Bronnie Ware, a registered nurse in Australia, did a fascinating study a couple of years ago. She spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last few months of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies and put her observations into a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently she writes, “common themes surfaced again and again.”
The number one regret was, “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
At the moment of utmost clarity people wished that they had spent more time pursuing a life true to themselves and their feelings. In other words, they wished they had spent their years living, rather than acquiring the materials for future living, which they so often don’t get the chance to have. These people’s biggest regret was that they were repressed, whether by themselves or others. They never truly expressed themselves.
How do we assure ourselves that our lives will be different? What can we do today that will inspire and direct us to be that certain individual with a goal — pursuing happiness, meaning and gratification?
I would like to share a story with you:
In December 1995, Boston businessman Aaron Feuer¬stein had just returned home from his 70th birthday party, when a phone call informed him that his Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Mass., burned down. Twenty-six employees had been injured, some seriously.
Three thousand people worked at Malden Mills. When the employ¬ees saw the devastation wrought by the fire, they assumed, as one worker put it, “The fire is out of control. Our jobs are gone.”
The fire was indeed out of control, but Feuerstein was not. A pious Jew who studied Talmud every day, Feuerstein recalled how his father would quote the Talmudic aphorism, “In a place where there is no man, be a man” (Pirke Avot 2:5). In the immediate aftermath of the fire, he met with 1,000 employ¬ees and told them, “When all the textile mills in Lawrence ran out to get cheaper labor down south, we stuck. We're going to stay and rebuild.”
Two days later, wages were due. “Pay everyone in full,” Feuerstein ordered — and on time. Along with the payroll checks, Feuerstein included a $275 bonus for the New Year season, and a note: “Do not despair. God bless each of you.”
The following day, Feuerstein convened a meeting of his employ¬ees and announced, “For the next 30 days, it might be longer, all employees will be paid full salaries.” Thirty days became 90 as he arranged for temporary facilities. The total cost of supporting his people after the fire came to $25 million.
Did either American or Jewish law require Feuerstein to act as he did? No. That is why his generous actions received national acclaim, and were the subject of numerous articles in magazines and newspapers.
In addition to feeling compassion for his employees and want¬ing to rebuild his business, Feuerstein exemplified the most exalted Jewish value: Sanctifying God’s name (kiddush Hashem).
The Talmud tells a story that illustrates the meaning of this term. The sage Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach found a precious stone hanging around the neck of a donkey he had bought from a non-Jew. Refusing to yield to the requests of his disciples who urged him to keep the treasure Providence had sent to him, he returned the stone, saying, “I bought a donkey, not a precious stone.” The non-Jewish witness to the sage’s integrity thereupon exclaimed, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shatach.”
God’s name becomes sanctified when those who claim to have a relationship with Him act in such a manner that makes it evident how faith transforms a life. Shimon ben Shatach would not have endangered his reputation nor violated the national law if he had decided to keep the stone. In returning the stone Rabbi Shimon moved a man to say, “If this behavior is the child of faith, then faith is worth having.”
When non-Jews with whom you interact know that you are Jewish, you are no longer merely an individual. For better or for worse, you become an ambassador of the Jewish people to the non-Jewish world. When you act nobly and ethically, you bring honor and purpose to yourself, the Jewish people, and God Himself.
Looking back over the past 2,000 years we have never had such amazing opportunities, when Judaic virtues have been more admired by non-Jews. We are admired for our strong community life, the warmth of Jewish family, our passion for education, our growing commitment to philanthropy. Today we have the chance to be an outstanding voice in the moral conversations of mankind.
Indeed, we all have a special calling. At the heart of the covenant at Mount Sinai the Jews were summoned by God to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
As Jews we are summand to engage in tikkun olam, “perfecting the world” under the sovereignty of God. We are commended to become “partners with the Holy One Blessed Be He, in the work of creation.” Hence we each possess the capacity to positively influence all people, elements and events of our world; we can become “a light onto the nations” by saturating our life with holiness and nobility. Through the integrity with which we conduct our business or professional lives, by the grace that we bring to our relationships, by the beauty that radiates from our homes, by the way we use words to heal and not to hurt, every one of us can sanctify God’s name in the world.
President John Adams put it in these words: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.”
There is an old Jewish saying: “When it is very cold, there are two ways of keeping warm. One is to put on a fur coat. The other is to light a fire. Put on a fur coat and keep yourself warm; light a fire and you share your warmth with others.”
As Jews we have been charged to share our warmth with others and light the fire of God and compassion throughout the world. This is our calling. This is our destiny. If you are truly engaged and encompassed in this life pursuit, not only will you change the world around you, but at the end of time you will have no regrets!