What is a Good Life?
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What is a Good Life?

We can’t control how long we live, but we can choose how we live, according to Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder

This summer both of my parents turned 80. Then the mother of a close friend died. In all three cases, we gathered on Zoom. These events, while similar to many others I have attended, were different because of the intimacy of the connections and what I had presumed to know about the people we were celebrating and remembering. And I came away with new insights about leading a good life.

This year, more than most, we are all grappling with the words of the “N’taneh Tokef,” the prayer that is one of the cornerstones of the Yom Kippur prayer: who by fire, who by famine, …  Given the scourge of COVID-19, forest fires, racial injustice, and swarms of locust in the Middle East and Africa, these do not feel like random abstract possibilities.

Yom Kippur is meant to help us face our own mortality and spur us to live with intentionality. This prayer is meant to remind us that we may not live out this coming year. And if we take this charge seriously, then we must contemplate what constitutes living well.

From the time we are young we are asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? My father began attending medical school as a teenager and loves his work. To this day, he continues to work full time seeing patients. But because my father is a psychiatrist, I have to take it on faith that he has made a difference in the lives of those he seeks to help.

During my father’s party, I was reminded there is another element to work. Over and over, other doctors spoke of his value to them in their own work and as a colleague. To live well, it is not enough to focus on outcomes but the way in which we achieve, the process of engaging with the others with whom we work and how we connect are their own value.

By contrast, work has never been at the center of my mother’s life. Yet the intensity with which she lives matches my father’s. While I knew most of the people who gathered at her celebration, there were a significant number of faces that I did not know at all. My mother is a lifelong learner, constantly diving into new passion projects and making new friends, even in the eighth decade of her life. There were members of the Israeli press with whom my mother has grown close. Even though she lives in Canada, she is a regular participant in the radio community, often calling in and connecting with programing. There were Austrians with whom she has connected as she has delved into family history and engaged with Holocaust remembrance. In the last dozen years, she has shared her story around the world. These projects and friendships are vibrant and engaging. If we are living well, there is no end to growth.

At the shiva for the mother of good friends, I had a chance to learn about a woman who I met only in her declining years. I was particularly taken by the number of her children’s friends who spoke about what she had meant to them. Teens often eschew adults, but her home was always open with food and a smile. But above all, acceptance and care were her hallmark. No matter how awkward or popular they had been, she always managed to truly see each and every person who came through her doors and value the good in them. In a time where the world was more often cruel than kind to gays and lesbians, she was accepting. She made each of her three daughters feel like they were the one that mattered most. And so each night of shiva, the many people she had invested in seeing as fully human, came and paid tribute and thanks, and to remember the extraordinary power of this simple but rare act.

These are not easy times. As we face uncertainty it is tempting to give into fear. Our liturgy reminds us that while we cannot control how long we live, we can choose how to live. It is certainly easier to turn a blind eye to others and to possibilities for change. But at Yom Kippur we need to choose the harder path, to live fully, in connection with others and by creating potential.

May we all be inscribed in the book of long life.

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