A Jewish Bucket-list?

10 Oct 2016

If you go on Bucketlist.org, you can create your own bucket list of crazy antics, and you can also compare and contrast your lists to those of others.

The last time I looked, the site claims 48,924 participants with 889,936 goals. That’s a lot to do. Better get them done quickly: you might run out of time.

A bucket-list is typically a to-do list of exciting and usually hazardous activities that generally constitute an exciting life. The idea of a bucket list comes from the expression, to “kick the bucket.” If you are going to kick the bucket, might as well put a few great experiences in it first. The term gained popularity after the Rob Reiner film by that name starring two movie favorites – Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson – who were terminally ill and taking a road trip together as a way of saying a smashing goodbye to life. It’s easy to take incredible ricks when there is little to lose. What’s to be gained? You can say you’re not too old to dare greatly, playing off a famous 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt.

Popular bucket-list goals on this site include skydiving (you knew that was coming), swimming with sharks, spending the night in an underwater hotel and experiencing zero gravity.  I almost got the feeling as I scanned the popular lists that doing some of these activities may actually precipitate death. This would most certainly compromise the actualization of any other goals on a bucket list.

You can imagine that the other winner category on bucketlist.org are sites around the globe to visit before you go, ala 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I wish the author would have picked a number less ambitious like 11. That would have been more doable. I might have even bought a second volume. There are a lot of travel goals on the bucket-list site: visiting Stonehenge, standing in the Sistine Chapel, straddling the Equator, eating sushi in Japan. These do seem worthy of a bucket list. But they require significant financing, time and careful planning.

Kissing passionately in the rain (shared by 944 others), giving blood (581) or laughing until you cry (475), however, just seemed too banal to merit a place on any list.

I struggle with society’s understanding of a bucket-list. If we are going to check off anything, it better be the experiences that make life worth living before the checklist runs out. I have opted for a different bucket list, one that has emotional, spiritual or intellectual goals that offer depth, breadth and heft to life. What about organizing a family reunion or writing down your memoirs, going to a silent retreat or reconciling with a sibling? Few of us can say that we have really prayed, really spend meditative time in wonder or told a friend just how much he or she has meant to us. Let’s say you jumped out of a plane with a parachute and a prayer, and now you can tweet that to all your friends — but it’s not going to fix the broken relationship you have with your estranged son.

We have many deathbed scenes in Tanakh, enough to help us realize that although our biblical heroes did not use the rather crass term “bucket list,” they had a very deep understanding that the last words, blessings and demands one makes are listened to with a different kind of attention. There is also a strong sense, whether standing beside Yaakov’s deathbed or Dovid Ha-Melekh’s, these towering figures needed to say what they did before they left this world to those who were staying.

Spiritual goals are demanding. They cannot be accomplished merely by being somewhere or doing something far away for a few minutes and a photo op. Eating strange animal parts (thank goodness we keep kosher) or driving an Aston Martin makes for an interesting Facebook post, but if you time all the activities, you may have just five minutes of film time combined.  That’s hardly enough for a YouTube video.

In the Orthodox community, the word “spiritual” is often regarded as gobbly-de-gook or worse. The internal life is eclipsed by halakhic performance. Yet every mussar writer speaks in some fashion of duties of the heart. So set aside a few minutes to make your own spiritual performance review. How are you really doing? Ayeka – where are you right now? How is your prayer life? How is your relationship with God? Try a new grocery list – of ten activities and experiences that would reflect on your notions of friendship, marriage, parenting, faith, and community. Consider how you may be getting in the way of who you could become.

You will not be repeating this life. Every day is a chance to squeeze a little bit more out of this blessed existence.  Maybe, in place of thrill, we can come up with a list of the emotional dos and don’ts that will add up to a life that we can look back and of which we can be proud.

Not everyone sees a full bucket. The poet Carl Sandburg once wrote, “I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, no just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Keep moving and forget the post mortems; and remember, no one can get the jump on the future.

Perhaps the bucket of the past’s ashes can only be redeemed with a bucket full of hope and purpose. And that’s where a different bucket list may help.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.