One of my favorite TV shows of all time was Boston Legal that completed its run about 8 years ago. Each episode in the last couple of years ended with Alan Shore and Denny Crane on the balcony of their ornate law office smoking a rich cigar and drinking the finest scotch. It’s not exactly how I end my day but I always loved this scene and so did others. There was such a positive reaction by the viewers to the friendship displayed by these 2 men that they decided to end every new episode this way.
In one episode, Alan and Denny represented a man who was charged with murdering his wife. Their defense was that it was a mercy killing in that his wife was suffering from a disease that had robbed her physically and mentally. Alan Shore and Denny Crane each suffered from mental and psychological maladies—each in their own way. Alan, on the balcony, asked if something like this woman’s illness is what is in store for him, for them: “What do we do Denny?”
Many of us have wondered about this as well. Denny Crane, who is known more for his antics than his wisdom, said: “Live big my friend. Live Big.” I was surprised and very moved by these words and they’ve stayed with me. Now I have no plans to end my day with a cigar and a scotch—well maybe a scotch—but I like the idea of living big. But what does living big mean?
At 1st blush, living big sounds like having the biggest and best of everything: the most expensive or fastest car; the house with the most square footage and most expensive art; jewelry that shines the brightest; cruises to the best islands; and vacations to the most luxurious and exotic destinations.
For me, it means something else and this something else is hard to put into words. Some people live small lives and survive. They have the same drab routine day after day of work and home—a small closed life. Others live big lives and thrive. Living big, for me, is living fully. Some of the ingredients of living big on my list are living in a way that helps me connect to Gd and my fellow human being—a loving marriage, a great shul, good friends, meaningful work and raising children who will live meaningful and productive lives. What it all adds up to are meaningful ways of connecting to Gd and giving yourself to others.
Yes, vacations with those you love, fine wine or scotch, good music, theater and books may add more fun to life, but not necessarily more meaning. You don’t have to own a plane and spend the weekend in Paris to live big. You don’t have to own a home in Buckhead and drive a Bentley to live big. You want to live big, spend a couple of weeks touring, studying or volunteering in Israel. That’s living big. You’ll come back feeling taller. Take some Torah classes, set aside 20 minutes every day to pray and meditate or volunteer at some worthy organization. That’s living big. Don’t live small and survive. Live big and thrive.
Our Torah portion describes the Nazir (Nazerite) who takes a unique vow in the attempt to achieve a greater degree of holiness. He/she vows to abstain from any strong or fermented drink or anything made from grapes, from cutting his/her hair or from attending any funeral even if it is his/her parents who pass away. The vow is normally time limited. At the end of the period of the vow, the Nazir brings an offering to the Sanctuary. The Torah describes this as a sin offering. It’s puzzling why this person attempting to achieve a greater degree of holiness by depriving himself of a good drink or herself from a visit to the hairdresser has to bring a sin offering. The answer is, in their attempt to attain holiness, they lived small not big.
The sages actually differ in their opinion of why the Nazir brings a sin offering. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that if the Nazir abstained from wine to be holy, he could have abstained from so much more and have become even holier. I can’t help but wonder what kind of personality Rabbi Eliezer possessed. With this approach, it doesn’t seem he would be all that much fun to hang out with.
Rabbi Shmuel, in the Talmud, is diametrically opposed to this. He teaches: “But we must conclude that it refers to his denying himself the enjoyment of wine. If then he that merely denied himself the enjoyment of wine is dubbed a sinner, all the more so does this apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life!” I’ll side with Rabbi Shmuel. He knew about living big.
Living big is enjoying the many blessings that Gd has placed on this earth and in our lives. Living small is taking advantage of little to none of these. Living small is a sin. When you deprive yourself from the blessings and gifts this world affords us, you have to bring a sin offering. You are not living wisely or well. And the Talmud adds that when we die and are judged, one of the questions we will be asked will be: “Did you enjoy on earth the blessings that I gave you to enjoy.” Not to accept Gd’s gifts, is apparently insulting to Gd.
A Jew is supposed to make 100 blessings every day. To recite these blessings, you have to experience the fine things in life for which the blessing applies. You have to see the ocean to thank Gd for creating this great wonder—and there is a blessing for that! You have to be in the presence of a scholar to offer the blessing for those learned and wise. You have to have a glass of wine to say the Kiddush and sit down to a meal to make motzi. You have to live big to come up with 100 blessings a day. Living small is no blessing.
Immediately following the section of the Nazir the Torah records the great 3-fold priestly blessing. It’s almost as if the Torah would have us shift our focus from the smallness of self-denial to the bigness of enjoying life’s blessing. The blessing begins: Y’varechecha Hashem v’yishmarecha, “May Hashem bless you and protect you.” Rashi comments on the words, “May Hashem bless you”: Shehyitbarchu n’chasecha, “that your possessions should be blessed,” that you should be blessed with money and material abundance. In other words, may Hashem bless you with living big.
My friends, summer is coming. It’s an opportunity for some big living. Some might go to Europe, some down to the shore, some to the mountains and some to their back yard with family and friends. That’s all big living. There are many ways to live big in June, July and August.
I’m still not sure I can put my finger on it exactly but I love this imagery of living big. For me it doesn’t mean living lavishly or going overboard. It surely involves living according to the values of our tradition and—in our own way—trying to achieve a higher level of holiness. Most important don’t just survive. That’s living small. Live big and thrive. “Live big my friend. Live big.” Denny Crane! Have a Big Shabbat! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Congregation Shaarei Shamayim
1600 Mt. Mariah Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30329
Author of: Dancing With God