Saturday, October 26, 2013

Parashat Chayei Sarah: "So what did you do?"

Years ago, when I was still in rabbinic school, I was visiting my inlaws and reading the paper, when my eyes glanced down to the obituaries. There, next to a picture of an older man, was the kind of tribute you would expect for a local politician, a writer of some renown, a local character, or sports hero. This man was none of those things. He was a retired postman who’d lived and raised a family in the same suburb of Washington DC his whole life, in all respects indistinguishable from any other retired postman, save one detail. He spent his life giving his money away to those in need. Now, I don’t mean he was a great fundraiser, or gave to various charities. I mean he gave every spare dollar he ever earned away to actual people—sometimes in person, sometimes finding out through a newspaper story about their plight—hundreds of thousands of dollars, all on the salary of a mailman. And he gave willingly, happily, knowing that those people—the mother with a sick child, the person who’d lost his job, the child who’d barely survived a car crash—needed the money more than he did. 

It was a remarkable story, and I still reflect on it from time to time today. As you might imagine, in my line of work, I spend a lot of time talking to people about how they want to be remembered, or how they remember their loved ones. So here’s this otherwise unassuming man willingly supporting others, and as a result, lovingly remembered. He was recognized as making an impact far beyond that of postman, or parent, or human being. He was remembered for his choices. 

The truth is, what’s remarkable about that obituary is not necessarily what he did, but that he represents a reality we rarely lift up. All of us are remembered, and we are remembered for our actions, for our choices.  We tend to think of our actions as bespoke, as once-in-a-lifetime events that then disappear into the ether. But they aren’t. Our choices have legs, our actions are remembered. I don’t even mean the Book of Life we agonize over at the High Holidays. I mean the people we encounter remember what we do, who we choose to be, and that becomes who we are, forever. 

If that’s true—and I believe it is—how does that change our behavior? How should it? If we know we’re going to be remembered by how we treat others—our actions are not going to fade into obscurity—do we behave differently? Or, to put it another way, how do we want to be remembered by those around us?
And Sarah’s life was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years, these were the years of Sarah’s life. That’s the literal translation of the first line of our torah portion. The Torah doesn’t say “Sarah lived 127 years”; rather it drags the length of her life out. Though the details of her life are left out, Each year is carefully drawn forth, as if to say ‘the years—and the actions—matter.’ Sarah’s life mattered—to Abraham and Isaac, to her family and her People, and to those around her. Her life had impact and meaning, and the Torah wants to make that clear for all of us, to teach us to make our choices count, as they will be remembered.
I remember a few years ago running into a woman, about my parents’ age, with her toddler grandson at a Restaurant once and asked what they were up to. “Making memories” she said with a glint in her eye. All our actions make memories, whether we intend them to or not. So, what did you do to make memories? Are they the actions you want remembered in your obituary? What will you do to be remembered? For we all surely will, and God-willing, our choices and years will count for something.

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