2018-09-12 / Editorial

Living Longer, Living Better: Do we have the courage to live our lives?

RABBI RICHARD F. ADDRESS

Shalom and Shanah Tova.

We come again to the New Year and this season of reflection. What shall this new year 5779 bring to us? Who can tell? The letters that make up the number seven and nine may give us an insight. As many of you know, the mystical tradition in Judaism loved to play with numbers. Gamatria, the linkage of numerical equivalents to letters, has been a tried and true method of seeking some inner meaning to words. So for us, in this new year, we can look at the number seven and the letter zayin, and the number nine and the letter tet.

Zayin is filled with a variety of meanings. According to some, there is a sense of movement associated with the letter. It does have meanings that speak to issues of weaponry and sexuality. There is a sense, according to one scholar, of a tension between what man is, a vision of the self, and the world in which a person may live. In his “The Wisdom in The Hebrew Alphabet,” Rabbi Michael Munk notes that: “Man is at the center of an often turbulent, always confusing, set of elements that entice and threaten, convince and reject, submit and rebel.” The tension of existence, of what we are and what we may wish to be, confronts us during the Holiday period. Listen to the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur and sense that tension.

The tet, the number nine, speaks to us about the value of goodness. We know the Hebrew word “tov,” which means good. Do we strive for the good? In the tension of living, do we respond to a moral compass that has goodness as a default setting? The Midrash reminds us of the power of maintaining a good name, as in Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:1) that tells us that a good name is better than fine oil. We need only to think of the feelings and memories that emerge at Yizkor to recall that how we are remembered has more to do with that “good name” than material success.

So, a message from our tradition can be that we hope that this new year may be for us and our families (and dare we hope for the world) a year in which we have the courage to move ourselves to the good in life and in our own self. This is, of course, a message that we will hear from every pulpit this season. But how difficult is it to move to goodness? These Holidays call to us in a very profound and no-nonsense way to awaken the soul. The Shofar calls are designed to do just that. Here is the challenge to that, so many people wish they can “move” toward a change in life, yet so few actually do it. The stakes in changing get harder as we age. It is easier to say that we cannot make substantive changes in life, in our own existence because of…and we fill in the reason. Many of those reasons are true and vital. Yet, for many who will sit in that sanctuary this season, they will feel a tug to transition into a different life. But will they have the courage to move off, of what Thomas Merton called a life of “self-impersonation,”

Parker Palmer writes of this issue of living a life of “self-impersonation” in his new book “On The Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.” I think this concept is part of what our task is during the Holiday season. It is to examine the life that we are living. It is to ask if we are just “impersonating” a life, or are we living our life the way we wish it to be.

Many of us are at the age when we have begun to lose friends. Chronic illness is no longer something that someone else deals with. We are reminded constantly about the fragility of life. We look into the eyes of our adult children and grandchildren and ask where the time has gone and why is time moving so fast. The Holidays again open us to that re-examination of who we are and who we wish to be. The power to change rests, as a Yom Kippur Torah reading tells us, with the choices we make. Choose wisely, choose well, choose to live our “unlived lives.”

Shanah Tova s www.jewishsacredaging.com

This is the latest column in a continuing series of articles by Rabbi Richard F. Address, D. Min, founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging and the web site www.jewishsacredaging.com. As director of URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns, he created the project on Sacred Aging that examined the growing impact of longevity on congregations and Jewish communal life. He teaches at HUC- JIR in New York, and has served as a rabbi of Cong. M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. He lives in Gloucester County.

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