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
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 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
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?