I officiated at a funeral this week of a man who died somewhere around age 95. No one in the family is exactly sure of his age, but since he’d been celebrating his ninetieth birthday for the past five years, I figure it’s safe to assume that he was close to 95 one way or another.
Dave was a remarkable man whom I had known for over 20 years. In fact, I’m one of the few people on earth who can say (with a straight face) that he married his own mother-in-law, since I had the pleasure of officiating at the wedding of Dave and my former mother-in-law some 23 years ago. As long as I knew him he was always vibrant with youth and enthusiasm, exuberant in loving life and living it to the fullest, and looked at least 20 years younger than he really was.
At his funeral his children and stepchildren, relatives and friends all spoke of his special sparkle and how much he adored and worshipped his wife, Sylvia. Every single day of their marriage he would come downstairs in the morning, give her a kiss at the breakfast table and ask, “What can I do to make you happy today?” His doctors all agreed that it was his love for Sylvia above all else that literally kept him alive all these years.
One of the qualities that I admired most about Dave was his humility and profound sense of gratitude. He was always conscious of the blessings that filled his life, of the incredible good fortune he had in having the life he had created filled with music, travel, friends, and the richness of Jewish holidays and tradition.
In the final months of his life Sylvia would often find him just sitting alone in their beautiful living room in Pacific Palisades, slowly looking around at the pictures on the walls, the furniture, the musical instruments, the architecture, and the garden scene visible through the large curved picture window. He would turn to her as she entered the room, shake his head a little and say, “I just can’t believe how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place. To think of where I have come in my life and all that I have received.”
I was thinking about Dave and how much he appreciated his life as I read this week’s Torah portion. For at the end of the portion, our patriarch and very first Jew Abraham, dies. According to the Torah Abraham died at the age of 175, and as the first Jew I can’t help but think that his death as his life was written so as to provide us with a role model for our own lives.
When Abraham dies, the description in the Torah is a lesson all its own. It is more than merely a description; it is also a prescription, a kind of challenge for how each of us ought to live each day. For we read in Chapter 25 verse 8 in Genesis, “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah…”
What stands out in this description of Abraham’s death, is that after all the trials and tribulations of his life, the family tensions and emotional pain that came with not having a child with his beloved Sarah until he was 100 and she 90 years old, the sibling rivalry, hatred and fighting between his two sons Isaac and Ishmael, the wars he had to fight, the journey he undertook leaving the safety of his family’s home and country at the age of 75, the challenge to his faith by God who seemed to demand that he be prepared to offer his beloved son as a human sacrifice – after all that and so much more in his colorful life, he still was able to die “old and contented.”
What more could any of us want to have said of us at the end of our lives than that we “breathed our last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented?” It truly is the ultimate role model as well as the ultimate personal challenge. For perhaps the best way to live our lives is to insist of ourselves that we have the courage to demand that we live each day in such a way so that others will always be able to say of us, that we died contented with our lives.
There are many ways we can act, many things we can do and accomplish that will bring us fulfillment and contentment. But perhaps the most important reason that Abraham died contented, was that he knew that his two warring sons, Isaac and Ishmael would use the occasion of his death to put away their personal differences and reconcile as brothers. For the rabbis of old believed that is why it is written, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him.” To teach us that it is never too late to embrace those from whom we have become estranged and make our families whole again.