The Last Lecture

Yom Kippur Morning
Rabbi Stephen Wise
October 9, 2008    Tishrei 10, 5769

Unetneh tokef, kedushat hayom – let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.  Yom Kippur, it is awesome and full of dread.  On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall died, who shall see ripe age, and who shall not.  [Page 613 in The New Mahzor/Mahzor Hadash.]

This humbling powerful prayer we read this morning reminds us of our own vulnerability to life.  It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the Middle Ages who was tortured for refusing to convert to Christianity and in his pain and suffering, composed these words.  In it we hear his cry for justice in an unjust world.  We are reminded that throughout time, our fate is determined.  We do not choose what will happen to us.  We cannot control death, sickness, nor pain.  It’s not fair.  Life isn’t fair.  Some things are beyond our control and we are forced to look into ourselves, at our own mortality.  Its not something we want to think about. This prayer reminds us that we are but flesh and blood, created by God, and so it is God who determines our fate.
Many believe we control our own destiny, because we make decisions on a day to day basis, what we are going to do, where we are going to go.   But deep down we know, and its sometimes frustrating, that we do not have power over everything.  When you lose your job even though you were proficient and valued.  When you don’t get an A on a paper you worked diligently on.  When someone very close to you falls terminally ill.

In those moments, we often turn to despair and bemoan our lack of control and throw ourselves to the wind.  But we have another choice, to face it head on and ask: “What is within my grasp that I do have control over?”.  What can I teach others?  How can my life be an example?  How can I inspire?

This year, one of North America’s bestselling novels is called “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.   At Carnegie Mellon, each year faculty members are asked to consider their demise, and ruminate on what matters most to them.   To give a “last lecture”.  What wisdom would they impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance?  What would they say to an audience of students?  How would they sum up the lessons of life in one hour?

For Randy, the last lecture became very real when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  A young man in his 40’s, married with three small children, a scientist and Virtual Reality originator, Randy had to examine his own life for real.  At first he didn’t want to do the lecture.  Preparing for it would take valuable time away from his wife and kids in the last days of his life. But Randy realized putting the work into the lecture would help him actualize what was important to him.  He wanted something to pass on to his family, and to all the students he ever taught.  He was quite open with everyone.  When he went to Pittsburgh to deliver his “last lecture” in September 2007, the hall was overflowing.

He delivered one of the most heartfeld and inspring lecturs I’ve ever heard.  He titled it, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  Randy proceeded to talk about the dreams he had as a child and all he had accomplished.  His last lecture wasn’t about dying, it was about overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment.

Randy always wanted to win one of those huge lifesize stuffed animals at a fair.  We’ve all seen them.  They’re huge and whenever someone wins, they walk around the whole park with it on their back and everyone stares.  For Randy, it wasn’t about showing off, its just that he wanted to win it.  His advice, do it alone, away from your critical family.  Over a life time he had won almost 10 of those huge dolls, never paid for one.  He actually won them in games at the fair.  At the Last Lecture, he brought them all on stage and invited participants to take them  home as examples of achieving dreams.

He talked about how being a younger brother, he watched his sister get married and have kids.  He got to be the crazy single uncle helping to raise his neice and nephew.  His favorite thing was to take them out.  There was only one rule, don’t tell mom what we do.  One time after buying a brand new car, he wanted to take the kids for a spin.  His sister didn’t want to but he insisted, even if they got it dirty he didn’t care.  After all it was just a car.  He had scratches and dents on his old car, and it didn’t matter to him.  To prove the point he purposely spilled coke all over the back seat before the kids got in.  They were in shock, but they loved him for it.  Randy built great memories and life lessons for his niece and nephew, and his last words to them were, “Now my kids are growing up and I wont’ be alive to see it.  I want you to take them out, just like I took you out”.  You’ll pass on my lessons, on to my children, and I’ll remain alive through you.

Randy passed away this summer on July 25th, 2008.  His story stays with me, and probably with the millions of others who either read the book or watched the lecture online.  He didn’t have these wise sayings, or quotable one liners.  I can’t recite them for you.  But I was moved and inspired by his words, because he reminds us that yes we are mortal, but we have gifts to offer to others.  He couldn’t control his life, the disease took over, he had no say in that.  He did have a say in how he was going to go.  In the lessons he could pass on to others.  Randy led his death as in life, teaching right to the very end.

[See the lecture including introductions, but lower quality than link at the top.  [A slide show was used during the presentation.] “Thank you Randy Pausch, Your work is in our hearts”.]

This summer Cheryl and I were dealt two blows close together, the passing of our grandmothers.  For each of us, they were our last surviving grandparents, and last great-grandparents for our children.  When we were thinking about moving home from Florida, one consideration was that we wanted to spend some time with our bubbie’s.  We knew they were sick and elderly.  We wanted our kids to be around them on Shabbat or holidays, or visit their apartments and just sit and talk.  And we did that.  Over the course of the year, we made sure we visited, even it it was just for half an hour.  They loved it so much and we are grateful for the time we spent together.   When they both passed away we were terribly upset, but we knew that at least we had had those moments with them.  They both died peacefully, without suffering, in their own homes, with their families gathered around them.

For my bubbie, one of my best memories is how she answered my phone calls.  “Oh Stephen, thank you for calling.”  She gushed over me,  and was so happy I called, it was like it made her entire week.  She made me feel extraordinary, just for picking up the phone.  I remember thinking to myself, clearly, I am the favorite grandson.  Obviously she loves everyone, but she has a special spot for me.  When I gathered with my cousins at the shiva, we were sharing memories.

Michael, my oldest cousin, said he was the first grandson. He reminded everyone that he was the favorite, because bubbie used to show him off on the way to their store.

Shari, my cousin added she was the favorite.  Whenever she went to bubbie’s house, bubbie cooked the most amazing meals.

My sister chimed in that Bubbie made her favorite meals, and even sent her home with cookies.  By the way, that’s a life lesson for sure, always have cookies available.

Anyways, we all suddenly realized that we were all her favorite grandchild.  How?  Because she had that ability to make everyone she talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world.

My uncle told me this story of how bubbie used to run the fish and chips restaurant.  Picture this.  It’s Friday night, in the summer.  It must be over 90 outside, which means that inside the kitchen where she’s frying fish, its probably over 100 degrees.  My bubie, sweat pouring down her face, notices a break in the line and rushes to the back of the store, where they lived.  She opens the oven to put in the chicken for shabbos dinner for the family.  She comes back to the restaurant, shoos the family back to the kitchen to begin dinner and says she’ll finish up with the last customers.  That was my Bubie.  Ran the restaurant, made the chicken soup, loved her family and made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the whole world.  That is the legacy she left behind, that was her last lecture.  She didn’t even have to deliver it, she said it through her actions.
Cheryl’s bubbie’s life could be summed up in three sentences – Zaieh mensch, zahey yid, zahey Shtark.  Be a mensch, be a Jew and be strong.  Bubbie S. came from the same fabric as my bubbie.   Both came to Canada after the war, losing most of their family, restarting a new life here.  During the Holocaust, she had so many near misses.  She even got shot once in the barracks, but, zahey shtark.  She was strong.  And her Jewish faith never wavered in the face of atrocity.  She raised her kids and especially her grandkids, to be proud of who they were, to love Judaism, to live Judaism.  Zahey yid, be a Jew.  At her shul, right until she was 93 years old, she organized the Kiddush, she signed the check book as treasurer.  (Right Mark [our treasurer].  93 years old. )

And menschlikeit, that defined her.  The summer I met Cheryl, we were staff at camp.  Her parents came up for visitors day, bringing both her zaide and bubbie.  It was a summer romance.  We had just started dating, but bubbie S. looked at me and said, “Welcome to the family”.  I don’t know if she meant this in a Godfather sense, like it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  But at that point, I had fallen head over heals for Cheryl anyway.  But a nice jewish boy for her granddaughter, a counselor at a Jewish camp, a bubbie’s dream.  So she came right out and said it, welcome.  That was her last lecture, zahey yid, zahey mensch, zayeh shtark, be a jew, be a mensch, and be strong.

This summer I suggested reading Michael J. Fox’s book called “Lucky Man”.  What a title. I thought I knew him, but I clearly didn’t know his story.  I knew of him, he’s one of the biggest Hollywood stars on the planet.  At one point, in 1985, he had the top two grossing movies of the year, Back to the Future, and Teen Wolf, as well as the number one rated TV show, Family Ties.  This little shrimp from BC had made it from a high school play to stardom, making millions.  But in the process he was drinking himself into oblivion, had no concept of money or how to treat people.  He was never able to sustain a loving relationship and spoke sporadically to his family back home.  In some ways it was the typical Hollywood story, “boy makes millions, ego inflates, turns to vices and addictions and burns out.”

But he had two strokes of luck.  First was meeting his wife Tracy, who put his life on track.  And the other stroke of luck.  Parkinson’s disease.  You might say, that’s not quite so lucky, a terminal debilitating disease of the body in your late 30’s, for an actor no less.  And yet in his book he says, it changed his life, for the better.  He had to stop, assess what was important.  His wife, his kids.  Even religion.  He is not Jewish, but his wife is and they wanted to raise the kids Jewish.

He belongs to Central Synagogue in NYC.  One of my classmates was a youth group advisor there.  She was given a list of families to call about an upcoming event for 5-6th graders.  One kid was named Fox.  So she calls, and Michael J. Fox answers the phone.  He said, “yep, I’ll bring her, what time?”  Amazing guy.  He cut back on his work to accommodate the disease that was dominating his body.  He began donating his money and time to work for stem cell research and finding a cure for Parkinson’s.  It was in this capacity that last year he addressed the Union for Reform Judaism delegates on our biennial convention in San Diego last year.  How humbling it must have been to stand in front of 5,000 people, shaking uncontrollably because of his disease, yet speaking clearly and concisely about his passion and poise in fighting for a cure.  This might have been his last lecture and he left us all with an inspiration message.  He is a lucky man.  It’s all in how you look at your life.    (Both these books are available to borrow in the lobby today.)   [Michael J. Fox From San Diego,  BROWSE VIDEOS,  Michael J. Fox  Michael J. Fox Bring the Light – Blog.]

Finally we must also pay tribute to one of the great last lectures, from the biggest bestseller of all time, the bible.  The book of Deuteronomy, which we will finish during this Shabbat reading of haa’zinu, is one long farewell speech by Moses, just before he dies.  God has already explained that Moses will not enter the promised land but die on Mount Nebo.  Thus Moses is provided with one opportunity to address the people he has led from slavery to freedom over the past 40 years.  Ironically, Moses is the same man who when first approached by God at the burning bush declared his inability to speak in front of people as a reason to find someone else to be the leader of the Jewish people.  Whether it was modesty or a true awareness of his own limitations, Moses was given Aaron as his companion to address Pharaoh.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut suggests that when Moses was younger, he thought of himself as a man of few words, but became more confident over time.  Moses teaches us many lessons in his last lecture.  His ability to overcome a speech impediment in order to address the entire Jewish nation.   His ability to overcome his own heartbreak and disappointment at being prevented from leading the Israelites into Israel.  Instead of complaining in anger, he chooses instead to reiterate complete faith in God, to choose life.  To remind the people if they follow God’s laws, the Torah, they will be blessed and successful in everything they do.  He inspires the people to trust in God and devote themselves to the mitzvot and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.  And in the end Moses dies in perhaps the most beautiful and poetic way possible.  God picks him up, and buries Moses, in a place that no one will ever know.  God did not want his tomb to be a shrine, rather his life should be a lesson of humility, perseverance and accomplishment.

Friends, on this day of atonement, Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves, what is our legacy, what are we teaching those around us, and those who will follow us when we are gone.  Yom Kippur asks us to take a reckoning of our lives, as the book of life is opened, and we understand our own limitations, for it is God who decides, who shall live and who shall die.  In this great day of awe, take a moment to think about what life lessons you have learned from great mentors and teachers from your past.  If you were to give your last lecture to your spouse, your parent, your sibling, your child or your best friend, what would you say.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.  Treat everyone as if they are the most important person in the whole world.  See yourself as lucky, no matter what tragic or painful thing comes your way.  Give of yourself to others and lead the way.  Always have cookies available.  Zahey mensch, zayeh yid, zayeh shtark.


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