The world's most famous set of awards are the Nobel Prizes. Presented for outstanding achievement in literature, peace, economics, medicine and the sciences, they were created a century ago by Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), a man who amassed his fortune by producing explosives; among other things, Nobel invented dynamite.
What motivated this Swedish munitions manufacturer to dedicate his fortune to honoring and rewarding those who benefited humanity?
The creation of the Nobel Prizes came about through a chance event. When Nobel's brother died, a newspaper ran a long obituary of Alfred Nobel, believing that it was he who had passed away. Thus, Nobel had an opportunity granted few people: to read his obituary while alive. What he read horrified him: The newspaper described him as a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.
At that moment, Nobel realized two things: that this was how he was going to be remembered, and that this was not how he wanted to be remembered. Shortly thereafter, he established the awards. Today, because of his doing so, everyone is familiar with the Nobel Prize, while relatively few people know how Nobel made his fortune. Shakespeare's Mark Antony was wrong: the good we do lives after us. For most of us, it is the most important thing that we leave behind.
Thinking about how oneís obituary is going to read can motivate one to rethink how he is currently spending his life. No eulogy ever says a person dressed well, lived extravagantly, took fabulous vacations, drove an expensive car, or built the most expensive home. I never heard anyone praised for being too busy at work to find time for their children. A call to someone who is lonely; a listening ear to a person in need; long walks with our children, saying thank you to a spouse and to G-d, performing mitzvahs (acts of goodness and holiness)--are the essence of a life well lived.
The people who are most mourned are not the richest or the most famous, or the most successful. They are people who enhanced the lives of others. They were kind. They were loving. They had a sense of their responsibilities. When they could, they gave to charitable causes. If they could not give money, they gave time. They were loyal friends and committed members of communities. They were people you could count on.
There is a lovely story about the great Victorian Anglo-Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore. Montefiore was one of the outstanding figures of the nineteenth century. A close friend of Queen Victoria and knighted by her, he became the first Jew to attain high office in the City of London. His philanthropy extended to Jews and non-Jews alike, and on his one-hundredth birthday, The London Times devoted editorials to his praise. "He had shown," said the Times, "that fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely consistent with one another."
One reflection was particularly moving: Someone once asked him, "Sir Moses, what are you worth?" Moses thought for a while and named a figure. "But surely," said his questioner, "your wealth must be much more than that." With a smile, Sir Moses replied, "You didn't ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year."
"You see," he said, "we are worth what we are willing to share with others."
In Herman Wouk's World War II novel, The Caine Mutiny, Willie, the central character, is serving in the Navy when he receives a letter from his father, who is about to die from cancer. Reflecting upon his life, one in which he achieved much less than he had expected to as a young man, he cautions his son, "Remember this, if you can: There's nothing, nothing, nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven't. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end, only at the end it's more obvious."
G-d decides how long our chapter on earth is going to be; itís up to us to make every paragraph and sentence count. Immortality lies not in how long you live but in how you live. Every day is a gift from G-d and we should use it to the fullest--to celebrate life and become a blessing to others.
If, G-d forbid, you were to leave the world tomorrow, what would your obituary say? Would it read the way you want it to read?
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of the Rohr Chabad House, a Jewish Student Center at Stanford University. He is a sought after communicator of Jewish thought and spirituality. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and three children in Palo Alto, California. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.