Rabbi Steve Leder, FOR YOU WHEN I AM GONE

Rabbi Steve Leder, FOR YOU WHEN I AM GONE

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Bestselling author of The Beauty of What Remains Rabbi Steve Leder returns to talk with Zibby about his latest book, For You When I’m Gone, which offers examples of how to write a will that encapsulates your whole life’s story. The two discuss the impact Rabbi Leder’s father’s death had on him, as well as the significance of leaving words (which share a Hebrew term with “things”). Rabbi Leder also shares how writing this book has helped him grapple with mortality and what we really want to leave behind for our loved ones.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Rabbi Steve. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Last time, you were here for The Beauty of What Remains. Now you are here for For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story. Welcome back.

Rabbi Steve Leder: Thank you so much, Zibby. I love talking with you.

Zibby: Thank you. This book was really close to my heart because I have thought a lot about what you call an ethical will. I basically wrote an essay to my kids on Mother’s Day as if I had passed away already and what I would want them to remember that day. Obviously, yours and the whole concept of it is way bigger than that and has roots in religion and tradition and all of that. I think about doing a project like this often. Why don’t you talk about the power of this project, the prompts, how you came to the prompts? You said it only took you fifteen minutes and thirty years or something like that, which was so funny. I know you have a journal companion here. Talk about the whole project and how to inspire people to stop what they’re doing in everyday life to do something like this for when they are gone.

Steve: First of all, I read your Mother’s Day piece. I thought it was very moving and I really hope inspires everyone listening to do the same. Look, here is what I’ve learned after thirty-five years of gathering with families to talk about a loved one who’s died and what I’ve learned about how much that experience can teach us about our own lives. I’ve been gathering together with people to try to get my arms around their loved one’s story in order to prepare for the funeral, prepare them and prepare myself to create the eulogy. What I’ve learned is that a person’s story has almost nothing to do with the facts of his or her life. Obituaries tell you the facts of a person’s life. I’m interested in the truth of our lives. The fact that I was in elementary school at Aquila Elementary School in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, it doesn’t tell you anything about me, not very much. I devised a series of twelve questions over many years, in a very particular order, by the way, to help unfold the truth of a person’s life. This is important for two reasons, Zibby. Yes, it is vitally important for our loved ones when we’re gone to know our story, to have our guidance, our wisdom, our blessings, our life lessons, our legacy because that’s really what they’re going to cherish. It’s an irony that we spend so much time in our lives working and working and working to make money to buy things and things and more things. We work out a very elaborate estate plan. We spend a lot of time and money thinking about who’s going to get what and when.

What I’ve learned is none of that really matters to our loved ones when we’re gone nearly as much as our legacy and our words. There’s a very interesting psycholinguistic point I want to make. The Hebrew word for word and the Hebrew word for thing are the same word. You cannot differentiate between the two. In other words, from a psycholinguistic point, words are real. Words are tangible. Words create and destroy. They build and tear down. They hurt. They heal. Words are our most powerful legacy. Thinking all that stuff is going to mean something to our loved ones when we’re gone, I say it’s like trying to give them a picture of food. It’s really not going to nourish them. Our words will nourish them. This is, number one, a plea and a guide for everyone to ask the right questions and answer those questions for ourselves so that we can really bequeath something beautiful and lasting to our loved ones when we’re gone, but that’s only half the purpose. The other purpose is that when you ask these questions and answer them for yourself honestly, vulnerably, transparently, it’s an opportunity for you to hold your life up to the light like an MRI and ask yourself, am I actually living my truth, or am I just talking about it? Is my life kabuki or real?

This exercise is such a powerful tool. I see it, honestly, as part of this great reevaluation that’s going on in America right now, which is mostly very positive. In this post-pandemic world, a lot of us are asking ourselves, what really matters to me? What really makes me happy? Where have I gone off the path? Where am I not aligned with my truth? This book is a powerful North Star for all of us. These questions you asked about, I joked in the introduction — my editor asked me, “How did you come up with these questions in this order? They just unfold a person’s life.” I answered, “Thirty-five years and fifteen minutes.” These are the questions, as I said, I ask families to help me get to the truth of a person’s life. Everyone’s life is amazing, everyone’s, if you ask the right questions. That’s the backdrop of the book. I really thought about it because in The Beauty of What Remains, I had maybe two paragraphs on this idea of an ethical will, but that’s what every talk show host and podcaster and journalist and radio — that’s what they wanted to talk about, was these two paragraphs because most people have never heard of this concept.

Zibby: You know what you should do in your spare time?

Steve: Tell me, please.

Zibby: You should train people to ask these questions and then book sessions where they come to people’s houses or they do Zooms and help people through it. I want to do this, but telling myself — I need accountability to do everything. I feel like if I booked a session with a person, then I would do it. You could produce these —

Steve: — It’s like a trainer showing up at your door.

Zibby: Yeah, you need a life letter trainer or something.

Steve: I’ve been leading ethical will writing workshops all over the country for fifteen years.

Zibby: I know, but you have scale it. Everybody should do it.

Steve: My point is same as yours, really. When I was talking to the publisher about this book, I said, “We could do a lot worse than start a movement in this country of people creating an ethical will for their loved ones, for themselves while they’re living and for their loved ones when they’re gone.” We all just nodded our heads as in, yes. In other words, Zibby, you’re spot on. You are. What will evolve from this, I don’t know. I’m very hopeful that we will start this movement because I know what it meant to me to write mine for my children. Without even knowing for certain, I’m pretty sure I know what it meant to you to write that letter that you wrote on Mother’s Day. That is a very powerful experience for everyone. Yes, you’re right. Let’s scale it up.

Zibby: Not to say that publishing a book is not scaling it. It is. I just mean — anyway, never mind. It was a silly point.

Steve: I know. We can’t help ourselves.

Zibby: I know. I know. I can’t help myself. I really can’t. It’s true.

Steve: I’m the same. We’re entrepreneurs. We are.

Zibby: In the book, you have this really emotional visual when you talk about your dad’s clothes in a pile in the basement and how even a thrift shop didn’t really want the clothes. Nobody wanted to take those away. I’ve had similar moments in my life going through loved ones’ possessions. You realize, is it just a necklace? I don’t even remember her wearing this one. I’ll take the one that I remember seeing her in. Otherwise, it’s just a necklace. It doesn’t really matter. It quickly becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter what a person has. In fact, I feel like since having to pack up a dear friend’s belongings at age twenty-five, whenever I buy anything, I think, oh, gosh, someone’s going to have to pack this up later.

Steve: It’s so easy to lose our way because the ethos in our culture is, buy, buy, buy. It gets easier and easier to accumulate. In the previous book, there’s a chapter called Nobody Wants Your Crap. The double entendre is intended. It’s intended. Yes, one of the saddest — . It’s still hard, you know. One of the saddest parts of my father’s death was walking downstairs into the basement of their townhouse and seeing his stuff just in a heap on the basement floor. Nobody wants it. What do I have from my dad? I’ll show you one thing. This is an old metal measuring stick. It reminds me of working with my dad on Saturdays when I was a kid fixing stuff. It reminds me of what a straight shooter he was, just what an honest, transparent guy he was. This is what I have. You know what this is worth in monetary terms? Nothing, but it means the world to me because this represents moments and time, which is really what’s precious. I have a friend who’s a firefighter. It’s the only Jewish firefighter I know. Actually, I know two. There aren’t a lot of us. He’s a member of my congregation. I asked him one time — his name is Paul. I said, “Paul, when their house is on fire for real and they have to make a run for it, what do people actually grab? What really matters when you’ve got seconds?” He said, “It’s always the same thing. People, pets, and pictures.” That’s a really interesting type of essentialism when you think about it. It’s people, pets, and the images that represent moments in our lives. The rest is just stuff.

Zibby: It’s so true.

Steve: But we don’t always live that way. This book is, in a way, an exercise for all of us to help us be better aligned with what we really know is meaningful in life.

Zibby: I liked in this book — I feel like each time I’m reading your stuff, you’re revealing, little by little, more stuff about your marriage and your life. Not that I’m being creepy, but I’m just learning more about you as you go. I love the story of you just knowing that your wife was — it was meant to be. Then you kind of loosely talk about your medical issues. Tell me about that. What are the rules? Do you have rules?

Steve: That’s such a good question, Zibby. The first question in the book is, what is your greatest regret? Obviously, for us to talk about regrets, it requires vulnerability. It cracks us open in a way that makes answering the other questions more real. It’s also our great teacher. Regret was my great teacher when it comes to writing about my family. When I was a younger writer and my first and second books came out, I got pushback from my family. They were upset with me. I learned that before I write about my wife, Betsy, or my kids, Aaron and Hannah, or my mother or my siblings, I need permission and guidelines. I learned it the hard way. On the other side of that coin is, if I am unwilling as a writer to reveal my own truths, then why should you trust me as a reader? Why should you believe I know anything about life if I can’t examine my own? Really, that’s all I know. I think that’s all any of us know, is, hopefully, at least a little bit about our own experience. You’re such a thinker and believer in writing and the power of the word. Let me share a — it’s very interesting. The first book I ever wrote is being reissued today along with this new book. It’s called The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things. This was my first book. It’s early Steve Leder. This new book is the most recent snapshot. When I was asked to write the new afterword for this old book, I had to think about, how are they same? How are they different? and to try to understand my own philosophy of writing. Here’s what I think it is.

I think that the particular is ultimately the only thing that reveals the universal. Blake said you can see the ocean in a drop of water. The ocean is too immense. I live in California. I’ve never embraced the ocean. It’s like the tundra to me. It just doesn’t mean anything. You give me a trickling river or a babbling brook or a calm, pristine, mirror-like lake, now I’m seeing something. It’s almost like physics. They keep discovering new tinier particles. It used to be the Z particle, a quark, a Z particle. I think there’s a new one now. What are you doing when you discover the tiniest particle? You are also examining the thing that is most common to all matter. It’s both. It’s so particular and yet entirely universal. That’s how I feel about writing about my life. If you can really get to the deepest subterrain truth of the emotion of what it felt like when Betsy walked in that room, then you have some grasp of love. That’s how I think about my writing and talking about my life, including the difficult parts of my life, my brief but painful addiction to opioids after spinal surgery, my underlying anxiety disorder which came out of the basement of my psyche during the pandemic, my wife’s two battles with cancer and what it means. What is intimacy, really? The most intimate moment I think I ever shared, have ever shared, maybe will ever share with Betsy was emptying her drains for her after her double mastectomy. That’s love. That’s intimate. That’s the stuff and the muck of life and love and death and these sort of things that interest me. I have to start from, where is all of this in me? before I can evoke anything in you. It’s unusual for someone in my position to approach things that way, but I just don’t know another way.

Zibby: I think it’s essential for someone in your position to approach things this way. To connect with somebody else, you have to be open. Otherwise, it’s like you’re not letting the teeth of the zipper connect. Otherwise, it’s just one-sided. There won’t be a real link if half of you is not coming forward.

Steve: I think that’s right. That’s why I said thirty-five years and fifteen minutes, because it’s that. A friend of mine described my job this way. He said, “You have a front-row seat to life,” which is true, but it’s still vicarious. What I’m interested in is finding the real common denominators for all of us that unites us. I can only do that if I move beyond what’s vicarious from the front row and into my own reality in my own life. It seems to be working.

Zibby: You’re doing okay. You might as well stick with it.

Steve: I think the trick, though, Zibby, is for it never to become your shtick or to become gratuitous or a . It has to be real. You cannot get out there and pretend bleed in front of people all day long because they know it’s phony. It’s like actors who can cry on que. It’s bullshit.

Zibby: You don’t want to be exploitative with your life and emotions.

Steve: Or anyone else’s.

Zibby: Very true. Who do you think needs this book the most? In your congregation, people who walk in and out, is there a certain type of person who you’re like — maybe it’s the one who doesn’t want to get it. I don’t know. What’s your answer to that?

Steve: I’m going to give you two answers.

Zibby: All right, I’ll take them.

Steve: One is, I believe there’s a moment for each of us when we realize in a very visceral way — I can tell you when it happened to me — that we’re going to die. We spend a lot of time, rightfully so, denying that reality because we wouldn’t be able to be ambitious without it, without that denial. We have to deny death and shove it down into the basement or we wouldn’t get anything accomplished. What would be the point, really? There’s a point at which — you can edit this if it’s too long, Zibby. Most people think of evolution as a constantly ascending line, but that’s not what biologists believe. They believe in something now called punctuated equilibrium. In other words, we plateau, and then something happens that punctuates the equilibrium. It shoots us up to the next level from an evolutionary perspective. The Ice Age destroyed the dinosaurs and created a different life on the planet. There’s a punctuation or something disruptive of the equilibrium. There’s a point in everyone’s life when death disrupts their equilibrium. For me — my father and I look almost identical. If you saw a picture of him at ten and a picture of me at ten, you wouldn’t know the difference. Keep in mind, I had stood next to more than a thousand dead bodies and families looking at that dead body before it was my turn, a thousand or more, Zibby. To be honest with you, I could’ve been eating a sandwich. I was there to support them, but I wasn’t feeling it.

Then we were in the little room off the side of the chapel before my dad’s funeral. The young rabbi walked in to escort — I have a big family — to bring us out to look at my dad’s body in the casket before it was closed for the service. I remember thinking to myself, I know exactly how that rabbi feels right now, but I have no idea how I feel. Then we walked out there. I approached my father’s body in that casket. I looked down. I thought to myself, hmm, that’s exactly how I’m going to look when I’m dead and my son is bending over my casket. I am going to die. I was fifty-five years old. I had officiated at more than a thousand funerals. That moment was the moment that punctuated the equilibrium that moved me from Steve Leder the rabbi to Steve Leder the son, the husband, the brother, the uncle. I realized, really, really understood, I’m going to die. This book is for everyone who has reached that point in life for two reasons, as I said before. One, how do you want to live? How do you really want to live the rest of your life? Out of alignment, or do you want to live your truth? How do you want to hold and care for the people you love when you’re gone? By the way, I know five-year-olds who have reached that point. I know seventy-year-olds who have not. I remember when I lived in Israel, I want to hear a lecture by a rabbi who was the youngest child to survive Auschwitz. He got up there. The first thing he said was, “There were no children in Auschwitz. The moment you walked through that gate, you became an adult.” Why? Because that’s when those children realized, I’m going to die. It could be soon. I’m at risk. My parents are going to die.

This can be a very depressing thought or — this is the point of the book — a very powerful and ennobling thought. I’m going to die. Now what? What am I going to do with this precious, precious gift that I have? What of this precious gift called my life and my time here on earth am I going to bestow upon the people I love? It’s for all of us who have realized and had our equilibrium punctuated, shall we say. The other group — this is counterintuitive — is for young people who are trying to figure out their lives. I have a thirty and thirty-three-year-old. They are trying so hard to figure it out. Do I want to be more like this group of friends I grew up with? Do I want to be less like them? Do I want to live in LA? Do I want to live in the country? Am I ever going to make a living? Do I love my parents? Do I hate my parents? Do I love my parents? Do I hate my — all this distance, all this dichotomous tension that comes with growing up in America today in your thirties, in your twenties, this book, if these kids asked themselves these questions — they’re not kids at all, of course. It’s a map. It’s a roadmap. It’s for those of us who’ve kind of already figured it out and those of us who don’t think we ever will. I know how counterintuitive the later sounds. It’s kind of like a therapist in this book asking you the right questions. They don’t give you the answer. They ask you the question and then say, tell me more about that, right?

Zibby: It’s true, yeah. Rabbi Steve, this was amazing, laughing, crying, emotions, life, death. It’s only noon here when we’re doing this. It’s nine o’clock in LA. It’s crazy.

Steve: That’s how we roll, Zibby. That’s how we roll.

Zibby: That’s how we roll. Thank you so much. I always know talking to you will make me think and feel. I just loved that. I was sitting here thinking, I was like, how am I going to get him to officiate over my funeral?

Steve: Zibby, you’re younger than I am. I hope I go first, honestly. I really do. I want to say to you not just on my own behalf, but all of us who are writing to try to make people’s lives more beautiful and more meaningful, in a world with so much clawing for people’s attention, you are just an oasis of light and hope for all of us who publish. I’m just really proud to know you.

Zibby: Aw, thank you.

Steve: I really mean that.

Zibby: Thank you. That is so sweet. Thank you. That made my day. Thanks. Enjoy your publication day.

Steve: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you.

Zibby: Take care.

Steve: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Rabbi Steve Leder, FOR YOU WHEN I AM GONE

FOR YOU WHEN I AM GONE by Rabbi Steve Leder

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