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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: April 2023 | Transition

Ancient Wisdom for the Human Condition in 2023: Living With Death

Stanley Peter Jaskiewicz

Ancient Wisdom for the Human Condition in 2023: Living With Death
Anastasiia Lang via Getty Images

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It took the Pandemic for me to try podcasts – but I am glad I did.

I had just returned to work after my 2019 open-heart surgery, when the world shut down abruptly.

I discovered that listening to podcasts helped motivate me to continue my cardiac rehab workouts (in my basement, rather than at the hospital gym).

To this day, I still enjoy MASH star Alan Alda’s “Clear + Vivid” interviews about communication.

One episode that unexpectedly resonated with me was his interview with Rabbi Steve Leder.

I did not expect that result. Amidst the heart-rending tragedies of the Pandemic, why would a life-long, “cradle Catholic” choose to hear a self-identified “death professional” Rabbi’s wisdom (much less tear through his three books on that subject)?

Like many author interviews, the show was ostensibly about what was his then latest book exploring how we manage death (both of others, and their own).

However, I learned from Rabbi Leder how what we think about our own inevitable death (and that of those whom we love) can help us live our lives more fully, and mindfully, while we are still on this side of the ground.

(I should note that we are the same age - he was born twenty-four days before me.)

As an attorney, as well as an adult whose parents both died within a year of my thirtieth birthday, I was touched by his humble admission that his years of counseling others on grief had not prepared him for his own father’s passing.

Rabbi Leder graciously agreed to speak to me in early 2023, when I suggested his insight as a topic that would interest the senior attorneys who read the Voice of Experience.

I hope you will learn as much as I did from Rabbi Leder’s responses to my questions.

(His thoughts on that subject, and many others, have been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

VOE: Let me begin with the most important thing, making the most important thing, the most important thing.

How do you help those facing traumatic or life-threatening transitions balance the overwhelming emotion of the situation, and your helpful or practical guidance?

SL: That is like asking to have your second child first. It is impossible; you can only learn by experience, from the first death in your innermost circle.

My books are a memoir and field guide.

While there is no way to fully grasp and prepare for the death of a loved one or your own, there are some things you can prepare for.

Don’t leave any unfinished business before a person dies - say what you have to say.

You should both try to be a part of a “community of love.”

If you have good relationships, you can lean on them in death. In that way, death will not be an unbearable loss.

But you will experience more pain from loss if the dying person and his loved ones have no community, no one to support them.

An “ethical will” lets you prepare for the things that matter – which has nothing to do with “stuff.”

As I named a chapter in “The Beauty of What Remains,” “Nobody Wants Your Crap.”

(VOE: I noted the coincidence that he had quoted a favorite phrase of one VOE editor.)

There is an irony of working so hard to make money, to buy stuff, that means nothing.

Consider that most people’s final words are in an estate plan, written by a stranger, who didn’t know them.

All legalese and boilerplate, about who gets what and when – as if material goods can express an emotional message.

An ethical will, in contrast, is a blueprint for your non-material legacy - what others will miss most: your humor, your guidance, your laughter.

But most people leave only their material legacy.

An ethical will leaves a document about what really matters to you.

An ethical will does two things. It leaves your “legacy of values," and if you completed it honestly, it also creates an “MRI of your internal life.”

You can then hold that document to the light, today, and ask the most important question: “This is what I say I believe – but am I living this way, or is my life mostly pretend?”

Dissonance is very painful. The unhappiest people are those whose professed and lived values are not the same.

The happiest people are those whose internal truths and lived truths are aligned.

It is only when you realize you are going to die that life takes on importance, and renders life meaningful.

Death wakes us up to the potential of life.

Life is more beautiful because of the pain you endured.

All life is rooted in adversity or loss.

I think that the prospect of death reveals several lessons about the life you lived:

  • If you have to go through Hell, don’t come out empty-handed.
  • Don’t allow loss to be worthless.
  • Pain produces equilibrium, but can be liberating. At some level, pain is the only teacher.

VOE: I couldn’t agree more with your statement in your online biography, “Most important to me is being Betsy’s husband and Aaron and Hannah’s dad.” The same applies to me, with my wife and children. Do you advise family members differently than those whom you counsel as a rabbi?

SL: No, my advice to them is no different than what I said in my books, and professionally.

VOE: Therefore, since you published your own ethical will in “The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift,” - can I assume that your spouse and children have read it? Do you recommend sharing your thoughts with the intended recipients while you are still alive, to allow discussion about them?

SL: Yes, a discussion of one’s ethical will while you are alive is exactly its purpose.

So don’t wait – write your ethical will, and share it with those you love.

I also recommend binding your ethical will with your estate plan. Nobody gets any money until they have heard your ethical will. (VOE: Rabbi Leder had a broad smile when he said this.)

Short of death, live out the goals of your ethical will.

VOE: Since my major surgery, I have made it a point to say “I love you” every day to my wife and children.

SL: Very good - but go deeper - what does “I love you mean” in practice?

For example, caregiving can be the most intimate experience with another person, such as when I had to empty my wife’s post-surgical drain.

VOE: I had exactly the same experience after my wife’s cancer surgery. I never learned to empty a J-P drain in law school.

I think your books speak particularly to attorneys, who may think they have no time for spiritual concerns, or have never pondered their spirituality in the first place.

Have you found that attorneys approach the process of transition to the next stage of their lives differently than others, particularly in resisting the concept of planning for inevitable transitions?

SL: Planning for death through an ethical will trickles up from clients to attorneys. Attorneys with experience with ethical wills mostly do one for themselves.

First, they buy the book and journal for their clients – and then get a copy for themselves after clients share what works.

It starts as output for an attorney’s clients, but eventually becomes input for the attorney himself or herself.

In a similar way, when my physician had a virus, it was a humbling lesson in having greater empathy for patients.

Professionals like to keep a distance from people whom they help, but that distance can keep us from helping ourselves.

VOE: Let me close with a more philosophical question. Is there a place for a spiritual thought leader in the public square, as I think you have become, in a society that has become increasingly areligious?

SL: No one makes the New York Times best seller list, or goes on TV, if the message doesn’t resonate beyond a religious community.

I do not focus on religion, or a particular religion.

More generally, I think I make ancient wisdom about the human condition more accessible, and show how to apply it to modern problems.

The human condition hasn’t changed since ancient times.

America doesn’t need Rabbi Steve Leder.

America needs teachers connected to what came before. (VOE: Rabbi means teacher.)

COVID wasn’t the first plague.

The ancient truths I write about transcend distance and time.

I try to help people see the tension in all of us between our best and worst selves, and manage it.

VOE: Thank you. I have very much enjoyed our talk - and now I need to share the ethical will I wrote after reading your books with my wife and children.

(Information about all of Rabbi Leder’s books is online at His biography is at