LA rabbi on remembering beauty that remains after loss, and bequeathing values in an ‘ethical will’

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney

“I'm closer in some ways with my father almost three years after his death than I was at any time during his life. And I've discovered him in new ways. … There is a beautiful part of life that continues and even flourishes long after our bodies are gone,” says Rabbi Steve Leder. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

The new year brings hope and a fresh start, but life may not improve for a while as more people are contracting coronavirus each day and dying from it. For people fortunate enough to be spared, there are lessons to learn from those who’ve passed away. 

Steve Leder is Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the world’s largest synagogues, and his new book is “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift.” 

Leder has been at the bedside of many people as they were dying. He’s counseled their grieving relatives after they died, and has delivered more than 1000 eulogies. But none of that prepared him to eulogize his own father, who died a couple of years ago.

Before his father’s death, Leder says he thought he was doing a good job of consoling those who were grieving. He was wrong.

“I realized that everything I had been saying, or almost everything I had been saying to people for 30 years, was just one degree shy of the deepest truth. It was just a little bit off.”

Leder says he used to tell people who lost loved ones that their pain wouldn’t feel the same as it did in that moment. But now he understands grief as a non-linear experience. 

“It's much more like waves that come and go and come and go, and the sets get further apart. And sometimes your back is turned, and a rogue wave just takes you down. And you have to learn to float with it, not to try to stand up against it, but to lie down and float with it. And then stand up again when you can.”

Rabbi Steve Leder says grief is like waves that come and go. “Sometimes your back is turned, and a rogue wave just takes you down. And you have to learn to float with it, not to try to stand up against it, but to lie down and float with it. And then stand up again when you can.” Photo by Lesley Pedraza.

The memories of a lost loved one are also dualistic in nature. Leder looks past platitudes such as “he lives in memory” or “may his memory be a blessing.” 

“Memory is beautiful. And it really hurts. I describe it as like being caressed and spat on at the same time,” he explains.

He often faces that duality when reflecting on his own father, who was often demanding. His feelings for his father are complicated.

“He was really tough on me. And I have to somehow square that with the joy he often exposed me to in life. … He loved his culture, where he came from, how much he loved ordinary people, and despised arrogance,” Leder says. “I think we all have to make peace with what cannot be resolved. We can either hold on to and focus and embrace the negative, or we can embrace the beauty that remains.” 

Steve Leder with his father. Photo courtesy of Steve Leder.

Connecting with dying patients 

For 33 years, Leder has been attending the bedsides of dying patients. He says he’s seen two things: regret for what wasn’t done, and a lack of fear. These patients weren’t afraid of dying themselves, but were afraid of what may happen to those they left behind.

“The truth is that there's a certain point at which death is as natural a thing as anything else in our lives. It's sort of like being completely totally exhausted. … All you want to do is get into bed and go to sleep. You're not anxious about sleeping. You're not sad about sleeping. It is just the thing your body needs to do.” 

In his book, Leder shares the story of Tara, an ALS patient who asked his permission to take her own life. The act was against Jewish law, so she wanted his permission to take a cocktail of drugs. Tara lost her ability to speak, so her husband spoke in her stead. She told him to call Leder when it was time. 

Leder says the situation reflects his conflict being a rabbi and being human. 

“I asked myself: How can I say no to this woman who's suffering so terribly, and so clearly wants her life to end? I stepped out into the hallway outside the bedroom with her husband and her daughter. And I said, ‘Let me tell you something. Jewish law says no, but I'm going to go in there and say yes. Because I cannot live with myself being more compassionate with my dog than a human being.’ And I walked in and I said, ‘Tara, take the drugs.’ And I went home.”

Tara’s husband later called Leder and thanked him. 

“I learned to lead with my heart, and that nothing terrible would come from leading with my heart,” Leder says.

Values are more important than physical things left behind

Leder now advocates for leaving multiple wills to loved ones. These wills take less than 30 minutes for most people to write, and they aren’t just about material possessions like money and estates. They’re also about ethics, says Leder.

After his friend’s mother died, he asked her what she learned after the funeral. 

“She said, ‘I'll tell you what I learned. Nobody wants your crap. We spend our lives collecting stuff we think matters. You can't even give it away when you're gone. Nobody wants it.’”

Leder continues, “I think it's so important to have a second document that bequeaths our values to our children, that articulates what we hope they carry from us into the world when we're gone, that is not material, but spiritual [and] value-centered.”

He points out that many spend their lives accumulating what they don’t need, and death brings that realization. 

“I'm closer in some ways with my father almost three years after his death than I was at any time during his life. And I've discovered him in new ways. He still makes me laugh, he still makes me cry,” Leder says. “There is a beautiful part of life that continues and even flourishes long after our bodies are gone.” 

Read part of the ethical will Rabbi Leder wrote to his children:

“Be good, and the rest works out. See the world with the people you love. Cherish time. It matters so much more than things. Mine with you and mommy has made my life worth living. I wish for you that kind of love now. I wish for you that kind of love when I am gone. Say Kaddish and light a candle for me when I am gone. Feel its warmth, and know I love you still.  — Dad.”

Rabbi Leder’s new book is about appreciating what’s still here during times of loss. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House. 

An excerpt from "THE BEAUTY OF WHAT REMAINS: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift" by Steve Leder.

My dad worked hard his entire childhood. He was the kid who left school at noon every day because he had to work at the dump my grandfather owned. It was there he and my uncle, mere boys, picked the tin cans out of other people’s garbage, took them to a junkyard, and pocketed a few pennies to help their family. A decade ago I went on a two-week mission to India, during which I spent time in the slums of Mumbai: a jumbled mass of shacks stacked upon one another, with raw sewage in the trenches of the dirt paths, and a sea of stinking, rat-infested garbage for literally as far as my eyes could see.

Many of the children in the Mumbai slums spend their days rummaging through that garbage for anything salvageable. Those hapless children of the untouchables are called ragpick- ers. When I gazed upon that vast sea of rot and refuse, I thought to myself, if my father had been born here, he would have been among the ragpickers. What is the difference, re- ally, between rags in Mumbai and tin cans in Minneapolis?

I was scrubbing toilets as a boy because in one particular way, my father wanted my childhood, wanted me, to be just like him. Whatever he learned from the dump, he wanted me to know too. So I too worked hard as a child—toilets, urinals, and greasy floors were my classroom. That experience has en- abled me again and again to do the dirty work of the rabbinate and to outlast and overcome the obstacles in front of me. I can stay up until sunrise to finish a sermon, cajole the wealthy, officiate at fourteen funerals in seventeen days, be on call nearly all the time, run a large institution without ever really being able to show anger, run a sort of mental health clinic on my couch of tears, on occasion work for and with people who are egotistical and insecure—none of it stops me because I was my dad’s disciple, and his real religion was hard work.

I hated my father’s harshness, but it gave me the strength to create the life I have led. I told him as much during that visit to the nursing home when I felt that he soon would no longer be able to understand me. I told him that he had given me everything I needed to succeed because he taught me to work hard. I said it had made all the difference. I told him he was a great dad. He stared back for the briefest of moments, looked down and away, and wiped his eyes. I hope he felt what I wanted him to feel, what I needed him to feel, for him and for me: understood, acquitted, forgiven.

Other than bequeathing me a brutal work ethic, in many ways my father wanted to be sure my life would not be like his. Part of him longed to be the little boy who could have been spared the harshness and deprivation of his childhood, and that yearning resulted in the things he did to give me what he never had in order for me to become what he could never be. I don’t know how much of his effort to make up for the deficits of his own youth was conscious; I think most was not. Either way, the kid who had to leave school at noon, who had one pair of pants for work and one for everything else, who was mocked by his ignorant, abusive parents with the words “Look at the professor” when he came home with a book, raised all five of his children with the mantra “There is always money for books,” sent me to summer camp, college, Europe, and grad school so that I could someday write books. Man, did he and we make up for the literal hunger of his childhood with a lot of good food over a lot of years. After more than two years of mourning, I realize so clearly that my father’s mission was for me to become what he could not.

***

From THE BEAUTY OF WHAT REMAINS: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift by Steve Leder, published January 5, 2021 by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Steve Leder

Credits

Guest:
Rabbi Steve Leder - Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift” - @rabbileder

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser