Death is the most final of experiences. As the signs announcing my father’s
death declared, “There was once a man, and he is no longer.” No consolation can
change the starkness of this reality. Death is an end, an end of one life. Its
finality alters reality and creates a permanent void in the world and in the
lives of the mourners.
“He is no longer,” however, does not exhaust the
experience of death. When someone dies, the process of mourning does not dwell
solely on the sense of loss, but also on the reality of, “There was once a man.”
It is not motivated merely by a search for consolation or an attempt to move
back from the abyss of death. The uncertainty, finality and frailty of human
life, the fact that we do not live forever, induce us at the moment of death to
reflect on the meaning of life. As a life comes to an end, our thoughts
naturally go to what constitutes a life worth living. Precisely because life
comes to an end, we need to think about what constitutes a life worth
An answer to this question is embedded in the experience of death
itself. A life worth living is a life which in death creates a void. It is to
walk in the world and to leave a mark, to leave those you meet changed and the
world around you altered because of your presence. “There was once a man” – to
be here in the world, in the life of people, to touch them, to teach them, to
inspire them, to change them, to improve them. That is to live a good
While we all share in the sameness of our deaths, the way we live
our lives, the way we make our mark and generate a void is infinitely varied.
Our challenge and responsibility as human beings is to allow and make room for
tremendous diversity when answering the question of what constitutes a good life
and one worth living. While history is sometimes the arbiter, the best judgment
is that which is left to the heart of the mourner.
As I sat shiva (the
seven-day mourning period) and met and heard from thousands of people upon whom
my father had left a mark, and as I read the hundreds of eulogies, editorials,
testimonies and personal words of comfort sent to me and my family from people
in Israel and around the world whom he had touched, I felt the depth of the
words, “There was a man,” a man who lived a good life, a life worth
No life can be summarized, nor should it be. At the most, one can
at different times shine a light on one dimension that circumstances make more
prominent at that moment. As I see the many faces and hear the myriad of words
that encompassed the period of my father’s shiva, what comes to my mind over and
again is – there was a man who believed in the power of ideas.
father’s books and teachings are filled with many and diverse ideas that
enabled, empowered and shaped modern Jewish thought and life. His multiple
students will invariably teach and expand and even argue about their particular
content and significance.
Today, as the words, “He changed my life,”
which were repeated to me over and over again, echo in my ears, I feel that the
quality and essence of his life transcends any particular answer that he gave or
philosophical treatise that he penned.
To believe in the power of ideas
is to believe that reality is not to be accepted as it is nor idealized because
it is the most that one can expect.
It is to believe that life and the
human experience can constantly change and be enriched if we dare to open our
minds to new possibilities.
It is to believe in the inherent potential
embedded in humanity if our minds would but dare to abandon the comforting but
stultifying hold of the status quo and make room for a new idea to move us to
There are many ways to make a mark. Ideas seem the most
ethereal, but when they take root, their impact changes history. In our world,
where impact is often measured by page views, Tweets and “Likes,” and success
ascribed solely to measurable and quantifiable metrics, there was a man who
believed in the power of ideas, where quality always trumped quantity, and where
depth and significance were the primary criteria of assessment.
a man, my father, who loved to learn and loved to teach, because he believed
that ideas matter, and what we need as a Jewish people is a constant flow of new
thinking. Greatness was not measured by whom you taught but by what you said. He
believed that people could reach higher, and Judaism reach deeper if we would
put forth compelling and honest ideas. He believed that instead of speaking down
to people, or to where they were at, the responsibility of a teacher was to
expand their horizons and move them to new heights.
There was a man, my
father, who believed that the key to Jewish continuity was content. That neither
fear nor coercion were worthy contributors to a strong Jewish identity. While
Auschwitz was to be remembered and mourned, it was not the entry point to
Judaism. That entry point is Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, where the idea is put
forth that Zion will be redeemed through justice; Jerusalem, where the idea of,
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” has special significance
and challenges; Jerusalem, where the reality of Jewish independence is both a
catalyst for new thinking and its testing ground; Jerusalem, where the idea of
one God meets the reality of multiple faiths and human difference.
was a man who planted ideas, and while he is no longer, his ideas have taken
root and challenge us to think, question, and find a higher meaning and standard
for our lives.The writer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute
and director of the institute’s iENGAGE Project – iengage.org.il.