A little while back, my husband and I went into the Old City to do a bit of praying by the Wall, and to grab a bite to eat.
That’s not such a big deal – we’ve been going to the Kotel pretty much most Friday nights for over a year, and my daughter goes to school in the Old City, so I’ve been driving in and out for a month now.
But this was the first time in a few weeks that we actually spent some time there. We got our shwarma, found a table to sit at outside, and then had to spend the next half an hour listening to some older Anglo woman complaining loudly into her cellphone about all the people who were ‘living in a dream’ around her.
‘These people are crazy! They’re letting their two year olds play outside by themselves [in the completely pedestrianized Hurva Square in the centre of the Jewish Quarter]; there’s no policemen here, no security, nothing! Anything could happen! I can’t believe what’s going on here and no-one is taking me seriously. I complain and complain but no-one makes a move to come back to me.’
I’d had enough of hearing her moaning after a minute, but sadly, she kept on going and even outlasted my shwarma.
I walked down to the Kotel afterwards, and I pondered that woman and her hyper-vigilance, and hyper-anxiety about the ‘matzav’, and her hyper-criticism of the people who weren’t just cowering in their basements or walking around with arm guards.
Is that life? Is that really how God wants us to live?
OK, sure, I know things a little crazy right now, and I’m driving my kid to school instead of letting her walk like usual, but there comes a point where quality of life in the here and now has to trump quantity of life.
I’ve just finished reading Bernie Siegel’s ‘Love, Medicine and Miracles’, and apart from a couple of passing references to yoshki, it’s one of the best and most uplifting spiritual books I’ve ever read, despite being full of death and cancer.
One of the themes that Siegel, a busy surgeon who had an epiphany 30 years’ back that attitude, emotions and soul were much more powerful healing forces than anything he could offer his patients, underlines again and again that life shouldn’t be measured in years; it should be measured in happiness.
Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender said the same, when he commented:
‘You may only live a little, but live it well and make it nice!’
Siegel saw patient after patient hating their life, and looking to their incurable disease as the ‘out’. He also saw patient after patient having their life unnaturally extended by all sorts of horrific medical interventions, instead of being able to die naturally and at peace, surrounded by their loved ones.
(I’m not a halachic authority, and I’m not going to get into the whole ‘right to die’ debate, but what I can tell you is that Rebbe Nachman was really against doctors and medicine and he advised to avoid both completely, as much as possible.)
One of the things Bernie Siegel used to ask his patients is:
‘If you knew today was your last day, how would you live it? What would you change?’
It’s a question for all of us. I sat in the Jewish Quarter listening to the unhappy, hyper-critical ‘concerned citizen’ and I wondered what she’d be doing with her time if she knew today was the last day of her life. I asked myself the same thing – and it was the first time that I can remember being thrilled that I’d spent far more time writing than tidying up my house and hanging laundry.
I asked my husband that question, and he immediately snapped out of his funny mood, and found something more productive to do with his time.
Our sages say that we should make teshuva the day before we die, which practically means we have to live as though every day is our last, because maybe it is. Yes, there’s a place for precaution and soldiers on street corners, but in our modern world there’s too much emphasis placed on length of days, and nowhere near enough put on amount of happiness.
I’ll come back to this idea again, BH, but let me leave you with this:
If you knew today was your last day, what would you do differently?