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Friday, June 21, 2024

Eulogy or legacy?

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman

(JNS) Sadly, rabbis often officiate at funerals and are called upon to deliver a hesped, a eulogy. But the most gifted speechwriter cannot change the facts of life. They are what they are. We are who we are. We can make it sound better or worse, but at the end of the day there are those who know the truth and you can’t fool the world.

Mind you, someone once did come up with an ingenious editorial formula for getting around the truth.

A prominent family decided to hire a professional genealogist to research and publish their family tree. Their whole noble yichus and pedigree would now be recorded for posterity.

After a few months of serious research, the genealogist met with the family and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is you have a wonderful family tree. The bad news is that your late great-great-uncle Albert was a notorious criminal who was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.”

In the end, after much editorial license, the family tree stated: “Great uncle Albert occupied the chair of higher electronics at a well-known American institution. His death came as a real shock.”

So, maybe they can forge the records here and there. But in the great record book on high and in the minds and hearts of men and women below, there are no forgeries. There is no editing, there are no euphemisms and no bubbe meises. Just hard facts, plain truth and unvarnished reality.

The real question is not so much what they’ll say in our eulogy, but what our legacy will be for the next generation and forever.

That’s why, on Yom Kippur, we wear a kittel, a white, shroud-like garment: to remind us of our mortality. As the verse says in Psalm 49, ki lo bmoto yikach hakol, which in plain English means, “You can’t take it with you.” Not your money, not your stock portfolios, not even your No. 3 golf handicap.

The one and only thing we can take with us is our good deeds. Every mitzvah comes along with us and stands at the heavenly court in our defense. They continue to speak volumes about us long after we are gone. Every good deed, every kind word, every encouraging act is eternal and everlasting. Every holy prayer, every act of compassion, every act of tzedakah—these are eternal. These we do take with us.

Or as someone once put it very well: “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it ahead.”

We are all familiar with the tradition of covering mirrors in a house of mourning. One of the reasons given for this is that we are all creatures of habit. And what happens every time we pass a mirror? We stop to take a look. We make sure everything is in place and we are looking good. We all have our own idiosyncrasies, don’t we? This one adjusts her blouse, this one his tie. Another makes sure his remaining three strands of hair are strategically placed. Another reapplies her lipstick or powders her nose.

But during the shiva, when we are mourning the loss of a loved one, God forbid, it is the wrong time to get caught up in the silly vanities of life. Shiva is a time to focus on what really counts in life: the person, the values and the legacy. During the shiva, we are suddenly jolted to a higher level of existence. In one traumatic second, we are catapulted into a state of mind in which we are more sensitive, more considerate and deeper people with a better appreciation for the frailties of life and the value of life. In a second, we suddenly understand the popular proverb: “Life is fragile. Handle with care.”

At a time like that, to stand preening in front of a mirror is completely out of touch with the reality of the moment. But we are creatures of habit. That’s why we cover the mirrors: To make sure we don’t get trapped by our little idiosyncrasies, lest we be snared by the silly superficiality of it all.

We should be far more meaningful people at such times, preoccupied with far more elevated issues. Not vanity but values. Not make-up or mascara but meaning. Not glitz and glamor but gratitude and goals in life.

Yom Kippur is just such a time of reflection. A time when we must be sensitive to a higher reality.

I once heard of a rabbi who was sick in the hospital and the kids at his nursery school were asked to send him a get-well card. One little boy wrote, “Roses are red, violets are blue. You are in bed but at least you’re not dead.”

As long as we’re alive, we still have time to make life count for something more than a few bucks, a good golf score or a beautifully powdered nose.

There has never been a more appropriate time than right now to think about these things and do something about it.

Rabbis are nice people and they want to say nice things about people at their funerals, but we need some material. Please give us something meaningful to talk about.

May we all utilize the coming holy day and this rare, pensive moment wisely and productively. May the gift of life we have all been given be utilized fully and meaningfully. May we leave a legacy on earth that will speak eloquently of our time spent here. And may we never need a eulogy because Moshiach will be coming very soon indeed.


Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

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