Five Questions on Life, Loss, and Moving Forward with Rabbi Steve Leder
Steve Leder is the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and author of the #1 new release on Amazon (Love & Loss), The Beauty of What Remains. In January 2021, Rabbi Leder joined CEO and Executive Vice President Danielle Ames Spivak in a profound Schmoozic! discussion about what it takes to find love through loss, how the music of our childhood can provide us comfort in difficult times, and how we can set our sights on what truly matters. (CLICK HERE to watch).
What role does memory play in helping people respond to loss?
Only human beings were granted a gift, the ability to summon the past willfully, into the present, and carry it with us into the future. That’s not like a squirrel remembering where the acorns are, which is instinct. You can literally decide I’m going to stop for a moment and think about my mom right now, and you can do it. And that’s an extraordinary treasure given only to human beings.
As you know, my father had Alzheimer’s and so I saw it up close. When we no longer have memory, in a sense, we’re no longer ourselves. Memory is the most gracious and beautiful gift bestowed upon human beings by God. Without it, we’re nothing more than an animal.
The other beautiful thing about memory is that it enables us to round the sharp edges and leave behind what we choose to forget. This is where the book title comes from. We can choose to embrace the beauty of what remains, not just the loss.
It was such a profound moment when I learned that even though it’s an inanimate object if you don’t play a violin, it dies. The finish and the tone are ruined if it is ignored and not played. It takes us back to this earlier point. Judaism is constructed in a way that requires us to remember the loss of a loved one, at least five times in the year. And of course, there are all the others, the birthdays, the anniversaries, and the ordinary moments during the ordinary days. I often advise people who are grieving that they need to create a daily ritual. I don’t care what it is. Look at a picture, read a poem, light a candle to remember your loved one, but create a ritual as a vessel to contain it all. The willful act of memory is healing.
But of course, there is a duality to memory. Everything I have just said about memory is true and memory is beautiful, but it also hurts. I say in the book that memory is like being caressed and spat on at the same time. Recalling our loved ones sometimes hurts so much and that is the deepest truth about memory.
How can music help comfort us in times of grief?
Music is one of the main vehicles I use to organize the book’s narrative because my father communicated so much to each of his five children through music. My dad never once read to us when we were little, but he sang to us. I write in the book about the seven of us out on a Sunday drive while my dad was belting out You Are My Sunshine and how that became the beautiful anthem of my childhood. My dad loved to quote Hank Williams lyrics the same way he loved Yiddishisms. Music was a way he expressed love and joy and it is a way that love and joy remain in my life. Those songs comforted me as a child and they comfort me now.
Your book, The Beauty of What Remains, deals with navigating times of crisis. What advice would you have for people who are enduring incredible hardship related to this pandemic?
There are a number of things I would say. I learned one from a friend of mine who had three different cancers; the third cancer was lethal. When I asked, what did the first two cancers teach you? He said, “Time flies, even when you’re not having fun.”
The pandemic is going to end. This experience has been scarring and formative for many of us, and ultimately, it’s going to end. Sometimes after certain surgeries, when people are depressed, I’m able to say to them, “Everyone gets better from this. You’re going to get better”. So, as simple as it sounds, I think remembering that time flies, even when you’re not having fun, and that we’re going to get through it, is helpful.
I’m grateful for the year that has passed as it has really tested my capacity for gratitude. It’s hard to be depressed, if you’re grateful. But I think this has been a year-long lesson in gratitude for the simplest of things. Look back on the past nine months. Are you not amazed at how you have adapted and found ways to flourish and live and love? Be proud of what we have been through together and apart. Be proud of what you have done, and how you have done it. Know that going forward, no matter what life puts in front of you, you will be a resilient person who will find beauty.
It’s true that anyone reading the Beverly Hills Courier newspaper pretty much is on the lucky side of the pandemic. They have a driveway that the paper could land on. Yes, from a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs perspective, we are the lucky ones. But we’ve also done an amazing job. Amazing. Every one of us has gotten to this point through this pandemic. And there is no reason to believe that we are not capable of doing the same and then some in the year to come.
There is a point I made in the previous book, “More Beautiful Than Before” about going through difficult times. We’ve all been through hell, these past nine months. And when thinking about the New Year, the important thing about going through hell is not to come out of it empty handed. Ask yourself, “What am I going to carry with me from this experience? What am I coming out of this hell with that I’m going to make positive use of for the rest of my life?”
Let’s think about this New Year as the opportunity not to come out of hell empty handed. Loss hurts, but there’s a lot of beauty that remains, and you can hold that for the rest of your life.
This is what growing older is. It’s loss after loss, and then again, and then a loss. Life is ultimately about holding on and appreciating the beauty of what remains. It really is.
You often speak about reassessing priorities during times of loss or hardship. What kind of things should people be thinking about now in these tumultuous times for our world?
If the pandemic has come to teach us something, and I believe it has, let it be gratitude. Let us never again forget that it is who we have, not what we have that makes our lives beautiful. Let us never again withhold our expressions and feelings of love. Let us never again confuse a busy life with a meaningful life. And mostly, let us remember that no matter how many times we say “I love you,” and no matter how often we hold and hug the people we love, it is never enough.
What is one thing that you read, heard, or learned about recently that filled you with joy or optimism for the future?
Just yesterday I read Psalm 23, which talks about walking “…through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” It reminded me that we walk through these trying times, we don’t stay in them forever. And, most important of all, it reminded me that we are all going to walk back out into the light if we just keep moving forward with faith in ourselves and faith in each other. As my dad would have reminded us all right now, no one and nothing can ever really take our sunshine away as long as we have love…
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