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The Man Who Changed his Life after Reading his Obituary

The Man Who Changed his Life after Reading his Obituary


The world's most famous set of awards are the Nobel Prizes. Presented for outstanding achievement in literature, peace, economics, medicine and the sciences, they were created a century ago by Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), a man who amassed his fortune by producing explosives. Among other things, Nobel invented dynamite.

What motivated this Swedish munitions manufacturer to dedicate his fortune to honoring and rewarding those who benefited humanity?

The creation of the Nobel Prizes came about through a chance event. When Nobel's brother died, a newspaper ran a long obituary of Alfred Nobel, believing that it was he who had passed away. Thus, Nobel had an opportunity granted few people: to read his obituary while alive. What he read horrified him: The newspaper described him as a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.

At that moment, Nobel realized two things: that this was how he was going to be remembered, and that this was not how he wanted to be remembered. Shortly thereafter, he established the awards. Today, because of his doing so, everyone is familiar with the Nobel Prize, while relatively few people know how Nobel made his fortune. Shakespeare's Mark Antony was wrong: the good we do lives after us. For most of us, it is the most important thing that we leave behind.

Thinking about how one’s obituary is going to read can motivate one to rethink how he is currently spending his life. No eulogy ever says he/she dressed well, lived extravagantly, took fabulous vacations, drove an expensive car, or built the most expensive home. I never heard anyone praised for being too busy at work to find time for their children. A call to someone who is lonely, a listening ear to a person in need, long walks with our children, saying thank you to a spouse and to G‑d, performing mitzvahs (acts of goodness and holiness)--are the essence of a life well lived.

The people who are most mourned are not the richest or the most famous, or the most successful. They are people who enhanced the lives of others. They were kind. They were loving. They had a sense of their responsibilities. When they could, they gave to charitable causes. If they could not give money, they gave time. They were loyal friends and committed members of communities. They were people you could count on.

There is a lovely story about the great Victorian Anglo-Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore. Montefiore was one of the outstanding figures of the nineteenth century. A close friend of Queen Victoria and knighted by her, he became the first Jew to attain high office in the City of London. His philanthropy extended to both Jews and non-Jews, and on his one-hundredth birthday, The London Times devoted editorials to his praise. "He had shown," said the Times, "that fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely consistent with one another."

One reflection was particularly moving: Someone once asked him, "Sir Moses, what are you worth?" Moses thought for a while and named a figure. "But surely," said his questioner, "your wealth must be much more than that." With a smile, Sir Moses replied, "You didn't ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year."

"You see," he said, "we are worth what we are willing to share with others."

In 1798, the great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was imprisoned for spreading religious faith (and thus subversion) amongst the Jewish population. While he sat in prison awaiting trial, his warden, conscious of being in the presence of a holy man, asked him a question that had long been troubling him. He said: "We read in the book of Genesis that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves among the trees of the Garden of Eden, and G‑d called out, 'Where are you?' What I want to know is this. If G‑d knows and sees everything, surely He knew where they were. Why did He need to ask, 'Where are you?'"

The Rebbe replied: The words of the Bible were not meant for their time alone but for all time. So it is with the question G‑d asked Adam and Eve. It was not addressed to them alone but to each of us in every generation. We squander our days and nights on artificial, temporary objectives; we become consumed with self-preservation and gratification, and we believe that we can hide from the consequences. But always, after we have lost our course, we hear the voice of G‑d in our heart asking: Where are you? What have you done with your life? I have given you a certain amount of years; how are you using them?

In Herman Wouk's World War II novel, The Caine Mutiny, Willie, the central character, is serving in the Navy when he receives a letter from his father, who is about to die from cancer. Reflecting upon his life, one in which he achieved much less than he had expected to as a young man, he cautions his son, "Remember this, if you can: There's nothing, nothing, nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven't. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end, only at the end it's more obvious."

G‑d decides how long our chapter on earth is going to be; it’s up to us to make every paragraph and sentence count. Immortality lies not in how long you live but in how you live. Every day is a gift from G‑d and we should use it to the fullest--to celebrate life and become a blessing to others.

If, G‑d forbid, you were to leave the world tomorrow, what would your obituary say? Would it read the way you want it to read?

Rabbi Dov Greenberg is excutive director of Chabad at Stanford University
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Discussion (29)
April 29, 2015
He changed his will,
Alfred Nobel didn´t actually change his life - but he changed his will to whitewash his activities in the market of war - and he succeeded. Alfred Nobel did not only invent dynamite - he also bought the Bofors Co. and changed the peaceful production to military weapons.
Stockholm, Sweden
September 17, 2010
Obituary Source?
Could you tell me where I can read either Alfred Nobel's real obituary or his premature one. I keep reading articles where people mention it but I am yet to find a single reference?
Stuart Meiklejohn
Ayr, Ayrshire
June 7, 2010
I really like your inspiring work. I'm looking forward for more.
Nyeri, Kenya
June 17, 2007
The man who changed his life--
I wish to join many others in applauding the most valuable contribution made by this article about Alferd Noble. From now on, I am also going to live life in a manner that people will remember me as a noble person, caring for others rather than being self-centred what we mostly are. THANKS AGAIN.
May 18, 2007
just unbellievable!!
gives us all lots to think about (and do)!
February 11, 2007
Alfred Nobel
'WHAT WE THINK, WE BECOME'. If we ever think what will people think about me when I am no more, will help me to lead a meaningful and creative life.

Thanks for noble guidance towards a better life.
November 26, 2006
uplifting words
I don't claim to be a religious person, I believe that the best I can do is follow what my heart says and if I end up in a good place after I die if such a place exists, then I have done alright. These words are an inspiration though. They make a man who no longer has faith in even his own worth or his own decency to question his beliefs. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
June 20, 2006
Great article to read. I accidentally visited this site. Its simple GREAT. The timing in my life, I read this article is perfect.
December 28, 2005
Great Article to read
Dear Sirs / Ma'ms,
This has been a great article to read. Also, crisp and succint. I was once an insurance salesman and hence, ' how would you like to be remembered after you die' ? has appeared pertinent.
I thank -- for , I was browsing Wikipedia and ' featured articles' when I came across Alf.Berhnard Nobel and clicked on the last ' external link' given at the bottom. I am sending your article to all those interested. Esp. to the younger generation.
useless fellow
Hyderabad, AP, India
December 5, 2005
Hey, Greenberg, dude, you totally rock!!!