One of the greatest blessings of being a rabbi is the privilege I so often have of being witness to the remarkable power of the human spirit. Being a rabbi, and particularly serving the unique community where I live and work given me the opportunity to be part of some of the most amazing collections of people in the world. Some of us achieve fame and renown in life and others go about their daily living quietly with little or no fanfare. Yet each of us has the opportunity every day to act in such a way as to transform the lives of others and bring untold joy, love, happiness and fulfillment into the world.
Last month I was privileged to be part of a memorial tribute for a woman so extraordinary, that her life and the power of her spirit drew over a thousand people to fill Royce Hall on the UCLA campus and create an experience the likes of which have surely never been seen before.
Imagine an event where Josh Groban, Randy Newman, Don Henley, James Ingram, Patti Austin, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand all performed; where Deepak Chopra, Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier and Steven Spielberg all spoke. Where celebrities from Tom Hanks to Jack Nicholson to Oprah were merely part of the audience. And you will probably imagine the spectacular, star-studded concert event of the season.
But it wasn’t an “event,” and it wasn’t a “concert.” It was a heart-felt, loving tribute to one of the most amazing women I have ever me – Evelyn Ostin. And the “stars” who came from throughout the country on practically a moment’s notice, weren’t there to “perform.” They came – rich and poor, celebrities and the rest of us, not because Evelyn was famous or powerful, but because like the ancient words of the Shema, she loved with all her heart, with all her soul, and with all her might.
The spirit of the experience for everyone was perhaps best captured by the quotation from a famous song by the Beatles which one of Evelyn’s granddaughters shared with us all – “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” That was why everyone was there. That was why the theatre was filled with the music of angels. That was why all those beautiful voices spoke of her deep, life-long spiritual quest for meaning and purpose and her profound need to develop deep connections with every human soul she met.
And that was why it was perhaps the single most moving experience I have ever seen and heard. For it reminded me that fundamentally every one of us is the same – with the same fears and the same dreams, and the same opportunities to open our hearts to touch the lives of others.
This is an appropriate week to think about Evelyn, for this week’s Torah portion is called “Haye Sarah,” “The Life of Sarah,” even though it begins with the story of Sarah’s death. Since the first thing that happens in the portion is that Sarah dies, the rabbis naturally ask why the portion is called “the life of Sarah?” First they answer that it is when we see how we face the death of loved ones that we know the real quality and depth of our lives. Then they point out that the first sentence in the portion says, “And the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah.” Why the redundancy? Because, the rabbis teach, even though part of her life was filled with sorrow and loss, she counted all her years as good. So too with Evelyn who though she fought with cancer for years experienced every day as a blessing.
They also taught that we call the portion in which Sarah dies “the life of Sarah” to remind us that long after her body had died and been buried, the impact of Sarah’s life has continued for generations. That is our challenge and our opportunity as well. To do the same as our matriarch, Sarah and my dear congregant Evelyn. Our goal is to live our lives so that not only do we count all our years as blessed, but that the quality of our lives is measured by the lives we have touched and the memories we leave behind