Q: If you were told you had just a few months to live, who would you spend your time with and what would you tell them? Many of us come up with mushy stuff that is all about emotions instead of the message and meaning of our lives. Many years ago a father was being taken away from his home to be imprisoned by the NKVD Russian police because he lived and taught Judaism. These are the words he spoke to his family and children: “Devote your lives to what they are taking me away for.” Succinct and profound.
— Dr. B, via email
A: I am not much for summing up life in one sentence. Life is too complex and our understanding of what we truly believe is too insecure. I think we grow over time and achieve a measure of wisdom and virtue and then God kisses us on the lips and takes our breath away and takes us to the world to come. That is what I believe. I have known many people who have squandered life’s opportunities for wisdom and virtue and I have known others whose lives have become a remote human achievement.
However, I have heard and seen some amazing stories like the one you recount. If I was forced at gunpoint to sum up what I most deeply believe, I would recount the wisdom that came from a Holocaust survivor who had come to my synagogue for his grandson’s bar mitzvah. I always called up the parents and grandparents of the bar or bat mitzvah child to bless the child in their own words. His appearance alone that day brought many of us to tears because of the amazing miracle that had enabled him to survive the kingdom of night and live to see his grandson become a bar mitzvah. He was short and spoke in a thick Yiddish accent. His grandson towered over him even though he was only 13. So this man, this survivor, looked up at his grandson and said, “In this life you are going to meet people who need help. If you can help them — help them.” Then he sat down and cried. To this day his succinct speech in my synagogue is the greatest speech I have ever heard. If I had to cram my life into just one bit of wisdom, “ ... if you can help them — help them” would do just fine by me.
Now as to whom I would tell this to (the first part of your question) I am not sure. The most important people and teachers in my life are and were important because they already know or knew the wisdom of helping people. They taught it to me. I think the person I would want to spend time with is the person who I find out is thinking about ending his or her life. The great philosopher Martin Buber wrote of meeting a student who asked him a question and he answered it, only to discover that the student later took his own life. Buber blamed himself for not hearing the question behind the question. So I would wish to be able to hear the questions behind the questions that are asked of me. Then I wish I would be able to convince that person that God loves him or her, that he or she has infinite worth, and that God has a plan for his or her blessings. I would read Psalm 130:1-6:
“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.”
And then I would try to say in a loving way that if King David could call out to God in the depths of his despair, then we all can call out, and we all can wait for the morning to come.