Hold the world tightly yet lightly, Embrace life with all our hearts and might

Excerpts from the book: Why Me? by Pesach Kraus

This lovely, small book was given to us by someone (we don’t know who, signed as D.R.) with a handwritten note: Mr. and Mrs. Teo: I would like to share with you of what I have benefited from this book. My niece and a friend were your patients. This book is out of print for more than ten years. It was brought by a friend from Canada. Thanks D.R. My wife and I got to read this book. Let’s share it with others too.

The Author: Pesach Krauss is a Jewish rabbi and is a chaplain at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York – one the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the world. He devoted his time caring for the sick and the dying. Indeed, Rabbi Krauss had great strength and compassion in spite of the fact that life had been very cruel to him since his childhood days. His father migrated from Russia to the US. They lived in poverty. At the age three a streetcar rolled over his leg and as a result he had to have an artificial limb. His first wife died of cancer.

In Chapter 7: Life: A Precious Gift to Hold with Open Hands, Rabbi Krauss wrote:

When Muriel, my first wife, became ill with cancer and took a turn for the worse, we all knew that her days were numbered. Suddenly time became very precious … What do you tell someone who is fatally ill … Do you hide the facts? Some people do … but not with Muriel. We faced it together, bore the heavy burden together, as one family. Every step of the terrible journey was revealed. She wanted it that way.

At the outset Muriel made it very clear – she would not trade pain for time. Every moment was precious because so little time was left. Since drug would rob her of time and of her senses, she wouldn’t take drugs – until the pain became unbearable. Petty and useless talk disappeared. Each conversation became precious. Time, each moment, each hour, each day, became precious and was savored. Each sunrise was a glorious surprise.

I learned so much from those last days we spent together. How priceless are those simple things – sunlight, a moment, a touch, family, friends, love. And how careless we are of our most valued treasures. We take them for granted.

After my wife’s funeral I was approached by a member of my congregation, who said: Rabbi, my son was very upset at the injustice of your wife’s death. He wants to know, “How can you believe in God?”

Some people ask why this tragedy happened to me. Why does God allow people who are so much worse, even evil, to go around hurting others and yet enjoying life while my wife, who was filled with the love of her people, so gracious and so wise, was taken away?

I never asked such questions. Actually, these are not good questions because they don’t make the right assumptions about life.

What then are the right assumptions?

Life isn’t a matter of comparisons – my life in terms of someone else’s life, the number of my years versus the number of somebody else’s years, my joy against another’s, one way of death against another way of death. The judgment of God’s justice and mercy is not in the mathematics of the years, nor in the sum of birthdays and anniversaries.

If we died, the next moment of our life would be complete in itself. So was Muriel’s life. So is each person’s life – unique, complete in itself. So Muriel’s life was not short because the life of another person may have had more years. Nor was her life less blessed because her passing was through the gates of pain.

Where then is God? Where was He in Muriel’s life? Where is He in anyone’s life? These are the questions to ask: Was her life rich? How many lives did she touch? Was she a blessing to her family, friends and people with whom she had contact? Did she take her joys humbly and gratefully? Did she meet sorrows courageously? Was God present?

She was grateful for joys and never took them for granted. Each day, to her very last, she said the blessings: Thank you God for keeping me in life. Thank you God for another day. She saw life as a gift from God. A gift of which we are not deserving and which we could never repay and which someday is returned.

From my own experience, I learned the great truth of human existence: One must not hold life too precious; one must always be prepared to let it go. Muriel understood this and taught me. She held on to life, hands tight, because she treasured the moments as a gift – yet hands open to release because she know that life, though precious, was a gift to be relinquished and returned.

Could I have held on to my beloved even one moment longer – and put time in a deep freezer? Could I have enjoyed sunlight even one day longer with her, no matter how hard I tried? Could I have prevented night from falling? That moment had to pass. No power on earth could have retained it. Had I tried to hold back the irresistible force, it would have been a losing battle. At the end, I would still be left empty-handed and BITTER about my loss.

Sooner or later we must bid farewell to the persons and things we love. Sometimes the separation is slow and peaceful and sometimes it is swift and violent. But the inevitable LETTING-GO is something we must learn to accept and comes to terms with. As I see it, nothing can be more undignified than a futile attempt to retain what must be released … Many men and women cling so hard to a youthful image that they can’t grow older gracefully… parents can’t let go of their children, interfering with their lives, inflicting scars …….

This is a hard lesson to learn. I think of those who have suffered loss of a dear one or a loss of health who are NEVER RECONCILED and who corrode their years and the lives of those around them with deep mourning, depression and bitter complaints. Withdrawing from the sunlight into the dark shadows of despair, they forget that they are depriving loved ones who need them and that they have so much to add to life.

How do we let go of someone dear to us who has died?

 …Our focus must shift from a direct relationship to the departed to an identification with values formerly shared. In that way, we free ourselves from the cold grip of the past to embrace warm and tender memories and action for the present.

A year following my wife’s death, I delivered a sermon: … I want to say to the husbands and wives who love one another, never accept your good fortune casually. In your breakneck pace through life, stop for a few moments and say a prayer in gratitude. Thank God for each day; don’t take it for granted, while yet His sunlight shines on you.

To parents, I want to remind you how precious is the gift of your children. Thank God each day for children; be aware of their little aggravations, but see the good and joy as well.

I want to urge myself and all others, to hold the world tightly yet lightly – to embrace life with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might. For it is a precious gift.

In Chapter 14 Rabbi Krauss wrote:

When my wife died, I felt I had been robbed of a precious treasure. However, the prayer that I recited each day gradually began to change my bleak mood: God, you created the soul … that you breathed into me. You return it to me each day after my night of sleep. Someday you will take it back from me. As long as I have breath, I shall thank and praise you.

My mind and heart are locked into that prayer. I meditated long and hard and recalled many memories, good and happy. The insight, simple but yet profound, came to me that life is indeed a gift to which I am not entitled and for which I should be profoundly grateful, and I should respond by making every moment an opportunity for achievement, for paying back as a partner with God and creation.