – that are the building blocks of becoming a beloved person.
Think back to a eulogy you may recall, delivered in memory of someone you love. It’s perfectly likely that you won’t remember the words, because it was an emotional day. But I think you will recall what the deceased was extolled for. Was it kindness? A giving personality? A favorite birthday cake baked to perfection? Always ensuring that birthday cards arrived on time? Perhaps for the peace of mind of being a principled and honest person.
The valued traits of loved ones are the truths we need to hold onto – the guides we seek in the dark moments of our lives. We many wonder about that favorite cake recipe – and eventually come to ask: What was our loved one’s recipe for life?
Here are the traits I hear most often – those that are valued and celebrated:
- Honesty and Integrity: Being the person one professes to be, and striving to do no harm.
- Dedication: and this trait is only truly beloved when the dedication is first to family. One may be praised for being a hard-working person, but families who know they were their loved one’s highest priority feel the most greatly blessed.
- For being a good provider: especially of love showered with wild abandon, of belly laughs, of singing on or off key, of sound advice, a shoulder to lean on, a voice of calm and reason.
- Being graceful: I am so struck by the prevalence of this life decision as a valued trait. It seems that the model of living gracefully with troubles that cannot be overcome brings peace not only to the one who suffers, but to loved ones as well as we learn to do the same.
- For being the best person they could be: which often means being honest, kind, trustworthy and reliable – especially when overcoming challenges to do so.
- And perhaps the most important trait – no – certainly the most valued: loving life. Appreciating every day in which to live, breathe, do something good for someone. To never take anyone or anything for granted. Standing in awe of nature and the fact that as we rise in the morning, it is dusk elsewhere, and the cycle continues. Being breath-taken by the idea of a Creator, a newborn child – the fact that someone unknown, half a world away, is toiling to save lives and ease pains of all kinds – and the fact that we, every day, can do the same right in our own families and communities.
I have never heard anyone say that they spent too much time with loved ones. And every end-of-life encounter reminds me to recall those who are still living – and to live. And so, without further ado, I invite you, too, to think of a loved one with whom you have not shared a piece of pie, or a stroll, or a laugh in some time, and pick up the phone. Go see that person if you possibly can. Listen to your grandmother’s or mother’s or daughter’s or sister’s or aunt’s or partner’s or friend’s story and be truly grateful as she shares her truth. Listen to your grandfather or dad or son or brother or uncle or partner or friend and invite him more closely into your life as you become a greater part of his. Tell them all what you love and value about them, and celebrate their accomplishments. You can share your story, too, and receive their advice and their blessings while you can.
Let your aunt pinch your cheeks and tell you stories for the hundredth time – and revel in it. It is so much better to do so while you have the chance than it is to speak of them only in their memory – especially when we might regret never having done enough. Do it now, because in truth, time is really not divided into neat boxes on the calendar. It is amorphous and keeps its secrets, and we never know what the next moment will bring. So as long as we have anything to say about it, we can let the next moment bring love.
And a lovely thing happens when we make these calls, and visits – when we give our love: we make these beloved traits a greater part of our own life story.