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A story.

A young rabbi arrived in an East European town eager to serve his new congregation. During his first day he was given a tour of the town by one of the city’s leaders. Eventually they came to the Jewish cemetery where, as was the custom, all of his rabbinic predecessors were buried in a common section. As they passed by the gravestones something began to become frighteningly clear – the ages on the stones. The life of one rabbi was 34 years, another 28, and yet another was a mere 23 years. In fact there was not one person who survived past 40.

As he began to realize this, the new rabbi started sweating. He began to believe that the community was so difficult; it was killing off its rabbis. His guide, sensing the young rabbi’s growing panic, and fearing that he might leave the new congregation, said, “Let me explain something. Then you can make your choice about leaving or staying. These dates are not the number of years that these people lived. They are instead the number of years that they truly lived their lives.”

You see we have a custom in our community that each person keeps a personal diary and at the end of the day they write down how much of their time was spent serving God – not just through prayer or study, but the number of hours spent living a life of gratitude and not regret, the number of hours living closest to their highest selves, the amount of time reaching out to those in need and living according to what is truly important and not trivial. And then at the end of a person’s life we add up all of the hours in the notebook. That is the number we then put on the headstone. He lived to be 94 not the 38 years engraved there.” And pointing to another stone, he said, “And this rabbi was on this earth for 83 years not 34.”

If we were to count our years in such a manner, measuring the moments giving thanks and living closest to our highest selves, how many years would we apportion? Would we deem ourselves a 100 or a mere 20? Would our tally be counted in years or mere days? When we our remembered how many moments would be counted as if they were penned in such a diary?

Saturday was the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. According to tradition this day begins a forty-day period of repentance that concludes on Yom Kippur afternoon (September 26). This time is devoted to measuring our years and working to better ourselves. On the High Holidays we read of the Book of Life that measures each and every person’s deeds. We speak of how our actions might engrave our future.

We also speak of how our fate is never written in stone. The High Holidays and the period of repentance that began this weekend is a yearly opportunity to change. Let us seize this opportunity and rewrite our years.

Addendum: I first heard this story at the recent funeral of my mentor and friend, Dr. Jerry Perkoff (z”l). His grandson Jeff Stombaugh shared this tale on that occasion. Jeff is now a first year rabbinical student studying in Jerusalem.