Life and deaths

Joseph Aaron

Sometimes, G-d sends us subtle messages, sometimes He hits us right on the head, right between the eyes.

One can only hope we are starting to get the message after the jarring events of the last week or so.

It began with Roseanne, who was on top of the world one day, with the highest rated comedy on television, making millions of dollars. And then literally within hours, it was all gone, all because of a few words.

But evidently that wasn’t enough to make us stop and ponder the deeper meaning of it all. In a head spinning couple of days, we learned that Kate Spade, one of this country’s most famous and most beloved fashion designers, had killed herself. She was all of 55. Then we learned that Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, popular TV personality, food expert and man about town, had killed himself. He was all of 61. And then we heard from Charles Krauthammer, one of the best newspaper columnists in America, who told us he has only weeks to live.

It’s been enough to take your breath away, after you’ve cried your eyes out. We have a right to be devastated by each of those events, let alone by the succession of them. But being upset, freaked out is not enough. Judaism calls on us to learn Jewish lessons from it all and there are very many indeed to be learned.

And that’s not just because three of the four, all but Kate Spade, are Jews. Roseanne is Jewish, Krauthammer is Jewish and yes, Anthony Bourdain is Jewish. His mother, who is still alive, is a Jew.

Indeed, there are so many Jewish teachings from these events that is hard to know where to start. I guess I’d start with Spade and Bourdain and the teaching from ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ that ‘who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion.’

We all think we’d be much happier if we had a lot of money, if we were famous, had power, if we could do whatever we wanted to do. But what the examples of Spade and Bourdain show is that that ain’t necessarily so.

Bourdain seemed to live an ideal life. He was incredibly wealthy, incredibly popular, and his job was to fly anywhere in the world he wanted to eat whatever he wanted and to tell us about it. That was it. His career was going everywhere and eating everything. For which he was paid millions of dollars.

And yet, though he led a life most of us would give anything for, he ended that life by hanging himself, all alone, in a hotel room. Kate Spade hung herself in the bedroom of her home, which she shared with her 13-year-old daughter. Both were driven by who knows what demons so strong that they couldn’t see all the advantages they had, how blessed they were. On the outside, at least. What was inside of each of them was obviously something completely else.

I must admit I find it impossible to understand how someone could be driven to take their own life. I simply can’t imagine the pain one must have to be in to decide to methodically get together the equipment needed to hang yourself, how things could be so dark, so bad that you saw no other way to deal with it. Showing yet again how unfathomable the human mind is and how no one can really understand another person and so has no right ever to judge another person.

What I get most from the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain is to remember what’s important in life, to not chase after the material things that so many of us so much think about and try to get. They got it, they had it all and yet in the end they had nothing. They were not satisfied with their portion, indeed they felt they could no longer continue to live.

Roseanne’s fall reminds me of the power of words and how much harm there is in saying the wrong thing. In Judaism, it’s called ‘shmirat halashon’ watching the words that come out of our mouths, always being aware of every word we utter and always trying very hard to avoid ‘lashon hara,’ evil talk, meaning gossiping about others or criticizing others or calling others names.

The heartbreaking case of Krauthammer reminds me of the Jewish teachings about being a mensch, that ‘derech eretz kudmah l’Torah,’ that before you learn Torah first learn how to be kind to others, act like a Jew should act, always toward everyone.

Krauthammer has shown us how a decent person is, and his love of Judaism and of Israel, and his willingness to speak up for both, showed us that we are to be proud of who we are and what we are.

And he not only showed us how to live, but in his poignant farewell letter, he showed us how to die, with grace, with acceptance, with thanks. That’s how you feel when your life is about to end if you have lived your life the right way.

He concluded his letter, after informing us that his doctors have told him the cancer ravaging his body means he has but weeks to live, writing “I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

Such simple and yet such profound words. Is there a better way to feel at the end, is there anything more satisfying even facing death than to leave feeling you have lived a wonderful life, a life of great loves and great endeavors, a life that you intended to live.

In Judaism, we are taught to ‘choose life,’ meaning to always do the things, follow the course that is most noble, most life affirming, a life in accord with Jewish teachings about what is the way to make the most of the precious time G-d gives us, to live it so that when your time comes you have no sense of regret but rather a feeling that you have done the right thing, acted the right way, been a good person.

In hearing about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and the imminent death of Charles Krauthammer, I thought of two of the greatest rabbis of the last century. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was the leading expert on Jewish law in the world in the last century. He knew the entire Talmud by heart. Almost none of us ever learns the entire Talmud and even the most learned of us learns it maybe three or four times in their life. Rabbi Feinstein went through the entire Talmud more than 200 times in his 90 years. And yet despite his unbelievable breadth of knowledge, what he is most remembered for is his gentle manner, his simple kindness, his love for every Jew. He never belittled or demeaned any Jew, never made any Jew feel lesser, he embraced and loved deeply every Jew. There are so many stories told about his kindness, but the one I like best is about the elderly woman who would call him every Friday to ask him what time was Shabbat candlelighting. And he always cheerfully would tell her. One day a student of his asked why he didn’t just send her a calendar that lists the times for the entire year so he wouldn’t have to be bothered with it each and every week. He was baffled by the question, saying he was happy to have the opportunity to do a kindness for a fellow Jew. A message it would be good for each of us to remember. Imagine what today’s Jewish world would be like if we all felt that way.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe spent his life reaching out to every single Jew on earth. Literally. There is not a Jewish community anywhere on the planet that does not have a Chabad House. Go anywhere in the world and you know there will be one place, one rabbi you can call who will help you with anything you need. The Rebbe believed in the value of every Jew, in caring about and for every Jew, believed that all Jews needed to remember we have much more in common than that which separates us and that by helping each other, being there for each other, embracing each other, we all are doing G-d’s work on earth.

I thought of these two rabbis and the lives they lived, the examples they set, the messages they sent and so wished that those messages had been felt by Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Spade and Bourdain were two incredibly accomplished people, such talented people. Spade’s designs meant so much to so many women, gave them such satisfaction, and yet for all the good she did, she felt so dark inside, so empty inside, so  hurting inside that she saw no option but to kill herself. So with Bourdain with all the joy he brought so many, all the places and foods he introduced to so many. In the end they both felt all alone, with nowhere to turn, no one to turn to, eagerly seeking death as the ultimate relief.

Charles Krauthammer didn’t seek death, it sadly found him. But he was able to accept that fate with equanimity, indeed with peace, for all his life he knew what he wanted to do, knew why he was doing it and did it all with grace and kindness and in an effort to inform others, engage in civilized conversation with others, all guided by his love of life and love of Judaism.

The most appropriate way we can react to all we’ve seen is to vow to embrace our lives, improve our lives, make the most of our lives. Not the most in the sense of how rich we are or how famous we are, since we have just vividly seen how hollow that can be and how it offers no comfort in the end, but rather make the most of our live in the spirit of Krauthammer, filling our lives with great loves and great endeavors, living our lives with intention, informed by Jewish teachings and the examples of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Roseanne has shown us how important it is to watch we say. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have shown us what is really important in life, what truly gives meaning to our life. Charles Krauthammer is showing us that if we live life correctly, we will not look to escape it in desperation like Spade and Bourdain, but rather will make the most of every minute, and will face its inevitable conclusion with a sense of having gotten meaning from every moment of the time we have been given.

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