Rabbi Lisa asked our President Sheila Chiat to speak on Yom Kippur about what L’Chaim means to her and here is what Sheila had to say.

L'Chaim - To Life is our toast, at simchas – brit milah, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings - celebrating stages in life's journey.

My life journey began in South Africa, and my views are shaped by growing up there, in an extremely unequal society, which was the opposite of what R. Simon ben Gamliel said in Pirkei Avot(1:18):

Civilisation is preserved by 3 things, by truth, by justice, and by peace.

Life. Is not fair. Everyone is not dealt a good hand at birth, or during life. In the Vidui, we read Ashamnu, we have sinned against you by ignoring your image in every human being. Our task is to respond to what we encounter, and to try and make life better. (Tikkun Olam - heal the world) so people can say ''L'Chaim " with optimism.

In our Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh - saving a life, takes precedence over almost all other mitzvot. The question is: What do we save a life for? In Pirkei Avot(1:14), Rabbi Hillel said:

  • If I am not for myself, who is for me?
  • But if I am only for myself, what am I?
  • And if not now, when?

It is what we can DO that is important. And every little bit can help. For me, life means being involved. Action should speak louder than words.

When I was starting university many years ago, my mother said to me: "Sheila, if you think something is right, and you feel you must do something, we'll back you. But don't do something just because other people are urging you to be involved. And if or when you get arrested, send for me, not your father, he won't cope.

Many of us hope we shall have a life as long and healthy as possible. I reached the Biblical age of three score years and ten a few weeks ago, and it's unlikely that I'll emulate my great-grandmothers, by living well into my late 80s, or 90s, but for me that is unimportant. It is how I live, life's journey that matters.

The Rambam (Maimonides), when asked about life after death, part of what he said was that people can live on through their deeds, as well as their children, and succeeding generations. I haven't had any children, but have dedicated my life to education, and trying to help young people develop, and help the community, and hope that when I die, that will be my legacy.

As Rabbi Tarfon, in Pirkei Avot said (2:21): It is not your duty to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it.