Fundamentally Freund: A Jewish bucket list

But whatever you might choose to include, the important thing to remember when drawing up your own bucket list is that physical thrills can and should be augmented by spiritual ones, too.

Talmud Bavli (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Talmud Bavli
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Nearly a decade ago, two of Hollywood’s top A-listers joined forces to make an uninspired and excruciatingly predictable film that has nonetheless left a lasting impact on society.
In The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman portrayed two terminally ill men who embark on an adventurous road trip to fulfill a list of things they always dreamed of doing before they “kick the bucket” and move on to the next world.
Though roundly panned by numerous critics, the movie popularized the idea of drawing up a catalog of experiences, ambitions and dreams for people to pursue while they still walk this earth, and the term “bucket list” quickly entered the popular lexicon.
Indeed, a simple Google search reveals a seemingly endless range of suggestions for those looking to compile their own personal inventory of must-do matters, ranging from the beneficent to the bizarre.
They include everything from volunteering in a soup kitchen to climbing an active volcano to getting your hair groomed by a monkey in the Philippines. Others suggest even more offbeat activities, such as swimming with sharks, chasing a tornado or getting your photograph taken with a tiger (believe it or not, I actually have done the latter).
While it may seem somewhat silly, the idea of creating a bucket list is in fact an implicit acknowledgment of man’s mortality and life’s ephemerality. It can serve as a valuable way for each person to look at himself in the mirror, acknowledge that his time on this planet is limited, and figure out what he wants to accomplish while there is still breath in his nostrils.
Unfortunately, though, most bucket lists appear to focus more on the outlandish and less on the meaningful, highlighting eccentricity and excitement rather than things of lasting value or depth.
There is of course nothing wrong with wanting to have some fun and getting the adrenaline going, whether that involves visiting emperor penguins at the South Pole, running the New York marathon or sleeping in a tree house beside the Amazon.
But there is no reason why a person can’t have two bucket lists either, one for the body and one for the soul. After all, there is no shortage of cultural, religious or spiritual experiences that too many Jews go through life without ever feeling or knowing firsthand, and that is something that needs to change.
Every rabbi and Jewish educator throughout the Diaspora should challenge their congregants, students and colleagues to come up with a Jewish bucket list, one that includes authentically Jewish experiences that go beyond the universal or simply humanitarian.
This can serve not only as a means of combating increasing assimilation but also as a way of inspiring people to think differently about their spiritual lives, setting goals and objectives just as they do in other areas.
So, in a modest attempt to prompt some debate on this subject, here is a partial sampling of things that I believe should be on every Jewish bucket list: • Learn to read some basic Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people and its greatest texts. As a phonetic tongue that is largely root-based, even the most linguistically challenged person can pick up the skills needed to read in a relatively short amount of time.
Doing so connects one with Jewish history and destiny, and can make attending synagogue or a Passover Seder far more consequential.
• Study a page of Talmud, one of the core sources of Jewish law and lore. Sure, it looks intimidating. But thanks to innovations such as the Steinsaltz edition, or Artscroll’s Schottenstein set, which provide extensive English translations, notes and explications, it is now possible for every Jew to dip his toe into the sea of the Talmud and work his way through a topic. The pleasure that comes from grappling intellectually with the legal, moral, philosophical and practical issues that arise on any given page of the Talmud is something that no Jew should go through life without experiencing at least once.
• Seek out a Holocaust survivor and hear his or her story. Each year, with the passage of time, the number of those who managed to emerge alive from the Nazi German death machine continues to dwindle. Reading about the Holocaust or seeing a documentary can be educational, but it pales in comparison to spending an hour or two with a person who witnessed it firsthand.
Take your family with you, and keep the memory of what happened alive.
• Visit Israel and, when you do, make sure your itinerary includes a site such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the resting place of the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. How many nations on earth have the privilege of knowing where their founding fathers were buried millennia ago? This holy place has a spiritual and historical power that profoundly impacts all who set foot within.
• Observe at least one traditional Shabbat. Regardless of your level of Jewish affiliation, you will find celebrating an authentic Sabbath as Jews have done for thousands of years to be an emotive experience. Call a rabbi or Sabbath-observant family, and ask them to host you for what will prove to be 25 hours of physical rest and spiritual uplift.
Obviously, there are many more items that a Jewish bucket list can and should contain, and each person or community should tailor its contents accordingly, taking into account their own individual or collective needs.
But whatever you might choose to include, the important thing to remember when drawing up your own bucket list is that physical thrills can and should be augmented by spiritual ones, too.
Simply put, life can be fun, but it should also be no less fulfilling.