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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Kol Nidre - 2008/5769

God’s Bucket List — For Us

I must confess this day to a sin I have inflicted upon my family for years; I can never go to see a movie or a play for sheer entertainment. Every movie, every play, nu, every gathering can be the source of sermonic inspiration. I even went to my oldest daughter’s first movie twenty-three years ago, Follow that Bird, with a pen and a small pad of paper in hand. Who knew, perhaps in being forcibly painted blue, Big Bird would struggle with identity and there would be some connection to living as Jews in America. My daughter was petrified at Big Bird’s kidnapping and forcible change of identity; I was contemplating a possible sermon. I am still not sure that Michal has forgiven me to this day.

Still, I keep sinning. In fact, I sometimes go to movies for the explicit purpose of finding the kernel to a sermon in the theater. That’s what brought me to The Bucket List last year. The movie had already received dreadful reviews. And it was bad. For those few of you who did not see the flick, simply know that its two main characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman share a hospital room when they both receive diagnoses of cancer and are told that they will shortly die. So they make their bucket list of things to do before they kick the bucket—and then, leaving hospital and family, set out to accomplish and cross off every item on the list.

Both Freeman and Nicholson played their now expected roles with Freeman the sage elder offering profound advice (often in a voiceover) and Nicholson the crazy fool rarely listening to any advice. Roger Ebert, movie critic and cancer survivor himself, summed up The Bucket List best with these two sentences:

…a movie about two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible….The Bucket List thinks dying of cancer is a laff riot followed by a dime-store epiphany.”

In spite of his review and countless others all too similar (Stephen Holder of The New York Times labeled it “Geezers Gone Wild”), the movie still grossed some $180,000,000 worldwide. And, yes, it provided the kernel for my sermon this Kol Nidre.

For bucket lists, apparently, are big things—not just among, ah, older folk but also among aging boomers like me and even among Generation X folk. According to some, we 78,000,000 boomers, confronting mortality perhaps for the first time, seek meaning in our lives; gen x’ers, having seen us stress out and knowing that they will probably be in several different jobs and/or careers in their lives, think differently about the typical progression of life. Books are everywhere—beginning with Dave Freeman’s 1999 book entitled 100 Things to Do Before You Die. Imagine any title you wish—you begin with a number and finish with “…Before You Die.” 1000 Places to See Before You Die, A Thousand and One Books You Must Read Before You Die; 50 Foods to Try Before You Die; currently on The New York Times best-seller list 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die; yes, even Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die.

But the lists are not limited to books. Go online to any of a number of websites like 43things.com or your100things.com or superviva.com and you can find guidance to writing your own bucket list or, as it is properly called, your own life list. You can even engage life coaches who can help anyone put it all together to, in the words of one of these life coaches, “give you a road map for your life.”

Millions of people already have their life road maps. At 43things.com, skydiving ranks number 24 among the people who have made lists—and, yes, it was something the Freeman-Nicholson characters put on their bucket list and did. From swimming with dolphins to running with the bulls in Pamplona; from ascending Everest to seeing the stone heads on Easter Island; from riding in a hot-air balloon to, in first place, losing weight–make your list, get it posted, and then get support from others—and accountability. Boomer Dave Freeman suggested the reason for the popularity of his book and of life lists when he wrote, “This life is a short journey. How can you make sure you fill it with the most fun and that you visit the coolest places on earth before you pack those bags for the very last time?” Gen Xer Justin Zackham, writer of The Bucket List, added, “I can extricate myself from what I am doing and pursue these goals. You do not have to play the cards you are dealt with in life.” Comments life coach Caroline Adams Miller profoundly, “Life lists are one of the best ways to plumb the depths of the human psyche.”

You probably hear my sarcasm. And, yes, I still want to ride my bicycle across America from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. For, as Alex Williams put it in reporting on the life list phenomenon, it contains equal parts motivational self-help and escapist fantasy, “the perfect way for anxious time-crunched professionals to embark on spiritual quests in a productivity-obsessed age.” Think about it—What do I really want to do? I can change whatever I am doing, seeing, wherever I am going. I can pursue my own goals. I do not have to play the cards given me. Lots of I’s there—once again placing the self above all else with so many helpers at the ever-ready to minister whenever the self is suffering. As we strive to make the self so happy, we need be careful not to worship at the altar of the self. For what else is worship of the self but idolatry. Think of it—searching for the meaning of life at the altar of self through what amounts to–a grocery list.

As for those cards, listen to these words written by another person confronted with the knowledge that his cancer was untreatable and that he only had months to live, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt; just how we play the hand.” For all of us, it was touching to watch him play that hand. A professor at Carnegie Mellon, he was invited to give the university’s annual last lecture to share his expertise and reflections on life with the university community. That last lecture became far more poignant as the pancreatic cancer ultimately threatened his life. So Randy Pausch shared his list of childhood dreams, dreams he had fulfilled as his life and career developed. In so doing, his last lecture became The Last Lecture as his community extended to all of us and his search for meaning to our search for meaning.

The Last Lecturestill sits atop the best-seller lists today after almost 6 months in book stores. Pausch admitted in the lecture and in the book itself that he really wrote it neither for his students and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon nor for the larger public; that was the head fake he used because his words were really for his three children. In that sense, The Last Lecture became Pausch’s ethical will, remember, those wills within Jewish tradition (even though Pausch was not Jewish) concerned not with material possessions, not with money or property or the financial estate one may leave behind, but, rather, with ethical possessions, with values, with character, with the spiritual legacy one wishes to bequeath. Nor are ethical wills concerned with how one is going to die; rather, they are concerned with how one should live.

Pausch’s lecture is readily available in video online; the book, I assume, many of you have read. Honest and moving, Pausch’s words brought me to tears—tears of sadness and tears of joy—many times. Yet two sentences rang a discordant note. As he neared the end of his lecture, Pausch offered this conclusion: If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.” Beautiful words—but what do they mean? The right way—as defined by oneself, one’s spouse, the law, Miss Manners? Then, automatically, everything takes care of itself? Surely, Randy Pausch was far more concerned about his wife and his children and his many students and disciples than he was about himself. Yet the self still seemed to rest at the center.

Randy Pausch died this summer at the age of 47. And Dave Freeman, the author of that first of the Before You Die books, 100 Things to Do Before You Die, also died this summer, also at the age of 47. Unlike Pausch, he did not know his death was coming. He simply fell at home and hit his head—having only accomplished half of the things in his book. And we, we are like both of them. Some of us know our deaths are imminent; others of us may die when we least expect it. Yet we all know our end. And this day is our rehearsal for the end. The titles we use, the words we speak, the actions we take, all tell us so. The sacred power of this day. We know it to be awesome and full of dread. For on this day, it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die. We confess, as we do on our deathbeds, all of our sins.

We stand now face to face with our own mortality. So do each of us now write our own bucket lists—what we will do in this new year, where we will go in this new year, what airplane we will parachute out of in this new year, how much weight we will lose in this new year? Do I become your Jewish life coach, all set to help you write your life lists with my own web site at www.berksons613things.com–that is after I write 120 Jewish Things to Do Before You Die? Or do I offer this as “The Last Sermon” not knowing what may even become of me?

So we return this evening to the words Rabbi Schaalman shared with us on Rosh Hashana morning. He reminded us that when God spoke, when God speaks, God needed us, needs us to hear, to respond. Created in God’s image, we became God’s partners—God’s ears and eyes, hands and feet. God needs those ears and eyes, those hands and feet, to make this the world God so desires, a world safe for us and for God. And God knew that it was not good for a person to be alone—just as God seemed to know that it was lonely without us. Everything is in relationship.

So, yes, a bucket list. Yet the bucket list has little to do with what we want to do. It has even less to do with what I may want you to do. Our bucket list is all about what God wants each of us to do. So what is it that God desires of us? To obey all 613 mitzvot? Impossible. And God knows that. To recite 100 blessings every day? Possible. And God would be delighted. To, in the words of the prophet Micah, do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with the Eternal? God would be thrilled but not a very specific bucket list for us to follow. So what is God’s bucket list for us?

A Talmudic discussion has long held my fascination. Rabbi Harold Kushner shared it with a group of rabbis many years back and he mentions it near the end of his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. Ever since, I have sought to find that passage. Truth be told, I sought to find that passage with ever greater intensity over this past summer. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself and I talked to Rabbi Kushner directly, I asked him about the passage. He, too, remembers it only as a discussion in a secondary text–but the search for it demonstrated the truth it contains—for the discussion contains God’s bucket list for each of us.

It was once said that there are three things one should do in the course of one’s life, in other words, before one dies: one should have a child; one should plant a tree; and one should write a book. Have a child, plant a tree, write a book. For having children involves more than the self; to have children involves a lasting relationship with another human being and with God. The parent-child relationship then becomes a training ground and reminder of our relationship with God. For parenthood is a covenant and a dialogue. The Talmud even specifies our parental obligations–to bring our children into the covenant, to teach our children Torah and a trade, to show our children how to swim, and to help our children find appropriate spouses. Swimming surprise you? Nu, parents need to give their children the tools with which to face the challenges of life. Knowing how to swim means being able to survive in a foreign environment. In teaching a child to swim, a parent must know how long to hold on and when to let go. And the rabbis tell us over and over about the special relationship that develops between a teacher or mentor and students. They, become, his/her children also. There are lot of ways, say the rabbis, to “have” children.

We are also told to plant a tree. For we are tenants in God’s garden and our task is to till and to tend, to serve and to guard the bounteous gift of this world. Our relationship with God is dependent upon our relationship with the world God has lent to us for safekeeping. Many of you remember the story of the ancient man who was out planting a tree as the king happened to ride past. The king noted the man’s advanced years and the tiny sapling and began to laugh knowing that the old man would not live long enough to enjoy either the tree’s fruit or the tree’s shade. Yet the old man responded that all his life he had enjoyed the fruit and the shade of trees planted long before he was born and thus he was obligated to do the same for others. We also know that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say: if you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, you should stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah. And we are told to plant a tree when we have a child. For when the child grows up and becomes married, we are to take branches of that tree and, with branches of the tree planted when his or her spouse to be was born, weave them into a huppah.

And we are told to write a book. Perhaps that book is a sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. For each Jew has the obligation to write a scroll of the Torah or, if such is not possible, to have one written in his or her name. Many of you had that opportunity in our own congregation. Words create—words build—words remember—words relate.

Yet more. For when we have children, when we plant trees, when we write books, we are forced to see beyond ourselves. Each act moves us beyond the self. Each act teaches us that our primary responsibilities are to others and to God. And each act reminds us that life is too short to be little, that God is depending upon us to endow these fleeting days with abiding worth. Now having a child, planting a tree, even writing a book will not get you to the Grand Canyon or to the top of Denali; they will surely not help you skydive or bungee jump from the Hoan Bridge; they will not even help you lose weight or help me ride my bike across America. They are, rather, the acts we take, day in and day out, to build those relationships as we bring meaning into our lives.

God’s bucket list for us. Just three things on it. Thus, this new year, have a child. Do so by spending more time with your own children no matter what their ages may be. But, as I have already said, you do not have to have your own children to have children. Do so by becoming a volunteer in our religious school or at COA or a tutor through Tikkun Ha-Ir. Do so by becoming a Foster Parent. Do so by becoming a coach or by getting involved in Scouting.

This year, plant a tree. At some point during this year, you will be able to do so literally right on the grounds of your own congregation as we begin to tend to our courtyard garden and outdoor chapel when our new building nears completion. Yet planting a tree encompasses our relationship to God’s greater world, to our responsibility to care for all of God’s creatures, to ensure that we do not destroy the world God has entrusted to us.

This year, write a book. Take out your pen and paper or turn on that computer and write the book you have always thought about. Join Diane Forman in our Writers’ Roundtable and let her begin to guide you as you write. There are so many stories here in this room yet to be shared. Begin that oral history you have thought about for so long. Get involved with the Jewish Museum. And, if you have not yet heeded my words from several years ago, be like Randy Pausch and write your ethical will, that last letter to communicate that which is most important to you to those who are most important to you. And there will be other sifrei Torah to be written, other scrolls that will need your hand.

In a particularly poor attempt at some humor, following a discussion regarding faith, the Jack Nicholson character in The Bucket List offers his sense of the meaning of life. He screams out, as only Jack Nicholson can, ‘We live. We die. The wheels on the bus go round and round.” In his bucket list, there was absolutely no connection, no relationship. But God has given us the road map between life and death, a map that ensures relationship by moving us away from self toward others and toward God–have a child, plant a tree, write a book. In so doing, may we be sealed in the Book of Life.

AMEN

Wed, October 23 2019 24 Tishrei 5780