There are many ways in which we are defined as a people. The choice of how we present ourselves to the outside world is an important factor in our own self conception. Historically, we have suffered -- of this there is no question. In fact, one of the famous jokes about Judaism is that many of our holidays can be reduced to "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." We could paint ourselves through the lens of such challenges. We could be the people of exile and extermination. We could say that our identity rests on oppression and sadness. We could see the entire world as a series of tests and struggles. We wouldn't be wrong, but we also wouldn't be bringing anything to our experience. In a similar way, we could see ourselves as simple celebrants. God, in his majesty, has saved us and we, merely his pawns, rejoice at our good fortune. Our holidays are markers of victories and the world exists for us to dominate.
But we don't do that. We don't see our world as resting on our past, for good or for bad. We don't view the entirety of existence, ourselves and all around us as the collective ups and downs which brought us to where we are now. In fact, in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of The Fathers, two visions are presented for how the world stands:
Shimon the Righteous in statement 2 says that the world depends on
2. The Service of God
3. Kind deeds
In statement 18, Shimon the son of Gamliel lists three things through which the world endures
The world exists not through our collective memories of all we have endured -- not through the virtue of our suffering, or even by dint of our miraculous survival. The world exists because of the positive actions and traits which we aspire to every day.
My Uncle Jeff Cooper passed away recently. He was a Shimon (Shimon ben Moshe) of great wisdom and he gave me a new list of three things through which his world continued to exist:
Dr. Cooper was a man of uncommon joy and happiness. He had had his share of sadness in his life. He endured loss and pain and used it as a catalyst to celebrate existence. He danced with abandon, he celebrated every waking moment. His smile lit up more than a room -- it pierced the hearts of everyone in the room. When he was there, you wanted to be happy and somehow you tapped into the river of pure celebration. Even when he was serious, he made the case that being somber and intense was just one way of ensuring future opportunities for joy. A lecture now will allow you to be more successful and happy later.
Uncle Jeff was a man who belonged to everyone. I married into the family -- but not even really his family. He was my wife's uncle, related to me only by the slimmest of margins and loosest of definitions. But he was my Uncle Jeff anyway and my tears for him are not for someone I knew in passing, but for a great man who worked hard to be a part of my life. After hearing from others, I know that he became more than a doctor, a friend or a resource for everyone. He was a father to the world, shared by his family so that everyone else could benefit. He shared his joy with me, but he also expressed a concern or me and for my world that set him apart. When I had medical questions, I became his priority. When he visited and asked after my kids, my parents, my brother, my sister and their kids -- he did so with a sincerity of interest. He wasn't simply making rote small talk or going through the motions; he truly wanted to know how people were and stay updated and involved in their exploits. An endlessly empathetic listener, he cared about how other people were doing and when he spoke to you, you were the only person in the room because he invested all his boundless energy into understanding you.
And Uncle Jeff loved to learn. He had questions and opinions and he shared them. He investigated and studied (people, places and things). He wanted to grasp not just life, but knowledge, and shake from it all he could. And once he learned, he wanted to give it back to everyone. My lifestyle was not his but he never put up a wall. He saw our time together and our conversations as a chance to broaden his own horizons and understand what was important to me. Holiday dinners and family get togethers were full of Uncle Jeff's curiosity -- everything from the meaning of ritual to the recipes for the evening's dishes. He spoke with my children as if they were his own grandchildren, keeping track of their lives, asking about their schools and hobbies and making them feel like he was hanging on every word as he listened with rapt attention to each detail.
So I will not define Jeff's life by either the sadness he endured or the wonderful milestones he celebrated. I will carry his lessons inside myself and try to live up to what he established as the pillars upon which the world exists. I will try to keep that flame of joy as part of who I am every day. I will work to be involved in my world and make every person's experience as important to me as my own. And I will ask in the spirit in which he asked, driven by a fascination with the world and inspired by a need to know more. If I can follow this new Ethic of this Father, this Shimon, then I do more than honor a memory; I bring him back and share him with everyone I encounter, keeping him alive so another generation can benefit from what he taught.
Tehei Nishmato Tzrura Bitzror Hachaim, “May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.”