What Matters: The Most Important Conversation of Your Life

By Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

I want to invite you to have the most important conversation of your life — that is, a conversation about the end of life. Don’t stop reading now! This is important. You might think it would be hard or uncomfortable but it starts with a simple question: What matters to you? Whether you are asking the question or answering it, share because you care.

You already know many things that are special to those you love: what they like to read; how they like their coffee; not to call them before or after a certain time; why a handwritten note is preferred to an email. But have you had the chance, while they are healthy and able to express themselves fully, to ask them about what they want at the end of their life? Have you done this for those you cherish?

The Conversation Project National Survey (2013) reports that 90% of people say that talking with their loved ones about end of life care is important but only 27% have done it. 82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing but only 23% have done it. But when your family is affected, these numbers become unimportant. Don’t let the numbers get in the way of sharing your values. You and yours feel 100% of the impact when making a critical decision as well as the benefit of knowing what matters in that difficult moment.

Let me tell you about our Biblical patriarch, Jacob, who took this responsibility seriously. His children, twelve sons and a daughter, could agree on very little. Jacob had experienced loss throughout his life and he was well aware of its powerful debilitating effect on decision making. After Jacob “lost” his son, Joseph, grief enfeebled him and his remaining children made sure to protect him from any of their disagreements. You’ll recall how famine brought the family to Egypt where they were reunited with their long-lost brother, Joseph. When Jacob was ready to die, he brought his children together to give them each a personal blessing, celebrating their strengths and reminding them of their foibles. But Jacob could not fully rest until he told them what mattered to him. Giving direction to their children is a parent’s ultimate gift. He made Joseph promise to embalm him and to bring him back to Canaan where he could be buried with his ancestors, in the Cave of Machpelah. Had the children not been specifically instructed, there wasn’t much chance that they would have known what to do or agreed to do so themselves.

How many of us have spoken with friends or relatives who have found themselves in the position to make critical decisions for dear ones but suffered from “not knowing” what that person wanted? In that moment, did you say to yourself, I hope that doesn’t happen to me?

A similar circumstance prompted my own parents to start such conversations with my siblings and me. Over the years, as their friends suffered from this and that, they would remind us, “Should this happen to me, I want to be sure that you know what I would want. If I can’t speak for myself, this is what I think is important should my world be constricted by illness. This is what I consider to be essential and gives me the quality of life I enjoy.” Once you know what matters to those you love you can honor those wishes. That’s not to say it is easy to do, only that you can put their preferences first without guessing at their answers.

Through the privilege of my role, I see a scenario repeated with some regularity: when loved ones can no longer speak for themselves, but their dear ones yearn to have their advice. So have these conversations now, while you can. A meaningful conversation can also save you the stress and distress of guessing at what they would have wanted. Their words, their wants, their clear guidance will be a balm and a reassurance when you need it most.

This Spring, our congregation is beginning this conversation. We are joining our neighbors, Society for the Advancement of Judaism and Congregation Anshei Chesed, in the initiative ‘What Matters: Caring Conversations at the End of Life,’ sponsored by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, The New Jewish Home and the Center for Pastoral Care at JTS. With the guidance of Yael Kornfeld, DOROT’s Partner in Caring social worker, anyone who would like to learn how to facilitate such conversations with other congregants is welcome to participate. We will also soon invite anyone who wishes to have a conversation about advance care planning with someone they love to reach out to us for help.

As part of our efforts to make our conversations knowledgeable, effective and easier, experts in medical ethics will teach us about the importance of an Advance Directive, a valuable tool to discuss and create a plan of treatment based on one’s values. We’ll discuss the responsibilities of a Health Care Proxy and how his/her role is to understand and carry out your wishes. Most of all, you will gain the gift that our patriarch Jacob gave to his children: guidance!

Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote a beautiful poem, now included in our expanded prayer book, which says:
“…your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was a gift to me…” If you, like so many, treasure a letter or note that an absent loved one penned, you will want to learn more about the opportunity to write an Ethical Will, an enduring record, like a gift of the values you hold dear which may live on through your words. In the fullness of life, you have the opportunity to reflect on what’s important and record it for those you cherish, whether it is a family member or the larger community.

These sentiments from Ecclesiastes are familiar guides: To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heavens: to dance; to build; to love; to share; to rejoice, and ultimately, to mourn.

This is our time to share our values and consider what matters in the end.

To learn more about becoming a facilitator or to make an appointment to have a conversation, please call me at extension 206. Let’s speak soon.

Other symbols of the festival include the lulav (consisting of two willow branches, a single palm branch and three myrtle branches) and the etrog (Hebrew for “citron”), a fruit similar in color and shape to a lemon. The lulav and etrog are used together in a prayer ritual for Sukkot.

At Emanu-El, Sukkot is celebrated in our Fifth Avenue Sanctuary, were a large three-story sukkah is erected on the bimah. A second sukkah is also created on our 3rd floor/outdoor play space, where our clergy, staff and families gather on the eve of Sukkot for “Shake in the Shack” prior to the main service.