What Would You Say

If you were told you had just a few months left, who would you spend it with and what would you tell them?

Thank G‑d, this question is theoretical for most of us, but not for all. Unfortunately, there are those who visit their doctor and receive the crushing news that the many years they hadA dying person is given more leeway always envisioned have been whittled down to mere months. How can you possibly cram an anticipated five decades into five short months? Where do you start?

Moses experienced that precise quandary when G‑d told him on the first day of the month of Shevat that five weeks henceforth, on the seventh of the following month, he would live his last. Let us look at what Moses did and borrow a page from his book.1

Moses chided the people for their sins. Our sages point out that Moses was wise to wait till the end with his reprimand because a dying person is given more leeway. If a healthy person rebukes, it provokes defensiveness and resentment. When a dying person speaks, we listen and look within.

Moses then taught and translated the Torah into the many languages of his day.

The two projects, reprimanding the nation and translating the Torah, don’t appear to be linked. But if the Torah, a book of instruction, informs us that Moses spent his last moments on these two projects, there must be a link between them that serves as an existential lesson to us here today. What is this lesson?

Good and Bad

If any one sentence can sum up the entire endeavor of moral pursuit and purposeful living, it is this: “Avoid sin and be righteous.”2 To live morally we must do both; either on its own does not constitute a moral lifestyle. We must both avoid transgressions and fulfill the commandments.

When our time on earth winds down, our focus naturally turns to the next generation, the children, who depend on our wisdom and life experience. For years, if not decades, we teach our children to love their heritage, embrace their tradition and believe in G‑d, but nothing speaks more powerfully to our children than the final will and testament that we bestow when life wanes.

My great-aunt was raised in the Soviet Union, where her father, a student of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, risked his life to build and maintain an underground network of Jewish schools for children, a crime punishable by exile and even death under Soviet law. It did not take long for the NKVD to learn of his “counter-revolutionary activities,” and one night the infamous knock on the door was heard. The agents burst in with customary roughness and searched the home for evidence. Knowing that he would soon be led away, never to see his children again, my great-great uncle searched for the right words.

He gathered his children close and whispered to them urgently while the agents ransacked his home. What can a father possibly say in such a short time? Which words to choose, what is most important, what will be most impactful?

G‑d led him to the right words because his message impressed my aunt deeply and she never forgot it. “Devote your lives to what they are taking me away for,” he told them.Succinct and profound.

It worked. Neither she nor her sisters rejected G‑d for the loss of their father. They were passionate about their Judaism. My aunt’s faith and energy were boundless. She never saw her father again and suffered terribly, but somehow she survived the war andHow do you pack an entire lifetime into one sentence? famine and came to these shores intact. She built a family and lived a long life surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

How do you pack an entire lifetime of teaching into one sentence? Devote your lives to what they are taking me away for. They never forgot it. If it was his last statement, it was his highest priority, and they treated it as such.

Moses used his last moments the same way. He outlined his most important values and taught the people to trust G‑d at every turn. Don’t falter like you have in the past. When you encounter difficult trials, place your trust in G‑d. He will come through for you.

But he didn’t stop there. He used his time to teach and translate the Torah, so that it would speak to every Jew in his or her language. If we want our children to embrace Torah, we must do the same. We must relate the Torah’s teachings on their level and apply it in ways they can appreciate.

Exhorting them to reject evil is important, but we can’t expect it to work unless we also teach them how to love goodness. To teach that, we need to understand their language, their interests and their needs, and then speak to them from their perspective. That is how Moses chose to spend his last moments, and that is how we ought to spend ours.

Any Moment

Sadly, we treat life the way some politicians seem to treat their time in office. Rather than using every minute to accomplish good things, they spend their entire term focusing on reelection. Worthwhile projects are often jettisoned if they don’t play well in the polls.

In life we often focus too much on ensuring our future and not enough on our present. If teaching ourWe often focus too much on ensuring our future children is important enough to warrant attention in our last moments, it is important enough to warrant our focus in the present. Let us not wait until the day we die, because by then it might be too late. Who knows if we will receive enough notice to prepare our children the way we might want? Who knows if we will have the wherewithal to speak and communicate when we breathe our last?

It is best to live each day as if it is our last. We must work to provide for the future, but it is critical to live in the present. Our children need to know that they are our highest priority, and we must use each moment to cement this relationship of love. If you have something to teach them, teach them now. Tomorrow might be too late.