Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude—Shabbat Hachodesh
March 25, 2017—27 Adar 5777
A man named Chip Crowley was in his 60s when he went to see his doctor for his yearly physical. His doctor did not like what he saw. Mr. Crowley was 40 pounds overweight. He never exercised. He made poor nutrition choices. His doctor told him that he was aging very poorly and that, at the rate he was going, if he did not mend his ways, he could expect serious health challenges, like strokes, diabetes, falling and suffering fractures. His doctor did not want to scare him into better health but instead wanted to persuade him to want to change his ways by painting a rosy counter-narrative of what his health and his life might be if only he made better choices. You could be as healthy as you were when you were 50 years old. You could stay at the health of your 50-year old self, if only you changed your ways.
As a result of that physical, two things happened.
One, Chip Crowley changed his life. He went from no exercise to exercising an hour every day. He changed his eating habits dramatically. He lost his extra weight, and he felt and looked much better and fitter. Daily exercise and proper nutrition created a virtuous cycle. Now in his 70s, Chip Crowley is healthier than his 50-year old self.
But a second thing happened as well. If Chip Crowley’s health could improve so dramatically, patient and doctor both thought that they should write a book about it. Tell other people about the secret of aging well. So the two co-authored a book with a very long title: Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond. Daily exercise and intentional nutrition could be a veritable fountain of youth. One could go from 50 to 80 and beyond and still be as healthy as your 50-year old self if you followed some simple guidelines.
Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. Spend two days doing strength
training, with weights, and four days doing cardio. Eat well. And then 3Cs. Care. Connect and Commit. In other words, have a social network or community of friends and colleagues where you are loved and valued, where you have an impact, and to which you can make a real contribution.
Their first book Younger Next Year was a smash success and led to a whole series. There is now Younger Next Year for Women: Live Like You’re 50—Strong, Fit, Sexy—Until You’re 80 and Beyond. There is the Younger Next Year Journal and Younger Next Year: The Exercise Program. This series has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into 21 languages. Why has it been such a hit? Because the promise of Younger Next Year responds to several universal human aspirations.
We all want life, health and strength for as long as can have it.
We all want the juice, energy and vitality of our youth for as long as we can have it, and we want to stave off any infirmity associated with aging. Many of us would like the Moses package, getting to 120 with eyesight undimmed and physical strength unabated.
We all want control over how our health and life plays out. We would like to believe that our life is the sum of our choices. There is almost something biblical about the premise of this series. You can reread Younger Next Year through the prism of the reward and punishment language of the shema. If then you exercise every day, and if you watch what you eat, and if you commit to a community of friendship, then you will be blessed with many long and healthy years. Beware, however, if you should choose to be a couch potato, if you eat and drink too much, if you do not work on preserving this gift of life, then surely your years will be shorter on the good earth the Lord shall give you. The promise is simple and fair. We get the health and fitness and life we deserve.
And if all of that is true, then Younger Next Year gives us one last benefit: the optimism and hopefulness that come with control. There is this commercial now playing incessantly hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go. It’s a commercial for an airline, and it shows a number of passionate, healthy, enthusiastic people getting up early, while it is still dark, bounding out of bed, running down the stairs, slurping their coffee, zipping up their bags, getting in their uber to the airport to make their early flight, because life belongs to those who wake up early, who are brimming with health and fitness and energy and hope.
What a perfect package. Life, health, strength, control, hope and optimism, if only you eat right, exercise regularly, and have a healthy social network.
Sign me up. That is why 2 million books have been sold, and why the books have been translated into 21 languages.
There is only one problem. Life does not always work that way.
The doctor who co-wrote the series, Dr. Henry Lodge, passed away this month at the age of 58 from prostate cancer. By all accounts Dr. Lodge was a caring and dedicated physician, a talented writer, a loving father, son and brother, and loving partner. He followed his own advice. He exercised regularly, he ate carefully, he drank moderately, he never smoked, he connected and committed to his family, friends, patients, and readers. The problem is, the premise of his book—we can control our health and life—is not always true.
This is a tragic loss for Henry Lodge’s family and patients and colleagues. And this is truly scary for all of us because it points to a core vulnerability that we all share. We yearn so much. We control so little. We love life. We love the people in our life. We love the wonder of a late March snowstorm and the advent of a mercurial New England spring. Like Amy Krouse Rosenthal, the 51 year old woman who published a piece in the Times entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” who published the piece on March 3 and passed away 10 days later, and who had a tattoo with her simple wish, “more,” she just wanted more, how do we live with the tenuousness and lack of control that all too often are part of the human condition?
A helpful response is found in the very name of this day.
This Shabbat has a special name, it is called Shabbat Hachodesh, and it refers to the passage from Exodus chapter 12 which provides the first laws to the entire Jewish people. And the first law is about sanctifying time. Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, this month, namely the Hebrew month of Nissan, is to be the first month of the Jewish calendar, and in this special month we celebrate the holiday of Passover.
The Jewish response to our vulnerability is to sanctify time now. How many years will we have? Who knows? Do we have today? Yes. What are we doing with today? That is the question. Are we sanctifying today? Or are we letting today drift away, unsanctified, unmaximized, under-appreciated, under-lived?
In her book, The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith talks about four things that create meaning in our lives.
Belong to people who love you and value you, and whom you love and value.
Pursue a purpose that fills our existence with meaning.
Turn your life into a story that has dramatic arc and importance.
Seek transcendence, the sense that our daily rounds point to something larger, call it God, call it spirituality, call it community, something larger than you to which you attach yourself, thereby investing your life with meaning.
We sometimes cannot control whether we are younger next year. But we can control whether we have meaning now. We can control whether we have people, purpose, a powerful story, and a sense of transcendence. If we deepen these every day, we will deepen meaning every day, however many years we are blessed, or not blessed, to enjoy.
This past Wednesday a firefighter from Watertown named Joseph Toscano was laid to his eternal rest at the age of 54. A 20-year veteran fire fighter for the Watertown Fire Department, he was battling an active fire when he collapsed. He was not younger next year, able to be as healthy at 80 as he was at 50. But he was able to sanctify every day he was blessed to live. He had people, his wife of 25 years Maureen. His five children. His fellow firefighters at the Watertown Fire Station. His Church in Randolph where his family went every week. He had purpose, to keep Watertown safe, and to be a loving father and husband. He had a story. His fellow firefighters said he was the most excellent of firefighters, but that was his third most important priority after his wife and children. He had a sense of transcendence, in his church, in his work, in his relationships. He would have wanted more days, more years, but he sanctified every day of the time he had.
What about us? What about we who are here today? In two weeks we sit down to our Pesach seders. That is our opportunity to reflect on whether we are sanctifying each day. Who do we belong to? What is our purpose? Where is the story of our life heading? In our daily lives do we seek and find transcendence?
We all want more. Amy Krouse Rosenthal wanted more. She wanted more so badly she tattooed the word more on her body. Dr. Henry Lodge would have wanted more. Firefighter Joseph Toscano would have wanted more.
We can eat right and exercise regularly, but more time may be out of our hands.
More meaning, what we do with the time we do have, that is up to us. Shabbat shalom.