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28 Elul 5783/September 14, 2023

The Accidental Obituary

by Rabbi Neal Katz


The Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel is the subject of a well-known (and maybe legendary) story. Among his many inventions, Alfred patented a stabilized form of nitroglycerin that he named "dynamite." He became extremely wealthy as a result.


When his brother Ludvig died in 1888, a French newspaper published an obituary that incorrectly stated that Alfred had passed away. Alfred was surprised by this and was upset that the obituary described him as a "merchant of death." Alfred was moved when he realized that this was how others would remember him.


According to one biography, Alfred Nobel, “became so obsessed with the posthumous reputation, that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”


(This is the story of why he put his fortune into the creation of the Peace Prize.)


It's a powerful story that connects us to this moment in the Jewish calendar. During Elul. we are taught to reflect on the lives we are living – and we are challenged to imagine better versions of ourselves.


As we prepare for the coming Holy Days, let us consider this Nobel obituary story. Let us visualize that distance between what our obituaries might say about us – versus what we want them to say. And in this reflection, may we be called upon to course correct our attitudes, relationships, and behaviors. May we all leave legacies of love and strength.


On Fridays, we have been posting two Elul Thoughts, out of respect for those of us who choose not to look at technology on Shabbat. This last Friday of Elul leads into the first of Tishrei, the first day of our new year. So while there is no Elul Thought for Shabbat this week, we hope you will take a moment to thank the rabbis who contributed this year, perhaps with a contribution of tzedakah to their synagogue and/or discretionary fund. We wish you a blessed 5784 and we thank you for reading Elul Thoughts.


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