Dr. Ezekiel Emauel, the well-known bioethicist and brother of the mayor of my town, argued recently in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly that 75 is the perfect age to die. After that, he said, most people have little to contribute to society and are a burden rather than a benefit.
I can think of few less Jewish ideas than this. It is not only heartless. It is wrong. My grandfather took me to Israel when he was 81 and changed my life. Each of us probably has similar stories.
When it comes to defining our contribution to the world, what matters most is not how many years we will live but how we use the years we have. To put it in physical terms, what matters most is not how efficiently the heart is beating, but how wide it stretches.
The Heart is All That Matters
If we were to open a Hebrew Torah scroll, we would see that its very last Hebrew letter is Lamed. Then if we rolled it all the way back to the beginning, we would see that its very first letter is Bet. When you put those two letters together, you can the word Lev. Lev means heart.
The heart is literally the end and beginning of the entire Torah. To live by the Torah we live from heart.
Taken to its extreme, Dr. Emanuel’s view distorts our understanding of value. Science relies only on what we see—what we can hold and touch and measure–and that is severely limiting. We can see the size of the new iPhone. We can see the sparkle of a new watch. We can see the color of someone’s hair or the wrinkles on their skin.
But we can’t see the size of our heart. We can’t see the capacity of our dreams. The Jewish sages would agree with the wonderful French writer Antoine de St. Exupery who said, “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The Heart Makes Us Human
What makes the heart so extraordinary is that the inevitably pains of age¬–the slowing down, the loss of skills and energy–does not drown us. The can ennoble us. They can deepen us. They can make us fully alive.
The heart can contain the pain, the brokenness, the frustrations of life alongside its joys, loves, and excitement. The heart can see more clearly than eye. It feels pain more deeply than the nerves. It can heal more fully than the skin. And there are no age limits when it comes to the gifts the heart can give.
It may not always produce new books or let us climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the criteria by which Dr. Emanuel seems to measure the value of life. It may not always let us run a marathon. But it can lift us out of ourselves. It can link us to generations past, present and future.
Poet Philip Larkin said what will survive of us is love. We might also say what lets us survive—physically, emotionally, spiritually, existentially—is the heart. And it can last well past 75.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is filled with solemn prayer, and most Jews fast. How, then, can it be the happiest day of the year? Allow me to explain…
Picture the scene: It is 1944, in Glasgow, Scotland, in the midst of the Second World War. Kol Nidre is about to begin in the city’s largest synagogue. The sanctuary is dark and full, and the rabbi prepares to take the Torah scroll out of the ark. Before he does so, he calls upon the only soldier in uniform in the congregation to come up to the bima.
That soldier goes and holds the Torah, as the choir chants the Kol Nidre. I think about that scene every year on Yom Kippur because the man holding the Torah was my grandfather. This Yom Kippur I cannot call him and wish him a happy New Year. Yet, like many of us who have lost loved ones, I think about and feel his presence. I can hear his voice telling me little bits of wisdom he called nuggets.
My Grandfather’s Wisdom
They were serious and funny, ranging from “don’t break the silence unless you can improve upon it” to “a house without scotch is like a house without a roof.” Along with his personal example, these nuggets taught me about what makes for a good life. They taught me to live by high principles and ideals, to be loving and forgiving, and to find ways to give and contribute to the community.
Now my grandfather never put these teachings in terms of Jewish tradition. But what he taught captures three key nuggets God gives us on these high holy days: Tefilah, prayer, Teshuvah, repentance, and Tzedakah, giving and justice. We find these words in one of the most significant parts of the service: at the end of Unetanah Tokef prayer.
That is the prayer where we say, “God decides who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water…. But the prayer concludes: by Tefilah, by Teshuvah and by Tzedakah, we can annul the decree and alter our destiny.
Finding True Happiness
That is soaring vision of the prayer, and that is the message of Yom Kippur. That is the reason that, even though this is a day of fasting and atonement, our sages called it “the happiest day of the year.”
That happiness does not derive from ease. That happiness does not derive from a lack of pain. Rather, the happiness derives from the ability to choose. The happiness derives from Yom Kippur’s affirmation that every day of our lives, we can choose life and blessing.
Once upon a time, a poor man walked from town to town. He carried a heavy load on his back.
One day a wagon driver stopped his horse and offered him a ride to the next town. The grateful man said “Yes, thank you for your kindness.”
After they had gone a few minutes, the wagon driver turned around. He saw the poor man still carried the load on his back.
“You don’t need to carry that heavy load. You can put it down on the wagon.”
The poor man, “You’ve been so kind to pick me up. I can’t ask you to carry my load as well.
So the poor man kept walking from town to town, carrying and hobbling around with his heavy load.
We can lighten up
Too often we are like the poor wandering man. We carry the heavy load of anger, of regret, of grudges long after we could have set them down.
God is like the wagon driver who says we don’t have to carry them alone. God can handle them. Indeed, God can lift us up and carry us to the next stop on our journey.
This story was originally told by the traveling Jewish mystical preacher, the Magid of Dubnow.
While speaking at a church recently, I received an urgent question: “Is it okay for me to wish my Jewish friends ‘A Happy New Year’ on Rosh Hashanah?
“Absolutely,” I said. The questioner then asked what was appropriate to say on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when many Jews do not eat or drink and spend most of the day in synagogue.
I thought for a minute. My answer was a bit disappointing. About the closest we get to a customary greeting in synagogue is “Have an easy fast.”
As I thought more about it, however, I realized we have a few other possibilities:
Rosh Hashanah—The Jewish New Year
Hag Samaech, which means “A Happy Holiday.” This greeting works on most holidays. The word samaech means “happy,” but it has the connotation of a shared communal happiness. A happy holiday is one we share with our friends, family and community.
L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu, which means “May you be inscribed for a good year.” According to Jewish tradition, God has a big book with all of our names in it. It’s called the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah we pray God inscribes our names on the good side of the book, giving us a year of joy, health and prosperity.
Gut Yontif, which means “May this be a good holiday.” Gut Yontifis a Yiddish phrase. Yiddish was the language of many Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—think Fiddler on the Roof. Many older Jews will use this greeting throughout the holiday.
Yom Kippur—The Day of Atonement
Tzom Kol, which means “An Easy Fast.” Fasting is not meant to make us suffer. It is meant to cleanse our bodies and spirit and help us focus on the spiritual meaning of the holiday. Thus, wishing someone an easy fast is a way of acknowledging they are fasting while expressing hope that the holiday is meaningful not painful.
Gmar Chatimah Tova, which means “May you be sealed for a good year.” This greeting brings us back to the metaphor of the Book of Life. As we conclude the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and God prepares to close the book with our fates sealed in them, we pray that each of us ends up on the right side of the ledger.
When in doubt on either of these holidays, it is always appropriate to say “Happy New Year.” What better wish can we give to one another than that we enjoy a year of health, happiness and peace.