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Stamford rabbi asks, “What Will They Say about You When You Are Gone?”

By Cindy Mindell

book-coverThere is a moment in all of our lives when we experience a wake-up call. We have all had moments when a death, a near miss, or a sudden change of luck jolts us into a different perspective. In his new book, What Will They Say about You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy, Rabbi Daniel Cohen refers to these flashes of insight as “inner earthquakes,” opportunities to understand what matters and to remember the things most important and valuable to us.

“Imagine walking out of a funeral and as you leave, you experience a moment when you say to yourself, regardless of your faith, ‘I hope they speak about me the way they spoke about that person,’” Cohen says. “You are motivated for 15 minutes and then all it takes is a phone call or text message and you are back to life as usual.”

According to Cohen, in order to rise above these distractions and tap into the best version of yourself, you need to unpack the details that make up your daily existence. “You need to reconsider everything you’ve surrounded yourself with and decide what to keep, what to lose, and what to do differently,” he says. This “reverse engineering” process is at the core of his book.

Cohen has served as senior rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford since 2005. His own wake-up call came some 20 years after his mother died from a brain aneurysm at age 44. The eldest of six children, Cohen was then in his 20s. “I understood that she was young but it was not until I entered my 40s that I truly realized the brevity of her life,” he says. “This realization awakened me with renewed urgency to make the most of my life and share this inspiration with others.”

Now 49, Cohen has been inspired by many other encounters with people in the last stages of life.

“Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, I am in the position to distill the essence of life within minutes,” he says. “I sit with families and glean what is most important about a person, what will be remembered. You learn from personal stories, regrets and joys, the ingredients for a life well lived. When I am guiding people in their final days before death, when the clutter of life disappears, it is both inspiring and haunting to hear a person’s final words. Are they at peace or in inner turmoil? Their mental state, their fear or faith, is the product of the life they lived, the decisions they made and the love they shared.”

What Will They Say about You When You Are Gone? opens by challenging the reader to articulate a picture of the life he or she wants to lead. Cohen then explains the seven principles necessary to reverse-engineer one’s life according to how one wants to be remembered.

“Reverse-engineering is a strategy for living that ensures a life of influence and impact, while simultaneously motivating us to live in the moment,” Cohen says.

Cohen is editor of Mining for Gold: Essays Exploring the Relevancy of Torah in the Modern World (iUniverse, 2014). He conceived What Will They Say about You When You Are Gone? as a road map for intentional and inspirational living. Each chapter offers a toolbox of tasks to directly impact and enrich one’s life. “Do not underestimate the power of one positive act, one light to transform your life and those around you forever,” he says.

While Cohen is an Orthodox rabbi, his book draws from timeless wisdom of different faiths and religious figures throughout the ages, and reflects the experiences of people from all backgrounds.

“Everyone is created in the image of God and has within them the spark of the divine and there is a lot of truth that we experience that we can all share and grow from,” he says.

Cohen has gleaned these insights from his involvement in the interfaith community, working with Christian and Muslim clergy and periodically teaching at a Christian women’s study group. He co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, “The Rabbi and the Reverend,” with Rev. Greg Doll, minister-at-large in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“I truly believe the answers to leading a life of legacy lies inside all of us,” he says. “We all possess an inner voice that yearns for meaning, love and significance. Yet, we often fail to heed that inner voice. We walk in a daze, moving from one event to the next, vaunting time rather than making the time count.”

According to Cohen, the process of reverse-engineering one’s life is never-ending. “We can always grow,” he says. “Just as in the financial world, we monitor our bank accounts; we must do the same with our ‘soul accounts.’ Always remember, every bit of light we share, we reveal in the world, we reveal in ourselves is eternal and a reason to celebrate.”

Rabbi Cohen will discuss his new book on Monday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m., at the Stamford JCC, 1035 Newfield Ave. For information: (203) 487-0941

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