Bestselling author, member of our community and the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Steve Leder’s new book “The Beauty of What Remains, How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift,” was recently published by Penguin Random House.
Written exquisitely, this book is ultimately not about death, but about leading a more beautiful life because of it. The timing of the book’s release is especially relevant today, as there is no better event than a pandemic to prove to each of us that life is temporary and precious.
“Death is the great teacher of life,” says Rabbi Leder. The pandemic has forced us to change, to slow down, to eliminate so much, and in so doing, it has revealed the beauty that was there all along. It inspires us to live a more meaningful life, filled with love, devoid of excess and replete with essentials.
In this new book, which became a best seller on its first day, Rabbi Leder takes us on parallel journeys, one that he experienced as a rabbi and one as a son. After 30 years of guiding thousands of congregants through loss and grief, he is forced to grapple with and confront his own feelings with the passing of his father. Rabbi Leder’s message could not be more welcome, healing and inspiring.
As a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple for the past 25 years, I have witnessed Rabbi Leder’s profound teachings and experienced his immeasurable compassion.
This latest book is one of his “greatest gifts” as he shares his wisdom and his life experiences while guiding us to live a beautiful and meaningful life. I was deeply and positively affected by it.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Leder for his first print interview about the book.
Part I of 2
For almost a year now, this horrible pandemic has affected our world and has taught us many lessons. You say, “The global fear of death woke the entire world from its slumber. It has stripped a lot of nonsense from our lives.” What other life lessons have we learned?
We’ve learned to be grateful for the most seemingly ordinary of things. A roll of paper towels, a slice of toast with butter, cooking together, eating together, playing games together, walking in our neighborhoods, the simplest things. This pandemic has taught us a lesson in essentialism. Really the beauty of essentialism, without dismissing the pain and suffering behind the reason.
And you speak about the importance of being with the people you love most.
Yes. And one of the things I think the pandemic has taught us is it’s not a very long list. It’s an important reminder that it’s who, not what, we have that matters. It also has taught us about those who have less and our obligations to help them. We’ve all learned, if we didn’t know it before, just how poor and vulnerable most Americans really are, and that presents its own opportunities to serve. I see the pandemic as a call to duty, one colossal epic call to duty.
During these times, which of the five senses do people miss most?
The ability to touch. Assuming you have food to eat and a place to live. I miss hugging people. You know, at funerals, for example, since we’re talking about death, not to be able to embrace someone who is suffering and mourning and grieving is so difficult and wrong. But we don’t have a choice.
The quote, “Tragedy and sorrow come to all of us. It’s part of what it means to be human and alive.” What can we do to help the pain?
There are a lot of things that can diminish our pain when we’re suffering. The most important of which is to reach out. The Talmud says, “The prisoner cannot free himself.” It’s such a powerful thought. We have to reach out. Death and grief are an invitation to reach out, and to respond when reached out to. The worst part of pain is not the particular affliction. It’s the feeling of isolation and abandonment that hurts so much. And if we can pierce that feeling of isolation and abandonment, then there’s healing regardless of the medical condition.
The next thing of course is to prevent yourself from catastrophizing the future, as much as possible. Hope really matters. Hope makes a difference. You can live for a day without food. You can live without electricity. You can live without your internet. You can live for a day without many things. You cannot live for a single day without hope.
This is so baked into Judaism. The National Anthem of the Jewish people is Hatikvah, the Hope. We end the Seder by saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ which is the hope for return to Israel. We open the door to Elijah, the prophet who will herald redemption. You can’t even say goodbye in Hebrew. The word we use when parting is Lehitra’ot, which means, ‘Until we see each other again.’ Even goodbyes are said with hope. I think when dealing with pain, hope is extremely important. Most people I meet with when they’re suffering, it may be the worst thing they’ve ever been through, but it’s not the only difficult thing they’ve ever gotten through. And it’s very important to remember that everything that helped us get through difficult things in the past, all of those resources, internal and external, are still with us. We’re still able to use them to move forward.
When a person is near death, who is most fearful? The surviving family members, afraid of facing life without them, or the dying person?
I have spent 33-plus years of being at the bedside of dying people; people who are really actively dying; literally hours or a day or two away from death. And I ask, ‘are you afraid?’ Not once has the answer been yes. Because when you are really ready to die, it is as natural a part of life as breathing. In my experience, the living, not the dying, are the ones who are afraid.
Most often old age and/or disease have a way of preparing the living for death, they have their own rhythm and power that brings everyone along until you get to a point, which is unimaginable under any other circumstance, where death begins to make perfect sense.
If you really love someone, then that means you love them so much that you are able to put what is best for them ahead of what is best for you. And while it may be best for you to remain alive, there are many times when what is best for the afflicted person is for death to arrive as a peaceful friend.
This is very helpful to people who come to see me and say they’re really afraid of dying. And I say, that’s good because that’s the clearest indicator that you’re not. If you’re afraid of dying, it is not your day. It’s counter-intuitive but true that fear of death can calm people down when they understand it’s a clear sign they are not dying.
Anxiety is for the living?
Yes, which means you have time to let death teach you about living and loving your life.
In the book you say for better or for worse, death is life’s mirror.
This is another one of those counter-intuitive points where addressing the fantasy that people have about dying and death manages expectations. For example, I often get a call like this: ‘Rabbi, I’ve had a terrible relationship with my father most of my life, but he just received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that gives him three to six months to live. Now I’m really looking forward to having a great relationship with him during these last few months of his life.’ My response is, ‘That’s possible, but it’s unlikely,’ because people tend to die exactly the way they live.
If your father was difficult, or had an anger problem, or was indifferent to you in life, most probably that’s how he’s going to be in death. So sometimes it’s really bad news that people die the way they live. But sometimes it’s really beautiful and wonderful news because that means that someone who was generous and kind and loving in life will be that way in death. Dying does not give people a new personality. It just doesn’t. I think knowing this is actually helpful, not hurtful, for those of us who mourn.
You say that death makes everyone more so. Can you explain?
As I said, death doesn’t change someone’s personality, but it does intensify it. The planners become more intense planners, the jokers tell more jokes, the feeders bring more food, the deniers go deeper into denial and the gossipers gossip more. Sometimes it is terrible and sometimes it’s beautiful, but it is almost always true that people die the way they live.
In the chapter, ‘When more is not better,’ you speak about the challenges you face when called to a dying person’s bedside to talk about euthanasia. You wear two different hats, the man and the rabbi. Sometimes you are torn between traditional wisdom and today’s science, between Jewish law and civil laws governing the human condition. The story of your friend Tara is an exquisite depiction of this conflict and the struggles you face as a spiritual leader. How do you find clarity?
I don’t think you ever really find clarity. I think you learn to live with ambiguity. Sometimes it’s very clear what the right decision is, regardless of what Jewish law might say. But many times, it is not so clear and you make a judgment call and you learn to live with the ambiguity of it.
We all are raised to believe that when we have a choice to make, if we make the right choice, we’re going to have a good outcome, and if we make the wrong choice, we’re going to have a bad outcome. One of the many things I’ve learned as a rabbi is that often, life doesn’t give us a good choice or a bad choice. It gives us a bad choice and a worse choice. We have to reckon with that and the ambiguity of it all.
There’s an old Yiddish expression that says a half truth is a whole lie. Let’s apply that thinking to eulogies. What is the importance of telling the truth when someone dies? How is it a blessing, or is it a curse? And please share about the art of telling the truth.
I think that ultimately, when you are honoring a person who has died, you honor them by revealing their humanity. I don’t think you’re honoring someone by presenting a perfect, which therefore means false, characterization. I think you really honor someone by revealing the depths of that person’s humanity, which includes their failures and flaws. Obviously, this has to be done with great sensitivity and intelligence and heart. There’s a way to create a full and rounded picture of a person’s life, including failures and flaws without cruelty and damning judgment.
This is very much about both what needs be said and how it ought to be said. There are ways to frame a flaw that are beautiful or hilarious. It’s an art. Fundamentally, I think that if a eulogy is only two dimensional, it will ultimately not honor the deceased the way a full, three-dimensional picture will. And of course, the family very much needs permission to talk about these things.
You say death is the most profound of all teachers.
In fact, at some level, I think that death is the only teacher. Imagine a deathless life. It would be meaningless. There would be no ambition. No one would have children. No one would aspire to do anything. If this virus wasn’t deadly, do you think that any of us would be living the way we’re living right now?
Not at all. Franz Kafka said the meaning of life is that it ends. He was right. And ideally, this is not a book about death. This is a book about the ways in which death can inspire us to lead more meaningful and beautiful lives. It’s certainly done that for me.
It certainly has done that for me, too.
After graduating Northwestern University, and studying at Trinity College, Oxford University, Rabbi Leder received a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Letters and Rabbinical Ordination from Hebrew Union College. He is a regular contributor and guest on “The Today Show” and writes often for TIME, Foxnews.com, and Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. His published essays have appeared in Town and Country, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, where his Torah commentaries were read weekly by over 50,000 people.
The New York Times called Rabbi Leder’s first book, “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” “uplifting.” His second book, “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul,” received high honors as did his third book “More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us,” which reached #4 on Amazon’s overall best sellers list in its first week. Newsweek Magazine has twice named Rabbi Leder one of the ten most influential rabbis in America.
Learn more about Lisa Bloch’s conversation with Rabbi Steve Leder in the second part of this series next week.