The One Thing We Have in Common is Death. Rabbi Steve Leder Shows Us A New Way to Think About Life
Rabbi Steve Leder has spent the last 35 years talking about life and death in a way that makes both meaningful.
He’s officiated weddings and helped new parents welcome babies into the world. He’s given countless moving sermons as the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He’s also spent many hours at the bedsides of the dying and helped thousands of families grieve the loss of their loved ones—and he’s learned a thing or two about death and dying in the process.
In his last book, The Beauty of What Remains, Rabbi Leder helped us wrap our heads around death—our own, and the death of our loved ones. He showed us how to show up for the dying, how to help our friends and loved ones mourn the passing of someone they love, and even how to talk to our kids about death. He also talked about writing an ethical will—a document that includes stories and reflections about your values and beliefs, your joys and regrets, and what you most want your loved ones to remember about you when you’re gone.
After the book came out, all anyone wanted to talk to Rabbi Leder about was ethical wills and how to write one. “I think that’s because it’s a new concept for a lot of people,” says Rabbi Leder. “Most of us have an estate plan, thinking somehow the material will express the emotional. But it doesn’t. I tell people giving away your money and stuff to your loved ones thinking that it will be meaningful to them is like giving them a picture of food. It’s not nourishing. It is not ultimately what they need or want the most. What they need and want the most after we’re gone is our love, our blessing, our guidance, our life lessons, our story. And they can never have that unless we give it to them.”
In Rabbi Leder’s new book, For You When I’m Gone, he shows us how to write an ethical will. He shares the questions and prompts he’s used over the years to help people examine their lives and write something beautiful and meaningful that generations to come will cherish.
The best part? Answering these questions not only leaves a document for your loved ones when you’re gone, but it can show you how to live a better, happier, more honest and authentic life right now.
A Conversation With Rabbi Steve Leder
Your new book guides readers through the questions to ask that will help them create an ethical will. What is this—and why can it be both a beautiful gift you give yourself and your loved ones?
Some people would argue that this tradition of a parent imparting a final blessing to their loved ones, their children particularly, goes all the way back to the story of Jacob in the Bible, where he calls all of his sons around his bedside and has a frank—sometimes complimentary, sometimes not—chat with each of them and blesses them.
We know that at least as far back as the 11th century, Jews had this tradition of a father writing a letter to his son so his son would have it after the father died. This eventually evolved into letters from fathers and mothers to their children, letters from people to their siblings, grandchildren, and friends. And now, it’s a very well-known concept in many parts of the Jewish community.
This book is a plea for people not to wait to tell their story. Also, when you ask yourself these questions and answer them, it’s an opportunity to hold your own life up to the light and ask yourself: Am I actually living these truths, or am I just talking about them? Am I living my truth? It’s never too late for that question.
I love the part in your book where you write about words holding weight, and how in Hebrew, the word for “word” and the word for “thing” is the same word.
You cannot differentiate between the two. Which means from a psycholinguistic standpoint, words are real. Words build. Words destroy. Words are concrete. Words are weighty. They’re powerful. They’re real. You know the phrase magicians use, abracadabra? That is a phrase from the Talmud, Avra K’davra, which means “I create as I speak.” Our words create feelings, emotions, worlds, ideas, institutions, families, beginnings, endings—all created with words.
To get biblical on you (forgive me, I’m a Rabbi): Think about the story of creation. God said, let there be light and there was light. Avra K’davra. I create as I speak. And so words are really the most important inheritance we can bequeath to the people we love.
You write about how each of us have a story to tell, and that we want our stories to be known by the people we love most. You also write about how we carry the stories of those we love, and we can only learn from those stories that have been told. Talk to me about this.
First of all, not everyone wants to tell their story, because it forces us to reckon with the fact that we won’t be here forever. And not everyone is ready to reckon with that.
Yet everyone wants the people they love to know them, and to know their story. We are our story. But if we don’t tell our story, our story goes untold. As simplistic as this sounds, it’s factually true. Our loved ones will only know what we share with them. And I’m not talking about the facts of our lives. I used to teach a course at the seminary on how to write sermons, weddings, and eulogies. The first lesson I’d teach about eulogies is that an obituary tells you the facts of a person’s life; a eulogy ought to tell you the truth about a person’s life. There’s a big difference. And everyone wants the truth of their life to go on for their loved ones when they’re gone. I think we all want to live our truth, but we often need reminding and realignment.
People ask me all the time how I do it. How do you sit with more than 1,000 families and listen to the stories of their deceased loved ones? My answer is always the same: Everyone’s life is amazing if you ask the right questions. And not only if you ask the right questions, but if you ask them in the right order.
Because if you want a story to unfold, you need to ask these questions of yourself in the order you find in the book, which is very deliberate.
Interesting! So, why did you order the questions in the book this way?
The first question is, “What is your greatest regret?” I ask that first for a few reasons:
No. 1: None of what I offer in the book will be successful without openness and vulnerability. So, this first question is meant to crack us open. It’s meant for us to become vulnerable.
What most people regret most is not something they’ve done, it’s something they didn’t do. The whole book in essence is about grasping an opportunity that most people don’t grasp.
This first question is also meant to encourage people to go through the other 11 questions now—to not wait. Answer these questions for yourself in your life and for your loved ones when you’re gone. That first question is meant to crack us open so that we really start getting to the truth of the matter.
These questions are finely tuned, after 35 years of sitting with families and encouraging their story to unfold. And I’ve found these questions, in this order, create a sort of act 1, act 2, and act 3 trajectory.
The last question is this: “What would your final blessing to your loved ones be?” If I’m in the room with family members of someone who’s died, I like to say to them, “Let’s assume your loved one was here, hiding under the desk listening, and when we’re done he or she comes out from under the desk and looks at me and says, ‘Listen Rabbi, what the kids said is all true, but this is what I want you to say tomorrow.’” In other words, can we give the deceased the last word? That is only literally possible if you ask yourself this question before you die. And it’s one of those questions which is an exercise in essentialism, so we’re really getting to the crystalline essence of this person’s purpose and meaning through their own eyes. And it’s better if your family doesn’t have to guess at the answer to that question, isn’t it?
“If you want to be beautiful in death, be beautiful in life. If you want to be loved in death, love in life.”
We put off telling our stories because we spend a good deal of our lives denying death. Why is this?
I think we should honor the rhythm and flow of our journey. There is a time in life to deny death. There is. Because we’re ambitious, and we’re building for the future, and we’re making sacrifices in the short term for long-term gain. Denying death is actually an engine for accomplishment in many ways. There is a time for that.
I led a mission a few years ago to Africa where we volunteered building a school. Life expectancy is in the mid-20s there. One of the problems with such a limited life expectancy is that people make bad decisions because there’s a good chance they won’t be alive to suffer the consequences. If that’s the case, why do anything except what brings you immediate gratification?
The idea of finitude is not always a positive force in life. At other times, it’s a very powerful teacher. Like most things, the teacher appears when the student is ready. I think this is true of considering our deaths.
So, I would say if you’re denying death right now, don’t be so hard on yourself. The day will come when you realize it’s going to happen. For me, it was the moment I looked at my father in his casket because we look so much alike. I was 55 years old and when I looked at my dad in the casket my first thought was, I am going to die. That’s what I’m going to look like when I’m dead, and my son is going to be bending over my casket. When I started to reckon with what that meant, I changed my relationship to money, to my children—all for the good. Thinking about your death is a great teacher, but only when you’re ready.
What are some of your favorite questions you take readers through in the book?
I have two. Because they’re part of this dichotomous tension that’s so important when we’re trying to be truthful about our story.
The first is this: “What is your greatest failure?” To give you the inside baseball on this: When I ask families these questions, I get to a point where their loved one sounds like a living saint. And then I stop everyone and I say, “You know something? So far, she sounds perfect—and nobody’s perfect. So what wasn’t perfect?” And I see their eyes dart around at each other as if to say one of two things: How does the Rabbi know? And, Can we and should we talk about this? And then the truth comes out and it is so healing for the family. It creates a real story. A real truth. This is one of the two most productive questions.
The second is, “What is love?”
The third is, “What is a time you led with your heart? When did you throw caution to the wind?” Because it’s everyone’s greatest, most romantic, most hilarious story.
What have you learned witnessing death and helping to tell the stories of those who’ve died?
No matter how many times we say “I love you,” and no matter how many times we hold or we’re held by the people we love, we should do it more. It’s never enough.
What have you learned from the people who have the bravery to write an ethical will?
It’s the greatest gift one can give or receive. It is the most precious treasure we can pass on. And, asking ourselves these questions is also a very powerful gift.
What’s your best advice for all of us when it comes to thinking of our own deaths and about how we want to live?
People die the way they live. If you want to be beautiful in death, be beautiful in life. If you want to be loved in death, love in life. We really do get to choose how we live. And these questions are a really helpful way to craft our story.
The people I know who are most fulfilled, most at peace, are the people who are most in alignment with their professed and lived values. They’re living their truth. Those are the most whole and at peace human beings I know. And when we are not living our truth, it’s a very difficult way to live. To live as an imposter is very painful. And this book is to help us do less of that.