My 94 year old cousin died recently. He lived a great life, and it could truly be said about him, he died with no regrets. I was struck by the tributes he received. He was very successful in business; he earned a lot of money in his life and supported a great many philanthropic causes. At the end, however, that’s not what I heard about; his business acumen and wealth were not what people cared to speak of. What I did hear about was a man who cared about everyone… everyone. I heard about a man who asked you a lot of questions when he was with you, about your experience, your successes and travails and who really wanted to hear the answers. Sh’ma… he listened. And he was right in there with you when trouble came knocking on your door. He had an open heart, and an open checkbook if that’s what was needed.
I heard about a man who was truly humble, even though he had no reason to be. I saw a man who embodied grace, who suffered the loss of his brother 11 months ago with equanimity, even though he and his brother had spoken every day for the past 65 years, no matter where each of them was, whether down the road or in vastly different time zones.
My cousin was born in another era. He didn’t always want to change with the times, but change he did. Vis-a-vis his Jewish identity, he and his family kept kosher; they devoutly went to synagogue every Shabbat, and all three of his daughters married Jewish men. Not long before his death I spoke with him about the fact that his youngest grandchild was just recently engaged to a non-Jewish woman. “How did he feel about that?” I asked. His reply came quickly. That’s the way of the world these days, and he offered his tacit acceptance.
More than anything, for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, my cousin in the words of one of his daughters, offered that Sukkat Shalom, that sense of sheltering peace. Being in his presence, knowing he was there made everyone feel safe and warm. We could all go to sleep happy and comfortable, knowing he was available if need arose.
In short, my cousin lived a good life, and he was rewarded with a good death, with all of his many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren making pilgrimages to see him in his final two weeks of life. (Why wait until the funeral to see a dying relative? Why not see him when he’s still here and able to communicate, offer his wisdom, share his love, hear how he made a difference in your life?) With his three daughters at his bedside. Dying quietly in his sleep.
I reflected on what it is to lead a good life and looked to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), that very remarkable and I dare say unique section of the Talmud. I found this, which I annotate here, from Ben Zoma:
Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.
Who is strong? One who subdues himself.
Who is rich? One who loves what is.
Who is honored? One who honors others.
My cousin embodied these statements.
I hope the light that shone in my cousin’s heart has not gone out, but rather transformed into another beacon. May his memory be a blessing and an impetus to spur all of us to expect nothing less than the highest expressions of wisdom, strength, wealth and honor, from those down the street and those in high places.