There's a wonderful teaching: "Life is like a butterfly. Hold life too tightly, and you crush it; hold life too loosely and it will slip away." I've been giving this teaching a lot of thought. We know that this amazing life -- the life we find so wondrous; the life we find so beautiful -- can easily slip through our fingers. We know that, because everything is temporary, we should hold life dear. But how do we live with that thought every day?
One of my mother's favorite authors is Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Tragically, Rabbi Steinberg died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 46. Just before he died, he delivered his final sermon to his congregational family. He titled it: "To Hold with Open Arms." He wrote, "After a long debilitating illness, I stepped outdoors for the first time. As I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, as long as I live, I will never forget that moment. ... I said to myself, `How precious this sunlight is, and how careless we human beings are with it.'"
"How precious -- how careless" has echoed a lot through my mind recently. I travelled to California to visit my mom. I was there to be fully present while she battles cancer and her stroke, and presently her inability to swallow or speak clearly. My heart broke when I saw how thin she has become. There in my childhood home I was confronted with my mother's mortality. I took it all in. My mother has limited use of only one hand, so to communicate she uses a stylus pen and very, very slowly she taps out her words.
My mother has been a fighter her whole life but, for the first time, I heard her say, "I'm afraid." She's afraid, not of dying but rather, of not living. Slowly and painfully she typed for me, "Missing Faith's bat mitzvah was the worst loss of my life." Because of her failing health, my mother didn't attend our daughter's bat mitzvah.
Realizing how important it was to her, I had it all recorded and the DVD went out to her two days after the celebration. My mom responded by typing these poignant words, "Wonderful to see; Painful to not have been there."
"How precious -- how careless." I've had my mother available to me every day of my life. I'm a rabbi because of my mother's influence. On this trip I realized, "How precious my time with her is, and how careless I've been in letting it slip away."
When Rabbi Steinberg returned to his pulpit for the very last time before his death, he quoted the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "O world, I cannot hold thee close enough." After he shared his thoughts about holding close all that we love, he added this important second part, "And when it's time to let go, open your hand and gently let it all slip away. ...We can't become paralyzed by the pain. We must leave life behind us. Time passes without our ability for a firm grasp."
This is the lesson of the butterfly. Hold life too tightly and you crush it. Hold life too loosely and it will slip away. Time passes without our ability for a firm grasp. We try to hold on, but we really can't. It's over all too soon.
Going home to see my mother taught me yet again that we are all brushing up against our own mortality.
Sadly, the door has become more open for my mother. It's only our faith which firmly charges us to figure out how to enjoy the sunlight now, treasure every moment of unbridled joy, and yet prepare to let life go. In his final days, Rabbi Steinberg understood life's contradiction. He wrote: "We frail mortals are involved in a tug of war. One side is our necessity to constantly affirm life; the other side is our necessity to relinquish life and all it contains. And as our mortal rope tugs in both directions, we experience the tension. ... Life is dear, let us then hold it tight, while yet we may; but we must hold it loosely also. And only our faith in God can ease the intolerable tension of our existence. ... Only because of God is it possible for us to grasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms."
Rabbi Steinberg taught us to "Hold with Open Arms." I went to my childhood home in California, and I sat with my mom. I looked at the wall of bar mitzvah pictures of myself and my three younger brothers.
I looked at all the pictures of my loved ones who are no longer here, and I felt their absence keenly. I remembered the many hugs and kisses I received that I didn't really treasure; the many moments that passed when I didn't hug or kiss the ones I love.
I realize this memory is both accurate and faulty; the embraces of our loved ones are always with us. They are held eternally in our open arms.
God keeps in his Shepherd's pouch all the souls that ever were or ever will be. The last words Rabbi Steinberg ever wrote were, "I thank the Lord God of Israel that He gave me sharp eyes, sharp enough to see the angel of death on his way." Read Full Article
My mother will eternally be a treasure within my life. I pray for her ease of body and spirit, God willing in this world. But I take comfort in holding her in absolute love with my open arms.
Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz is senior rabbi, Temple Sholom of Greenwich, and co-founder of the Sholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship, and a past president of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy. For an archive of past Greenwich Citizen Columns, please visit www.templesholom.com.