CHUKAT-BALAK, Numbers 19:1-25:9
In her 1998 book, To Begin Again, Rabbi Naomi Levy discusses the final illness and passing of Lloyd, her husband's cousin and best friend. Blessed with charm, good looks and a flair for music and art, Lloyd seemed to have the world on a string. However, a month prior to Rabbi Levy's wedding, Lloyd reported a slight tingling in his arm. What he dismissed as a pinched nerve turned out to be the creeping paralysis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Levy's account of Lloyd's last months is incredibly moving. This young person had every right to be embittered, yet his response was the opposite. Making peace with his fate, Lloyd envisioned a healthy self freed from his diseased body, allowing his spirit to roam unfettered throughout the world.
He eased the anxiety of those who came to comfort him, regaling them with funny stories spelled out on a magnetic letter board once he could no longer speak. His innate goodness elicited the best in others. Rabbi Levy and her husband, Rob, invited Lloyd to live in an apartment beneath theirs so they could help care for him. A steady stream of friends and even former lovers flowed through Lloyd's rooms offering support and encouragement.
What was Lloyd's secret? Perhaps it was the realization that his remaining time was too precious to squander on resentment. Those too overwhelmed to visit regularly were never greeted with reproach, but with compassionate glances indicating only how good it was to see them.
Making the Hard Choices
Parshat Balak details the exploits of Balaam, a heathen seer summoned to curse the Israelites and stop their march through Moab toward Canaan. Three times Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites, only to have his words changed into blessings. His most famous pronouncement is read at the beginning of our services: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov — "How Goodly are Your Tents, O Jacob."
Among Balaam's more curious prophecies are the words: May I die the death of the righteous. While this sentiment sounds lovely, many commentators see it expressing what our Christian friends call "Cheap Grace."
Balaam might pine for a righteous death, but he doesn't want to make the hard choices necessary to live a righteous life. It is akin to those dying persons who wish that they could've spent more time with their families, but never reordered their priorities when healthy.
Lloyd's story, however, might lift Balaam's wishes beyond mere hyperbole. It is easy to be magnanimous when things are going well. However, the real test of a human being is how we respond in extremis. Shall we retreat into bitterness, face life's challenges with fortitude, or like Lloyd, have the grace to bring out the best in others even when we seem helpless?
Perhaps the timeless challenge of Balaam's words to himself and to us is to live our lives graciously; this might, in turn, inevitably elicit righteousness from ourselves and those who may surround us.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]