[Once again, thank you for contributing to the fund for adult learning that memorializes my late wife, Gayle Hoover.
Your generosity means the world to me.
In the United States, https://urj.org/GayleHoover
In Canada, https://www.therjcc.ca/donate.]
I went golfing once, and only once, and only because of Harry Levine, a friend of my father’s. A heart attack had forced Harry to retire young, and with no open-heart surgery yet, he spent his days bedridden and bored. On the way home from school, I would sometimes drop by Harry’s house to talk.
On one such visit, Harry pointed to a set of golf clubs. “I’ll never use those again,” he explained. “I want you to have them.” And with that, I carried home a gift that my parents would never have been able to afford. I was, perhaps, twelve or thirteen at the time.
At the year’s first sign of robins, spring, and sunshine, I met three more-or-less friends my own age for my first golf outing. That was when I discovered that my many gifts did not include good hand-eye coordination. I struggled through the first half dozen holes; my friends struggled with me struggling. I left early, giving up golf forever.
Thirteen years later, when my father died and my mother decided to downsize to an apartment, I went back home to help her sort through the remains of her life with Dad. In a corner of the basement, we rediscovered the golf clubs.
We probably should have sold them as antiques, but I had as much business acumen as I had hand-eye coordination, so I said, “Mom, no one uses golf clubs like these anymore; throw them out.”
But Mom, a depression child, who darned socks and pinched pennies, never threw anything away. “No,” she said, “We’ll advertise and sell them to the highest bidder.”
The next night, as we sat down for supper, the phone rang. Someone was replying to the newspaper notice, and this is what I heard my mother say. “Golf clubs? Yes, you have the right phone number. How much? Well, the highest bid, I guess.” Then a pause, and… “What did you say your name was? Ruth? You want them for your son? Oh, Ruth, this is Ida Hoffman. You should have them for free!”
Who was this Ruth? Although Harry had no children, he did have a younger brother or sister, and that brother or sister had a daughter, who eventually had a son. Ruth was that daughter! Some 100,000 people lived in my city. What are the odds that on that very night, one of the people looking at ads for golf clubs to give to her son would be Harry’s only niece? So the golfclubs returned to their family of origin. Maybe I never really owned them; maybe I was just their custodian, an unknowing guardian of the goods until such time as Harry’s great nephew was old enough to inherit them.
I have wondered since whether we actually own anything. Doesn’t everything simply pass through our hands for a while? I don’t mean just the obvious things, like pots and pans and clothes and car, or the artwork on the wall. I mean also life’s intangibles: the way my mother made colored cookies, and brought some to my next-door neighbor Mr. Hearne, who couldn’t work because he had been gassed in World War One. Memories too are not our own, so much as they are ours to curate and bequeath to others.
At Costco today, the man who pushes the shopping carts onto the ramp greeted me with, “Hello young man! How are you?” “Fine, thanks,” I responded. “But I’m not young. I’m older than you.” “Maybe,” he said, “But think how old the universe is. We’re all young by comparison.”
Yes, we are all very young, I now think. We hardly have time to make anything our own. The midrash is right (Ecc. Rab. 5:21): “We enter the world with hands clenched, as if to say, ‘The world is mine.’ We leave it, hands wide open, as if to say, ‘We can’t take anything with us.’” Even our bodies are just on loan. They will be remembered in pictures on other people’s desks.
The point of life isn’t to own things but to make them part of the story of who we are; and to pass them on with love and a spot of wisdom to the custodians of memories who come after us. When they remember us, after we have died, they will tell those stories: the food we made, the candles we lit, the books we loved. You wouldn’t even know the name of Harry Levine, had he not owned some golf clubs and passed them along to me — a story that I now tell you.
So we don’t really own anything, except as temporary stuff of life which inevitably wears out, gets recycled, or, at best, gets passed along for a generation or two, and only then gets lost in the reaches of time. Our bodies are no exception. But for the fact that we are more intimately attached to them, to the point where they die when we do, we don’t really own them either.
But then, I wonder, who is the “we” whose possessions were never “ours” to begin with, and whose body comes and goes as well? Philosophical materialists insist that there is no “we”; that the “self” is a fiction of our imagination; that the imagination is just a product of the brain, which itself is part of the body, a thing among things.
But I am no philosophical materialist. I am a rabbi who is pretty sure my tradition has it right when it thinks there is a self beyond the permutations of the brain, beyond all the stuff that eventually wears out, decomposes, and dissipates into dust. The real “me,” the real “you,” is a deeper self that preceded our being born and that lasts beyond our death: the self we call a soul.
Life is the mystery of a soul, born into the world within a body and with things for it to manage temporarily. The record of how we manage it all lives on in stories: stories, we hope, of kindness that never dies; a keren kayemet (the Rabbis would say), a “lasting capital accumulation” of goodness that increases through time. Our real selves, our souls, then retire to the beyond, their work completed.