The Gift of Life

The Gift of Life One evening a number of years ago my family was sitting at dinner when one of our sons asked my wife and I an intriguing question — “If you and mom never met each other, whose child do you think I would be?” Well obviously, if we never met he would be the child of neither of us.  He would never have existed.  Of course, that goes for all of us.  If our parents did not meet, we would never have been born.  Others would have been born, but nobody quite like us.  Each of us is unique. One of a kind. We have never been before and will never be again. According to the Talmud, this uniqueness of each of us is a testament to the greatness of G-d.  When a government creates a coin from a single die, all of the coins are alike.  Not so when the Blessed Holy One created mankind.  All human beings are the descendents of Adam – the single die– and yet not one of them is like his or her fellow.  Therefore, the Talmud teaches, “every person is obliged to say, ‘For my sake was the world created.”  We are each the product of generations upon generations of men and women meeting one another and pro-creating.  Think of the odds against any one of us ever being born! Yet, our tradition insists that our existence is no accident.  It is part of the divine plan.  Our lives have meaning.  Each of us, in our own special way, completes the universe.  If we do not play our unique part, we injure the pattern of existence.  The Hassidic Rabbi Zusha illustrates this point in a story. “When I die and come before the heavenly court, if they ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not as great as Abraham?’ I will not be afraid.  I will say that I was not born with Abraham’s intellectual abilities.  If they ask me ‘Zusha, why were you not like Moses?’ I will say that I did not have Moses’ leadership abilities.  But if they ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha? For that I will have no answer.” Yes, each life is a precious gift from G-d. But it is bestowed upon us for a relatively short amount of time.  Insignificant.  Every day we acknowledge this in our morning prayers – “the difference between a human being and beast is negligible, and everything is vanity.” The prayer “unetaneh tokef” puts it poetically: We are like broken pottery, Like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, Like a fleeting shadow, like a vanishing cloud, Like wind that rushes by, like scattered dust Like the dream that flies away. Yom Kippur is a day that we reflect on this reality.  Life is fragile. We are here today, and gone tomorrow.  I learned that very early on in my own life.  On an October afternoon in 1965 when I was three weeks away from celebrating my bar mitzvah, my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack.  In the blink of an eye my life and the lives of my brother, sister and mother changed forever.  I learned early that we may be happy today, but tomorrow we may endure a loss that will break our hearts and change our lives forever.  We may be healthy today, but tomorrow we may discover that we suffer from a life altering disease.  That is the scary reality that the prayer confronts us with.  But the prayer does not conclude on this fatalistic note. Rather, ends on a triumphant note:  V’atah hu melekh el khai ve-kayam “You are ever our living G-d and Sovereign” What does this mean?  I think it affirms that there is a transcendent reality that we need to keep in mind at all times.  Life and G-d’s plan is bigger than we are.  We are a part of a whole that we cannot possibly comprehend –That there is a mystery to life. I think it means that we should not let our trials and tribulations embitter us against life.  I think that it is a reminder to us that although we may suffer, we can be certain that G-d loves us.  I think that it means that we should look upon the challenges that G-d puts upon us as motivation to live ever more noble lives in G-d’s service.   Every week we sing the prayer for healing written by Debbie Freedman.  In it, there is the line “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing” This line raises some questions.  What does it mean to make our lives a blessing?   Why would we need courage to make our lives a blessing?  Can everyone make their lives a blessing? Or does one have to be like Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner in 1970 who died two weeks ago.  Borlaug is considered the father of the Green Revolution. He pioneered the breeding of high-yield grain varieties that helped to increase crop yields. His work is credited with saving an estimated one billion people world-wide from starvation. His life was certainly a blessing to humanity. But what about those of us who do not work in fields where we can save lives? How do we make our lives a blessing? I believe that making our lives a blessing is not so much about what we do.  Making our lives a blessing is about how we live.  Making our lives a blessing means that other people feel that their lives are enriched by knowing us. Making our lives a blessing means living our lives with compassion, with honesty, with integrity, with kindness and with love.   Why then do we pray to G-d to help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing?   It takes courage to show compassion to the homeless and the poor, to the sick, to the dispossessed and to others marginalized in our society.  It takes courage to love the unlovable. It takes courage to live one’s life with honesty and integrity.  It is easier to just go with the flow.  It is easier to just look the other way.  Making our lives a blessing can also mean finding the blessing in our own lives.  Life is often hard.  We can feel overburdened by work responsibilities, difficulties with family and friends, financial hardships, health challenges, depression and anxiety.  When we ask G-d to “help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing” perhaps we are asking G-d to help us to see beyond the hardships of our lives and to find the blessings in our lives that are hidden from our sight when we are discouraged, when we are infirm, when we are in despair, when we feel alone. Courage in this case implies that we are frightened by the challenges we encounter in our lives, situations that evoke fear and dread and hardship and awareness of our vulnerability.  If a situation was not daunting, it would not require courage! We ask G-d to give us the courage to rise above all of that to see the blessings that lie beyond – and within.