Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I am contemplating my mortality. After five years of good health, I hear those dreaded words once again: breast cancer. It has returned. Just like that, I’m thrust back into the uncertainty and fear. Once again, my world is turned upside down. I’m scrolling through the details of my life to prepare for the road ahead. What do I need to tell my husband about our home affairs and what legal documents do I need to sign? How do I reassure my children about my future when I, too, am unsure and afraid? What do I need to do to prepare my colleagues at work to succeed in my absence? Where do I wish to be buried? I begin to grieve the loss of all the things I may miss – my kids’ weddings and future grandchildren.
I’m on an emotional roller coaster with every doctor’s visit and every physician’s phone call. I think to myself, “I’m dying.” Then I think, “No, I’ll be ok.” Then I’m right back to wondering, “how do I want to live the final years of my life? What do I want my legacy to be?”
“May you live to be 120” is a popular blessing said to a person celebrating their birthday. It is effectively a wish for a long life. The Torah tells us that Moses lived to be 120 years old. He is the example from which this sentiment comes. Moses was the greatest of all prophets, and since he lived to be 120 years old, we understand this as a reward for his living a righteous life.
I find myself struggling with this concept. Is longevity really a reward? While I know many people who have been blessed to live long lives, I can think of an equal number of people who died way too young. People who were good and contributed to society. People who were loved and deeply missed. If long life is a reward, then the implication is that a short life is a punishment. I refuse to believe this. Rather, I view this blessing as a metaphor for how we should live our lives. A person’s contributions do not necessarily correlate with the number of years they’ve lived.
In Pirke Avot, we read, “Repent one day before your death.” Our sages understood that we can’t anticipate when this day will come and so we must be mindful of living our best lives every single day. There is no time to waste.
As I contemplate, time moves forward. God willing, my day will not come soon. Whether I live to be 55 or 85, I will embrace this moment for reflection and introspection, ensuring I am living a life with purpose and meaning. I will think about the lessons I still wish to impart to my kids. I will strive to live a life worth remembering.
So, while I plan to live for decades and I’m relieved my cancer isn’t as bad as initially thought, if I should die young I’ll know mine was a life well-lived.