A few short days before Passover I had my final conversation with a good friend and colleague, who tragically passed away a short while later.
When I called him he was being treated in the hospital for his terminal illness. He would be going home for the holiday, only to return for further treatment.
I was calling to say hello and wish my friend blessings for a redeeming holiday. Instead our conversation took an unexpected direction, which would end being perhaps nothing less than a premonition, and an insight into the unknown crevices of the human experience.
“As much as you are loved,” Jay told me, “pain and illness is such a lonely experience.” It shakes the very core of your existence and challenges your every belief. Am I truly alone?
“You question – with your heart, not merely your mind – the purpose of it all. Why am I here? Do I truly matter? Is it all worth it?
“Illness, especially one diagnosed as ‘terminal,’ is absolutely demoralizing. Your entire significance is suddenly in question.”
I listen as Jay speaks. He is in another place. He is doing all the speaking. In a weak but determined voice he describes the shadows. Thoughtful as always, introspective and articulate Jay defines his profound challenges.
“So what do you do,” I asked him, “to maintain hope and strength when you are feeling so down and alone?”
“I go off to my own world. I have my dreams that transport me to another place. Thank G-d for the mind, which can lift you to other places.”
Jay describes the place he is transported to: “I see myself covered in warm polar bear skins near a fire. The skins keep me so warm from the bitter cold surrounding me. Ahh, it’s so warm here. I hear the comforting words of my Rebbe telling me that all will be fine.
“I feel that my life is significant. I do make a difference, and I am needed. That’s ultimately our greatest source of strength: That life is worth it. Because our contribution is indispensable.”
I, of course, have to throw in a bit of skepticism. I don’t know what it is about me: I can’t let things be; I feel compelled to challenge. Or maybe I feel awkward with a gnawing need to say something. So I ask Jay (which means that I am really asking myself): “But how do we really know that life is truly meaningful and that our acts are significant?”
His answer still resonates, especially in retrospect, coming from his vulnerable moment of truth:
“I would rather live a life deceiving myself of its absolute significance than to live in a mediocre reality of no consequence. It’s the only thing that allows me to survive, the only power that allows me to fight.”
Before anyone of our friendly non-believers jumps on this statement, allow me to clarify. We may never be able to prove whether life is absolutely meaningful or not, which of course is connected to belief in G-d and a life of design and purpose, rather than one of randomness. Yet, the intelligent believer, even with all things being equal, would rather choose a life of purpose (even if it were an illusion) than an aimless life (even if it were real).
And perhaps that is the ultimate expression of free will: Which one will we choose when we may not be able to prove one way or the other?
Words that come from the heart enter the heart. Jay’s last words to me came from a place of truth. All his defenses were stripped; all he had was his vulnerable self, agenda less. Moments like these should never be ignored. The deepest truths emerge when the superficial surface of life is peeled away.
Now when I think about it, Jay was obviously seeing two worlds at once: The cold reality of his aching body, and the warmth of the inner life.
I learned many things from my good friend, both personally and professionally, some of which is expressed in the work that we do here at the MLC (Meaningful Life Center), and much more to come.
But perhaps the greatest things that I learned from him were the truths I heard from a man about to exit one dimension to enter another.
Twice in life the portal opens up between the spiritual and material worlds. At death, when the earth opens up to receive its own. And at birth, when the womb opens up to deliver a new life.
The Kabbalah teaches us that as a person gets closer to returning to the inner world they often have premonitions. Often illness and disease open up chambers of deeper awareness.
This is one of the great dilemmas of life: Why it is that we can only see the inner world when the outer one is weakened?
The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was a non-judgmental and lover of all people regardless of background [we can use more Rabbis like that today]. He was a powerful advocate of the people before G–d. Once, in defense of human failings, he turned to G-d and declared (in Yiddish): “A groiser kuntz hos Du bavizen.” You demonstrated a great scheme (or prank): You put the people in a material world with all its distortions and temptations, and You tell us in the holy books that there is a spiritual world. The material we experience, the spiritual we read about. Why don’t you turn things around for once: Allow us to live and experience the sublime, and write about physical temptations in a book… Then You will see how the people will behave.
Goodbye my friend Jay. Goodbye to one world and hello to another. We await for these two worlds to finally meet. Very soon.