Finding Purpose and Meaning Before the Diagnosis Comes

The most sacred of days have arrived for the Jewish people.

During this period, known as the Days of Awe, Jews are encouraged to do everything in our power to renew ourselves and our relationships; to remember what counts most. I have experienced a combination of events recently which have made me dig down once again and evaluate how it is that we sew meaning into the fabric of our lives. The first was absolutely thrilling.

A few weeks back, my wife and I took our son, Jake, to see Ringo Starr and his All-Star Band. I have always been enamored of the Beatles and I have been steadfastly committed to indoctrinating my children. It turns out that this Ringo show was quite special. It was his 70th birthday. For some, 70 really is the new 50. He looks extraordinary. He danced around the stage like a teenager. There was magic in the air; nostalgia was surely running up and down the spine of all in attendance. Seeing a healthy and robust 70-year-old Rock and Roll star was enough. After all, we all know that too many of these stars have died young; including two of his own mates. But the evening hit its crescendo when a litany of rock and roll greats joined Ringo to close the show.

There are too many to list in this space, but I will mention Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, who were up singing and dancing with Starr. Then just when the crowd thought the concert had ended, Paul McCartney appeared on stage to sing the Beatles' "Birthday." The crowd, yelled in delight, knowing that they were witnessing the closest thing they or the world would ever come, to seeing a Beatles reunion.

I will admit that I am a bit more emotional than some, but I had tears. I had tears for the history. I had tears for the pure talent. I had tears because of Lennon and Harrison's absence. I had tears because of the memories the music brought to me of my childhood. And most of all, I had tears because the moment transcended time. My son, Jake is 6. Ringo is 70. And one day my son will be able to tell his grandchildren that he saw two of the Beatles play together... with his Dad. I held him tight as I cried and although he did not understand why I held him so close, he knew this was special. He held me tight also and said, "Daddy, this is one of the best nights of my life."

The surreal nature of the moment sent forth waves of meaning. It is only music I thought. There are so many more important parts of life. Yet, I knew that this too was uniquely sacred and I'd better be present in the moment.

Being present in that joyful moment was only reinforced by a phone call which was to come the next day. It came from one of my college classmates who sadly explained that he had just gotten off the phone with his mother who had told him that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

My friend recounted that just days earlier his family joyfully shared dinner. That night during dinner, my friend's mother mentioned she had made some odd spelling mistakes in writing an e-mail message to one of her sons. When she consulted her doctor, it was discovered all too quickly that my friend's mother had a brain tumor and was not given more than six months.

Contemplating Life's Fragility

I sat and contemplated life's fragility. It's not that I don't know this happens. Yet, I still ask after 13 years of being a rabbi: How could this happen? If this happened to me, what would I do with my remaining months? In one brief moment, the whole of our lives can change.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur asks that we make sure we live our days with meaning and purpose. The blast of the Ram's Horn is meant to wake us up to trajectory change; to be who we are meant to be. When we look at our society, it seems that we often live for the future, rather than in the present. There are financial planners, educational planners and party planners. While it is important to be sure that our families and our businesses have advance plans, I am concerned sometimes that we live so much of our lives in the future, that we are missing the blessings that surround us each and every day.

There is a Hassidic parable which tells us that we all walk around with a small piece of paper in each of our pockets. In one pocket, the piece of paper reads. "You are created in God's image." That is, you are the master of each day. The other pocket's writing says: "You are but dust of the earth."

Life is beyond your control. It is our job to constantly balance these two pockets. We all know that there are laws of nature in this world over which we have no control. We may not consider any of this fair, but at the same time, we also have the power each day to control our individual destinies.

Meaning comes in many different forms. Take life seriously, yes; but that means: experience all parts of your life with awareness and presence. Take in every legitimate pleasure that comes your way. If we spend our entire lives anxiously awaiting the diagnosis, we will simply miss the world as it passes us by. When Ringo was interviewed the day of his birthday, he was asked what wisdom he could share on his 70th.

He said, "I have learned that the more loving I am of others; the more generous I am with others, the healthier and happier I feel in my life. It makes me feel younger." It occurred to me that he gets it. It's simple, but seemingly difficult for so many of us to actualize.

I wish you balance, meaning, wholeness and health in the Jewish season of renewal.

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz is senior rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J. He is also the author of "The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation, and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow. "