I just received news that an old friend passed away. For ten years I served as the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara. For ten years my friend, in addition to serving on the board of trustees, was also my dentist. More than that, at least once a month we would sit across from each other at a poker table and participate in what had to be the most irreverent and inappropriate card game in the vicinity.
It was, to be kind, an odd collection of guys and I recall with great clarity that wives would all flee their homes when it was their husband’s turn to host. During that ten year run (the game is still going strong, as far as I know), we were all shaken to our respective cores when one of our number – a pediatrician – grew weak (of all things, holding a Torah as a part of the Beit Din during the chanting of Kol Nidre), had all of the tests and was diagnosed with a really nasty lymphoma. We took turns taking him to chemotherapy. We were all that close. Nothing, as it turned out, worked and he died. His funeral ranks among the top ten most difficult and poignant I have ever conducted.
The next month, when we gathered for our poker game, a strange thing happened: none of us could talk about the demise of our buddy.
We danced around the subject as though we were on loan from A Chorus Line. This was not a silence by design or indifference. We just couldn’t fathom the reality. That was then; this is now and when I received word that another of my poker pals had died – well, I felt badly, but I wasn’t shocked into speechlessness.
I do not find death surprising any more. It is a part of the rhythm that the years impose, but usually exempt the young inasmuch as that appalling and inexorable cadence is only really meant to be experienced by those who can handle it, who are prepared for it, who understand that it is an inescapable part of the deal.
That sort of wonderful naiveté is difficult to duplicate.
Good God, we were all so young – in our early to mid-thirties – and the world was, indeed, our oyster. We were all on the way up and we knew it. We basked in the reflected glow of both the present and the future. We all had that difficult – perhaps, impossible – to define optimism that speaks volumes about invincibility (the pediatrician’s death was far outside the ken of our experience).
Now, of course, we all know better.
Sometimes being oblivious isn’t so bad. It often produces behaviors that are both stupid and life-threatening (anyone who has lived with teenagers knows whereof I speak), but actually the survival rate is pretty good in spite of the odds. How many of us have averred,”If I only knew then what I know now?” But we don’t and can’t.
Every generation is forced to make essentially the same mistakes (with small variations), enjoy the same passions (with minor deviations in intensity), endure the same regrets (with small discrepancies) and reach the same conclusions while expressing surprise and wonder at the speed with which we arrived.
The combination to the lock is in the “when” knowledge of this deceptively repetitive clause in our contract with God rises to the level where we actually begin to live our lives in a way better, stronger and wiser than before. Most of the time, sooner is better than later.
But not always…