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What’s On Your Spiritual Bucket List?

This morning, I stood on this bimah and delivered a eulogy.

What I hoped most to do with my words was to elevate the unique qualities of a man, whose life had been rich and varied, and all too short.

An educated man- he was a musician and writer, teacher, actor, a licensed pilot and businessman… but those attributes and qualifications provided only the pale outline of this man’s life story.

The color—the real vibrancy of his life came in those ineffable characteristics that were known to those who loved him.

Giving. Joyous. Filled with laughter. Self-less. Kind. Sweet.

The qualities and experiences that shaped the fullness of a life well lived were in titles and accomplishments that wouldn’t appear on a professional resume: Soulmate. Father. Brother. Friend.

In his new book The Road to Character, David Brooks picks up on this dichotomy, differentiating between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. He writes:

The résumé virtues, are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?[1]

As Brooks goes on to point out, “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

Set so starkly against one another: who wouldn’t want to pursue those eulogy virtues— knowing that at the end of it all, it won’t matter which university you attended, or how much money you made.

We know how to build our resumes, argues Brooks- perhaps better than ever.

Our culture encourages it.

But how do you become a truly good person?

How do you become someone who is known as kind, or brave, or generous?

Those eulogy virtues, according to David Brooks, are the ones we should be yearning for— those are the virtues that should be on our Moral Bucket List.   Brooks gives us the idea of a moral bucket list—but I would refine the idea even further, and say that it’s really a spiritual bucket list we should be crafting for ourselves in the year ahead.

Standing here at the start of a new year, we are meant to aspire: to stretch and reach and to try to grow, stumble though we will.

We know how to reach for experiences that fill the resume- we know how to work hard in our jobs, to study diligently, to seek experiences ands skills that will make us the ultimately “well-rounded person”.

But how do we write that spiritual bucket list?

What are the spiritual practices that will expand our hearts and souls? How can we flex our emotional and moral muscles to become more kind, more generous, more courageous?

Tonight, I want to share three concepts that may help you frame your spiritual bucket list.

The first is Sustainable Compassion, a term that I must credit to my friend and teacher Rabbi Everett Gendler.

Compassion, or the ability to act from a place of empathy is weighing heavily on my mind as I open the newspaper each day.

This has been a tough year to be sure: disasters of both natural origin and human making remain ever-present on the daily news round up.

Our attention is at a premium: how many of us have had the following experience at some point in the last year:

You are reading the news:

An earthquake in Nepal.

A shooting in a movie theater in Louisiana or a church in So. Carolina.

Each time: your core sense of compassion is stirred. You are horrified. You hurt for those who suffer.

And you try to respond: you do your part to raise consciousness around an issue like gun violence, or racism.

You offer condolences and care to those who suffer, like the families of the victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in S.C.

You donate money to help victims of an earthquake.

But the next day, you read the news again.

And it’s something else.

A gross miscarriage of justice in Ferguson, Missouri.

Refugees laying across the tracks of a Hungarian train station

You participate in a local Black Lives Matter Rally.

You send money to international efforts to provide for the needs of the record number of migrants and refuguees. You sign petitions.

But what happens on the day after? How do we avoid compassion fatigue? How do we sustain the life-affirming force of compassion in the face of a barrage of causes, issues and concerns that threaten to overpower our ability to respond?

Perhaps we can look to other models of sustainability and find ways of translating.

Former Chief Economist for the World Bank Herman E. Daly wrote a list of rules for ecological sustainability, which includes the following rule:[2]

Renewable resources such as fish, soil, and groundwater must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.

Or, in other words: compassion, and the energy it takes to act on that compassion is a renewable resource, but when it comes to compassionate giving of the self, we have to remember to allow ourselves to regenerate and rejuvenate, so that we might continue to act from a place of compassion.

As my teacher Ruth Messinger and president of Amerian Jewish World Service often says, “we don’t have the luxury of being overwhelmed”.

We are too capable, too privileged, and too powerful to retreat from the issues that call us. Our tradition underlines this for us, with the teaching that one who saves even a single life, is considered as if he had saved the entire world.

The second quality I want to suggest for our spiritual bucket lists is “Radical Patience”.

Everyone says they want to be more patient.

In a culture that moves faster than you can say “high-speed wireless internet”, waiting is not high on the list of favorite activities for most of us. In the spirit of vidui, the Jewish tradition of confession, I will admit that one of the hardest adjustments to life in the Berkshires for me was the exponentially longer wait I experience for a cup of coffee to go.

But “radical patience” cuts so much deeper than that fingernail tapping sense of “get me out of here” that we feel while waiting in line.

Radical patience is a deep sense of trust and knowing that seeds must be watered and planted and tended in their own time before they grow.

Radical patience knows the difference between that which is“right in front of your face urgent, and what is truly life-and-death-profoundly-important”.

What makes this kind of patience radical, is that it is simply not modeled for us in our common culture.

In his book, “The Soul of a Citizen”, Paul Loeb comments on this idea of radical patience.

He notes that up until very recently, our world moved at a much slower pace— change happened at a nearly glacial rate. People were born, grew up, worked, loved, and died in much the same way as their parents and grandparents before them. There was a trust and belief that society was governed by external forces, and that the real purpose of life was to fulfill tradition- not to overturn it.

Today, our lives are nearly the polar opposite. We live in a time of constant change.

As Loeb writes “our society makes speed an ultimate virtue”.

Yet, as Milan Kundera writes “there is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

As a spiritual practice, radical patience teaches us that reflection and self-examination are crucial to acting from a place of wisdom.

Radical patience knows that listening closely, and finding what T.S. Eliot called “ a still point in a turning world” are essential to living a life that matters.

A final item for our spiritual bucket lists— a “eulogy virtue” that I feel personally moved to reach for in the year ahead, a virtue modeled for so many of us by our friend Steve Meyerowitz:

Profound Joy.

So let’s be real about joy.  Joy is not the same thing as happiness, and it doesn’t always mean we’re having fun. Being real about joy means also being real about the opposite of joy, what keeps us from joy.

Profound Joy knows that joy and sadness can go hand in hand.

Profound Joy is found in being at peace with your own experience.

Profound Joy knows that happiness does not mitigate pain, but it can help lighten the load. Profound Joy knows that when you invite her into your life, her friends Hope and Possibility are sure follow.

A story:

The great leader of 19th century German Orthodox, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, surprised his disciples one day when out of nowhere, he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. “when I stand shortly before the Almighty,” he explained, “I will be answerable to many questions…but what will I say when God says to me, “Did you see my Alps?”

For me, this is the ultimate question about joy.

Did you enjoy every magnificent part of God’s creation?

Did you wake up each day and express gratitude for the wondrous surprise of simply being alive? Did you give and receive love? Did you see God’s Alps?

Ultimately, the purpose of a spiritual bucket list is to help us “number our days so that we may find a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), as the psalmist teaches. It is a way of evaluating this one precious life we are given to live.

Rosh Hashanah is known also by the name Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.

A day where we hold up that enormous cosmic mirror to our lives, and push ourselves to see where we missed the mark.

It is also a day which we describe as HaYom Harat Olam: literally today is the day of the birth of the world. Or, understood in a slightly different way. Today is “harat olam”— pregnant with eternity.

Today is a day of possibility.

May the year 5776 be a year of blessing and growth.

A year of self-honesty and gentleness

A year of sustainable compassion, radical patience, and profound joy.


[2] Herman Daly. “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process”


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