October 2, 2023 -
This post to If Not Now, When? the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk in the Congregational Service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, Sep. 14, 2015. The story told in it about Ann Nelson is adapted from a NY Times article cited below and a sermon shared previously by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, each sources of inspiration for the sermon. We encourage you to post this to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, share with friends, and/or respond below with comments to continue the conversation started here.
A few months ago, in a 48-hour period, 150+ congregants sent me a link to a NY Times column about the different types of virtues in people. The article raised up a new way of looking at the old term, “bucket list.” Instead of a “bucket list” being the things you want to do before you “kick the bucket,” columnist David Brooks was suggesting we combine the things we want to do with the aspirations for the person we want to be, morally, before leaving this earth. The article distinguished between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues,” and in it, Brooks was pining for a culture that teaches us to build character before career, soul traits before stock options. (“The Moral Bucket List,” David Brooks, NY Times, April 11, 2015)
I couldn’t agree with him more. For the things you accrue in your home can go up in flames. But no one thing defines your personhood. You are a collection of uniquenesses, wisdoms, and vulnerabilities that has never before been and will never be again. The question is- how ready are you to act on what you have? During my first job out of college I was working on a major new project. Within hours of leaving for the airport to travel to the site where we would launch the new initiative, my mentor came into my office to tell me that my direct supervisor had just suffered a complete total loss of his home in a fire. All of his family were safe, thank God. But I was asked: “Are you ready?” a question that tested my independence, maturity, readiness and judgment.
I was ready, and the man who asked me already knew it. But most experiences in life are not as clear cut as times of emergency. Most of the time, you check your belongings, you look at your road-map, and you still wonder- will I ever feel ready? During your whole life you are getting ready for something—ready to go out, to come in, ready to get something together or take it apart. It is easier to get ready when you know what is expected from you. (Adapted from the words of Rabbi Shani Labowitz in her book Miraculous Living, NY: Touchstone Publishing, 1998)) I speak here of the emotional terrain of living, where in addition to readiness, we need sensitivity to and awareness of our limited time on earth. Our rituals today test this readiness. Coming face to face with mortality, we cry out with the shofar, sounding both confidence and fear all at once.
Centuries ago, a man stood by a canal in ancient Mesopotamia, a canal connecting the Tigris to the Euphrates. The man was- like most of us on a daily basis- absolutely unprepared for something unique to happen. We have no reason to believe it was anything other than a bright-skied Tuesday morning. But suddenly the man experienced a kind of awe one would expect only in an epic novel or a grand opera. His name was Ezekiel, and ready or not, in that moment he became a prophet, as a vision appeared before his eyes. “Behold,” the text says, “a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north- a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance, and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam, a glow of amber.” (Ezekiel 1:4)
Listen to those key elements of his vision: a stormy wind, a thunderous cloud, a radiant fire and a glow. If any of us witnessed one of these things in our daily travels, they wouldn’t mean so much. But all of them combined forced Ezekiel to answer life questioning him- are you ready? Are you ready to leave your day-to-day existence and live as though you’ve encountered a message about the direction your life might now go? As so many have taught, events in our lives have a way of shaking us up and preparing us to admit that any place at any time could be filled with awe, or that any bright-skied Tuesday morning could be the day your readiness was tested.
When our ancestors realized that a wind, a cloud, a radiance and a glow, could mean more than an approaching storm, they were on to something. All the time, I see people face signals of their mortality, and then return to life with hearts beating stronger than ever and with a greater readiness to realize their aspirations. It makes sense. When we experience both hope and despair in the same body, we try to align ourselves with hope! For it is a much better ally when you are asking yourself, “Am I ready? Ready for a new part of my life? Ready for uncharted territory? Ready for the previously Unforeseen?” The hopeful answer we aspire to offer to this battery of questions is found in the words our children say when playing “hide and seek.” You know, when you finish counting and are ready to find your friends, you say: “Ready or not, here I come.” That’s the message of yuntif!
These holidays tell us in no uncertain terms: ready or not, dread and awe, life and death are approaching. But they are no match for a community ready for it all. That same idea was the guiding premise of a film that made the term “bucket list” so popular several years back. It was the one with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, the movie in which a corporate billionaire and a working class mechanic met at a hospital after each was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Together the two decided to leave the hospital and do all the things they ever wanted to do. Although in the film Nicholson and Freeman performed exciting stunts to show the world they are still alive, our tradition has a different set of enlivening actions in mind. The stunts our rabbis wanted us to do were: acts of loving kindness, respecting parents, studying Torah, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, providing for the newly married, supporting the bereaved, making peace and praying with sincerity. (Mishnah Peah 1:1) These actions have for centuries been our way to show readiness to kick a bucket full of eulogy virtues that would make even David Brooks proud.
I’ve read that list thousands of times since I became a Jewish adult. Yet I never fail to learn something from it. To me, it is the way our culture conveys a: “ready or not, here I come” attitude to a world in need of committed Jews. It is a “bucket list” of things we don’t do once. Rather we are instructed to do these things repeatedly so that we might live more creative and purposeful lives. That’s why we draw together for Rosh Hashanah- to account for how we invested our time this past year. Did we do while we have been alive what makes us feel most alive? Supporting worthy causes, learning new skills, and taking time to be with the friends that make us laugh the loudest and smile the fullest? Did we? For these things exalt us rather than degrade us, and yet sometimes it takes a sense of dread and awe to get them done. That is why we say in this sacred hall, U’netaneh Tokef Kedushat Ha-Yom, this day is more than a New Year’s party. No, today is one of awe and dread. Today more than most we presume that a storm wind, a thunderous cloud, or a radiant fire could take everything from us, except our readiness to live with our hopes and our values intact and in use.
More than a decade ago, on a normal blue-skied Tuesday morning, a young woman taught the world how ready she was to do the things that fulfilled her highest aspirations. Her name is Ann Nelson, and she grew up in Stanley, North Dakota town with a population smaller than Beachwood High School. (This story adapted from “Hope, Saved on A Laptop,” a story written by Dan Barry in the NY Times, May 17, 2006)
Like many of us, Ann went to college and grad school. In her case, she studied on the East Coast, with a major in economics and later an MBA. Of course, she followed grad school by doing what many MBAs do — heading to New York to secure employment. When Ann called her mom, an art teacher back in North Dakota, to tell her the exciting news of a job offer, Ann said she would soon move to an apartment at the corner of Thompson & Spring, a short commute from her job as a bond trader for a firm called Cantor Fitzgerald.
If you recognize the name of Cantor Fitzgerald, you know the rest of the story. For Cantor Fitzgerald was, located on the l04th Floor of the World Trade Center and it lost nearly all of its employees on a blue-skied Tuesday, September 11th, in 2001. Ann Nelson died that day too. They never found her body, but they did find her personal belongings including her laptop computer and sent these items to her parents. Her parents had no idea how to use a laptop and touching something that belonged to their daughter was too painful. So they put it away in the basement of the one-story bank her parents owned, where it remained dark for a long while. Then, a couple of years later, with help from some of Mrs. Nelson’s art students, she finally opened her daughter’s laptop, pushed its power button and started to look at photographs Ann stored there.
Soon Mrs. Nelson was learning how to play the computer’s games, including solitaire and hearts. She did this each afternoon, the distractions reminding her of the games she used to play with Ann. Somehow, Ann’s laptop made her seem present, there beside her mom. For the first couple of months, she didn’t bother to open a file that said “Top 100”; probably some music, she figured. Then, two months into her explorations Mrs. Nelson pointed to “Top 100” and clicked.
What she found there was something awesome. It was Ann’s bucket list, a very special kind of “Top 100” that reflected not only her aspirations but also her core values. When Mr. and Mrs. Nelson sat down with the list, and were reminded of what I spoke about earlier: the virtues, the uniquenesses, wisdoms, and vulnerabilities, in each of us, that have never before been and will never again be. Listen to Ann’s list:
After 35, there was a 36 on the list. But it was blank.
The reason I share this story with you today is simple. This Jewish New Year could be our last. I hope it won’t. I will pray with you day and night for all of us to have a good year ahead. But death is beyond our control. So we had better get busy living our eulogy virtues rather than the ones we list on a resume. We are each a collection of uniquenesses and virtues that have never before been and never again will be. God forbid we should not survive this year, it is the values on our top 100 list that will communicate who we are to those who survived us. And right now, this day, we are alive. It wasn’t so once, and it won’t always be.
So let’s not be spooked by the storm clouds, the winds or brush fires on our path. A new year is ahead, a chance to weave hope and goodness into life. As Ann Nelson taught, we may never be able to even complete writing or living our bucket lists. But one thing we can do is live: live with a heart yearning for new wisdom. That is what we are here for. Now close your eyes and count to ten. Ready or not, here we come!