Consider and Converse: A Guide to Limnot Yameinu

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Limnot yameinu /Teach us to count our days

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the core of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “limnot yameinu / Teach us to count our days.” This short phrase, drawn from Psalm 90:12, has inspired countless stories about making our days matter — constructing a life and building relationships with family, friends, and community that is steeped in a rich bounty of love and meaning. It is a primary text on growing old — and one that posits deep Jewish wisdom about a topic many find too difficult to engage.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth in your discovery of ideas and questions independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Elliot Kukla, director of the Bay Area’s Kol Haneshama: Jewish End-of-Life Care/Hospice Volunteer Program, to share his favorite texts about dying with dignity. He offers us the story of Rabbi Elazar’s final days. “As he lies dying, his friend and study partner Rabbi Yohanan comes to see him and finds him weeping.” The story serves as a prooftext for exploring what it means to stay present in each moment of life, For Elliot, limnot yameinu means “to stay present in each of our days and the days of our loved ones, until the very last breath — even when that life is no longer the life we imagined.” Why is it important to stay present in the moments of saying goodbye? Many people share stories from their shared history, how is it different to stay focused on the moment of leaving life? What do you remember about saying goodbye to your loved ones? What made those moments significant?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three contemporary commentators examine a stanza of the poet Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Open Closed Open.” (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld and reprinted with permission from the estate of Yehuda Amichai)

“Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is openin the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closedwithin us. And when we die, everything is open again.Open closed open. That’s all we are.”

I asked Vered Shemtov, a professor of Hebrew literature, Jeannie Blaustein, founding board chair of Reimagine End of Life, and the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz to reflect on this extraordinary stanza and how the lifespan influences our non-linear movement between states of openness and closedness as we grow older. Vered writes, “We tend to think of life as closed, open, closed. Birth is often seen as a transformation from the closed womb into the open world, and death and the grave are perceived as closure. Yehuda Amichai reverses this convention… Amichai’s poem, written towards the end of his life, asks us to consider the transition to death, and challenges us to focus on what it is that death opens up.” How do you understand this poem and how does it relate to your perception of death? How does Amichai understand death as both an “opening” and a “closing”? Jeannie writes that we generally avert our gaze when we encounter death. Does this poem instill a greater curiosity about and desire to change your gaze?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • I asked the pioneering Israeli feminist activist and writer Alice Shalvi to reflect on the relationship the psalmist suggests between coming to terms with our finitude and attaining wisdom. At 93 years old, I wondered if Alice would share her thoughts about all that counting. With dignified honesty, she reveals some soul-searching: “I confront decisions made in great certitude of taking the right path — decisions that now seem to me more questionable. The self-righteousness of youth is replaced by a realization that there might well have been a different path to follow, one in which duty replaced the fulfillment of my own desires.” What certitudes have you revisited and what outcomes have you discerned? What myths and stereotypes of the elderly have you challenged? How have you understood mortality as “part of the process of ripening and aging”? Has that understanding helped you accept frailties and limitations?
  • Rabbi Avi Killip writes about how our understanding and thoughts on the afterlife inform our approaches to death. Of course, none of us know whether there is an afterlife, but Avi helps us unpack what Judaism teaches us about this mystery. Jewish texts of every genre and generation offer wide ranging and diverse and sometimes contradictory images of life after death. Avi explains that the quest for answers about the afterlife leads us back to one universal, central, and eternal question: “What are you hoping for in an afterlife”? Can you answer this question? Have you ever thought about how vast and diverse Jewish thought is about the afterlife? Avi’s essay explores three images: The idea of resurrection, the Maimonidean image of basking in divine glory, and her personal favorite image: Shabbat as a taste of the word-to-come. How are these three images related, and what do they each teach us about living the lives we now inhabit?
  • Rabbi David Ellenson, former president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a close student of Sh’ma founder Dr. Eugene Borowitz, writes a brief eulogy to the journal Sh’ma. After 50 years of publishing, Sh’ma will be shutting down its run with this issue. Of its early years, David writes, about the “traditional Jewish notion of machloket l’shem shamayim, principled argument for the sake of heaven.” Borowitz “believed that arguments and discussions were ongoing and that there was seldom a final word.” Ellenson goes on to say that Sh’ma maintained its commitment to open and civil discourse through each iteration, which “may well be the single most important legacy Sh’ma has bequeathed to our community.” How does a journal—even one that published for 50 years—continue to have impact? How do you imagine the legacy of Sh’ma? What were your favorite issues and why are they remembered? In today’s more polarized world, “where respect among disputants is all too frequently lacking and where persons too often simply condemn others and attempt to seal themselves off from those with whom they quarrel,” how are conversations maintained?
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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Limnot Yameinu

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