How a dying Jewish leader taught others what it means to live

What would you do if you learned you had only three months to live?

Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer had metastasized to his liver, and he had only three months to live.

Zacks — who died in February this year — decided to make his bedroom a school in which he and those he loved would study together about how to live at the end of life. What a school it was, and what a faculty gathered at his bedside! The details are chronicled in Zacks’ posthumously published book, “Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living.”

Natan Sharansky — the refusenik Zacks helped rescue from the former Soviet Union, and now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel — showed up at the door one day just to say “thank you,” but ended up staying longer to discuss the meaning of life. Leslie Wexler and Jay Schottenstein, both renowned figures in Jewish education, came to thank the man who had given them their start on careers in Jewish philanthropy. Perhaps the most important of all the visitors was Zacks’ 7-year-old granddaughter, who crossed the country just so she could give her grandfather a hug and a kiss.

Zacks taught those who convened for this informal seminar that each person must find his passion — whatever it is — and follow it to the very end. Whoever does that will have done his part in making this world a better place.

One of Zacks’ daughters recalled that when she was in Israel during her gap year between high school and college, a teacher in the seminary she was attending quoted something from the Talmud that she thought was morally offensive. She called her father back in Columbus, Ohio, and told him about it. The next morning, she opened the door, and there was her father. He had flown all the way to Jerusalem to be with her and to help her resolve this moral issue.

He took her to Rabbi David Hartman, the open-minded Jewish philosopher who was known for taking on Jewish tradition with love and honesty, and they spent the whole day studying together. Hartman showed them that the offensive passage did exist in Jewish tradition, but that it had to be understood in its historical context, and that it needed to be matched against the many moral passages in the Talmud that teach the opposite.

Zacks’ daughter thanked her father during the impromptu seminar for what he did that day in Israel, and rightfully so. How many fathers can you think of who would fly halfway across the world, on a day’s notice, simply to help a daughter understand tradition as it should be understood? While there were undoubtedly lots of plaques on Zacks’ walls bearing testimony to his generous donations to worthy causes over the years, this gesture he performed for his daughter probably was worth more than all of them put together.

At several points Zacks, ever the organized executive, offered sets of questions that he felt every person should ask as his or her end draws near. One set reads: “Do I still have an overarching purpose and a task to attend to — even now? Am I trying to complete the tasks I still have to do? Do I ask for help from others now that I realize that I can no longer do what I once could by myself? Have I conveyed my goals and entrusted my unfinished tasks to others who will take them up after I am gone? Have I come to terms with the disappointments in my life, and am I now focused on the doable, instead of dwelling on the things that I did wrong but can’t undo? And even if the end of my life is not close, do I still give the things that count the most priority in my daily life?”

There are more insights in this book for everyone to think about at the end of life — and beforehand. For instance, Zacks asks a question that most people dread dealing with: What should I do if I reach the stage when I need to use a walker, a wheelchair or even diapers?

The instinctive reaction most have to such a question is: How can I live without my dignity? But Zacks gets past that question and says what we think of as “dignity” may sometimes be vanity in disguise. He says man doesn’t give dignity to man — God does. Therefore, a person should come to terms with who he is now and what he can and can’t do now, and must understand that dignity doesn’t depend on appearances but rather on a commitment to tasks and values, even when one can no longer live without the help of others.

You don’t have to be terminally ill to learn from this book or to think of organizing such a “seminar” for those you love, although impending mortality does concentrate the mind. You only need to have strong convictions and goals, the desire to teach them to your children, and the hope that they will carry them on when their turn to lead comes. If you have these convictions and goals, this is a valuable book to study — and then to emulate.

“Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living” by Gordon B. Zacks, edited by Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn (158 pages, Beaufort Books, $19.95)