In 1973 the late Oliver Sachs, a professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein Medical School wrote a fascinating book called Awakenings. In his book Sachs chronicled his experience with dozens of victims of a 1920’s epidemic of sleeping sickness. In each case, the person was “switched off” from real living. Apathetic, dull and listless were the terms used to describe these patients’ behavior. Through the administration of a new drug L-Dopa, each of the patients showed remarkable transformation. Almost like Rip Van Winkles, they awakened from their sleep, and returned back to life. Symptoms entirely disappeared. And for the first time in decades, some of them once again became animated and active.

In the last few weeks I have been visiting “switched off” people in hospice and playing guitar and singing for them. Through the magic of music I too have witnessed the awakening of their spirits. People who had evidenced little engagement with the world “woke up,”  interacted with me, sang along as I played guitar, used rhythm instruments to keep the beat, smiled and some even said “wow” at the end of a song!

I have not only experienced the phenomenon of “awakenings” in the therapeutic arena, but have also witnessed spiritual and intellectual awakenings in my rabbinic work.  Examples of awakenings abound in the Bible, as well.  Take this week’s Torah portion:  Jacob was escaping the wrath of his brother Esau and one night as he became groggy with fatigue he pulled a rock under his head and went to sleep under the desert sky. As he slept, he dreamed of a ladder with the angels ascending and descending on it. According to the Bible, when he awoke he proclaimed: “Surely God is in this place, but I did not know it.” According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation, in more modern vernacular, what Jacob said would be expressed in this way: “Wow, God was really here, and I was out to lunch. I was sleeping and missed it. Something awesome and extraordinary was happening around me and I didn’t even notice.”

Just like Sach’s victims of sleeping sickness, we are often in another world. God is all around us and we do not know it.  My Jewish tradition is always giving me a refreshing slap on the face saying: “Look beyond your world to the poor and the widow, the new immigrant and the homeless, and extend a helping hand. There are daily miracles every day all around us. All we have to do is pay better attention to appreciate them. Life itself is a miracle, so much of nature is awesome, and the human body in its complexity is a sublime wonder. There is so much good and order around us. All of us are just so busy and not so fully present to notice the beauty of life and all it has to offer.

We all should pay more attention, take notice and look around, and be more fully present to experience these wonders. And hopefully paying attention might lead us to say as Jacob did: “How awesome is this place!”

Seeking meaning, not money



A few days ago there was a mind-boggling story in the sports section of the New York Times.  The story was more about a player’s core values than about a franchise’s value core.  David West, a 35 year old basketball player walked away from a 12.5 million dollar player option with the Indiana Pacers and signed another contract (as a free agent) with the San Antonio Spurs for about 11 million dollars less.  If that were not enough, he also turned himself into a bench player after years as a power-forward starter on his team. In an age when you always read about players holding out for more money and star-power, here is a star player opting to receive the veteran’s minimum deal.  He is quoted as saying: “I know my family is secure and I can do what makes me happy.  I felt it was time to move in a different direction.” He went on to explain, “For me, in terms of basketball, I needed every night to mean something, in order to keep going.”  West is also known for the charity work he does with impoverished youths in his native North Carolina.

West’s story reminds me that even though there surely are people who hunger for fame, comfort, wealth and power, there are others whose souls crave meaning and figuring out what it takes to live a life that matters and that will make a difference for others.

In his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life that Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner identifies three things that a person must have in order to feel that he or she has lived a life and not wasted it: 1) Belonging to people, 2) Accepting pain as part of your life, and 3) Knowing that you have made a difference.

According to the Talmud there are three things one should do in the course of one’s life: have (or influence) a child, plant a tree and write a book. All three represent ways of investing our creative, generative energy in things which will endure after we are gone.

If there is a lesson for the NBA’s younger players, fans and all of us to glean from David West’s life story, it is certainly not about what he sacrificed to play for San Antonio. Rather, it is about how he has chosen to live his life by making a difference and making every day count.

May we always remember that people may count the days of their lives, but a person of wisdom makes every day count.