We can never be fully prepared when a parent dies, even if there has been a prolonged illness and the end is apparent. The death of a peer is an entirely different matter, for now we are forced to consider our own mortality, and more. Despite us offering solace to the spouse, in the end he/she must learn to live with a new reality. For those who mourn the loss of a friend, the big questions of our existence come to the forefront:
What has my purpose been on this planet?
Have I been a good-enough parent/spouse/sibling?
Have I been the best me that I could possibly be?
There is a story told in the Talmud that gives us pause:
The story is told of Zusha, the great Chassidic master, who lay crying on his deathbed. His students asked him, "Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvot and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!" "I'm afraid!" said Zusha. "Because when I get to heaven, I know God's not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' or 'Why weren't you more like King David?' But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Zusha, why weren't you more like Zusha?' And then what will I say?!"
None of us is perfect. Indeed, we learned from last week’s Torah portion, Noah, of God’s recognition that “man’s devisings are evil from his youth”. The Greeks had an image of perfection, but that was solely physical. Our responsibility is to use the Torah as our guidebook to strive to be the best we can be on a daily basis. We will frequently fall short, but that cannot be the excuse for no longer trying. I can recall a mythic story about one of the greatest baseball hitters, Ted Williams. He was the last one to hit for an average of .400. One day after a game, he was found on the field taking batting practice, and was asked by a reporter why he was doing so, as after all, he was the great Ted Williams, the best hitter. His response was powerful. He answered that he failed to hit successfully six out of ten times, and thus needed to practice to get better.
Some think that the purpose of Yom Kippur is our annual mid-course correction day, and for some that can be a meaningful experience. I see it a different way: each day is an opportunity for a mid-course correction. Our lives are a series of connect-the-dots, but we will not see the final picture until our last moments on this earth. Will your picture be one worthy of hanging in one of the great art museums, the picture of Dorian Grey, or something in the middle? You are the artist. It’s up to you.