The Soul Story of Marion B

Yom Kippur 5782

This past year, 
in the lull between the 2nd and 3rd  COVID waves, 
a request came through for a rabbi 
to go and sit with a woman who was dying. 
It had been almost a year since rabbis could safely visit with anyone, but the numbers were at an all-time low, 
and the circumstances were just right to keep both of us 
as safe as possible. 

And so, on a sunny April morning, 
I masked-up and went to sit with Marion B.
, less than 10 days before she died. 

Spending time with people in their last days or moments 
is one of the sad and sacred tasks that rabbis are called upon to do. 
This wasn’t my first experience sitting with someone 
who wanted to talk about their life at its end, 
but it was by far the most remarkable, and I have continued to think about the conversation we had that day almost every day since. 

Marion was indeed remarkable, 
but not because she lived a remarkable life. 
Her life was relatively average for a person 
of her generation and privilege. 
What made Marion remarkable 
was the way in which she reflected on her life. 

Marion knew she was dying, 
but was quick to assure me that she was ready. 
She wasn’t sad. 
She had had a beautiful life and she was grateful and content. 
Even though she had suffered through a painful illness 
that was now in its final stages, 
and even though the pandemic 
had prevented her children and grandchildren from being able to be physically with her in her final months and days, Marion wasn’t bitter. 
She didn’t deny the hardship or the pain – 
she acknowledged them – but she didn’t feel afflicted. 
She wasn’t angry or remorseful, 
and it was truly inspirational to witness. 

At the end of her life, 
Marion just wanted to reflect on her blessings, 
share them with someone else, 
and have an opportunity to give thanks. 
She told me about herself – 
about her husband and their life together before he passed away; About her children and her grandchildren, 
and how proud she was of them. 
About her work as a counsellor and educator. 
And she even astonished me by wanting to talk about the latest 
in both Israeli and South African politics. 
With all that was going on in her own life, 
Marion had not receded into herself, rather 
she was still completely engaged in what was happening 
in the world around her 
and wanting to discuss and debate its complexities. 

What did I think about Bibi Netanyahu? 
And what did I think about how the pandemic was being handled? 

Marion even took time to ask me about myself, and my own life, 
family and interests. 

And so, when I left Marion’s home, 
I didn’t feel sad. 
I felt invigorated and inspired. 
I felt I had been given a beautiful gift. 

Contemporary author Brené Brown 
talks about how hearing the stories of others is a privilege. 
And Marion hadn’t just shared her story with me, 
she had shared her Soul Story. 

Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson, 
founders of the Center for Courage and Renewal, 
teach about the difference between an Ego Story and a Soul Story. 
In ordinary conversations, we are usually telling the tale of our egos: 
“I did this.” 
“This happened to me.” 
“This was my experience.” 
These stories are focused on “I”, “me” and “my.” 
A soul story, however, reaches deeper 
into the essential inner life of the individual. 

While Ego Stories focus on life’s high points 
when we have been successful and affirmed, 
Soul Stories honour shadow as well as light, suffering as well as gladness, 
and allow us to integrate the fragments of our lives 
into a complete picture. 
I was warmed by the glow of Marion’s Soul Story that day, 
and I found myself hoping we might have time 
for at least a few more conversations together. 
But that was not to be. 

When Marion died a little over a week later, 
I felt a deep sense of loss, 
even though I had only known her for a moment. 
I was sad that I hadn’t known her long enough to ask her 
the many questions I now had for her. 
How did she do it? 
How did she live a life of meaning 
such that she was able to feel content at its end? 

In the months since then, 
I have been considering that question. 
How can we live a life like Marion’s? 
How can we write our own Soul Story of satisfaction? 

Jewish tradition holds that the world is built on three things:
 On Torah (learning), on Avodah (prayer), and on g’milut chassadim 
(acts of loving-kindnes).

When I think back on Marion’s Soul Story, 
it also seems to be rooted in three main themes, 
and I think that if we could ask her 
what the secret to a life of meaning is, these are the things she would highlight.

First, Avodah: Expressing Gratitude.

Marion was able to look back at her life 
and list all of the things for which she was grateful. 
She was able to rise above the suffering of the moment 
and focus on the blessings she had been able to enjoy in life. 
Instead of dwelling on the sadness of not having her family 
physically present with her, 
she told me, with eyes shining bright, 
about how her children and grandchildren called her every single day, as did many of her friends. 

In such a situation, most of us would probably have a hard time accepting our circumstance so graciously -  
feeling blessed rather than cursed. 
“Why me?” is the most natural, the most human,
 the most ancient of questions. 
And yet, Marion didn’t rage at the pandemic 
that kept her loved ones from her bedside. 
Instead, she was just thankful to be able to feel them 
acutely present in her life and in the process of her death – 
in whatever way they were able to be there. 

Second: G’milut Chassadim - Showing up for others. 

Marion’s family and friends showed up for her daily in her life 
because Marion was the kind of person who showed up for others. 
She valued family, community, and engagement in society. 
She found fulfillment in helping others. 

In times of suffering, 
we often want others to focus on our needs. 
And yet, in the short time we spent together, 
even though we were there to talk about her life, 
Marion went out of her way to ask me about myself 
and to show care for me, a person she had only just met.
From the very first moment of our meeting, I was struck by Marion’s warmth and by the way in which 
she sought to make me feel comfortable and welcome, 
even though I was the one who was ostensibly there to be comforting her. The request had been for me to show up for her that day, 
but she also showed up for me.

Third: Torah - Educating ourselves and others. 

Marion took great pride 
in having been able to contribute to the lives of others 
through counselling and education, 
and it was clear that she shared the Jewish value and commitment 
to life-long-learning. 

Even when her own world became limited 
and she was no longer able to leave her home, 
or indeed even her bed, 
Marion remained active and engaged in the world. 
She read the news. She debated politics. 
She asked questions, 
and spent time contemplating her own views and beliefs. 

It shocks me how many people move through life 
without a desire for knowledge or understanding. 
But if this pandemic has taught us anything it is that there are dire consequences when we put what we think ahead of what we know. 
Marion thirsted for knowledge to the very end of her life, 
and it deepened both her sense of connection 
and her sense of purpose.

Lifelong learning, Gratitude, Showing up for others.
 Torah, Avodah, G’milut Chassadim.

Marion might not have realized it, 
but she was living her life 
according to the Jewish vision of the three pillars 
on which the world stands.
 Marion was also following the same script 
as the great Sage, Rabbi Ben Zoma, 
who’s teaching lives on in the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot: 

Eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? 
Ha-lomeid mi kol adam. The one who learns from all others.  . . 

Eizeh hu gibor? Who is brave and strong? 
Ha-koveish et yitzro. The one who overcomes their lesser impulses. . .

Eizeh hu ashir? Who is rich? 
Ha-Sameiach b’chelko. The one who is satisfied with what they have. . .

Eizeh m’chubad? Who is honoured? 
Ha-mechabed et habriyot. The one who honours others.

Marion was wise: 
She took in knowledge and imparted knowledge throughout her life. 
Marion was brave and strong: 
In moments of pain and suffering, 
she was able to rise above bitterness and complaint. 
Marion was rich: 
She was grateful for all that she had, even when she no longer had it. 
And Marion was honoured
 because she honoured others.

This is the secret. 
This is the recipe to a life of meaning. 
Even in times such as these, even in a pandemic, 
when we are grieving and exhausted, 
and when so much is still uncertain, 
we can follow Marion’s example and live lives filled with love, 
purpose, connection, and satisfaction. 

Rabbi Avi Fertig from the Mussar Institute, 
writes that, “when a major (crisis) happens, 
we must introspect to find a possible lesson 
and we must accept upon ourselves a personal kabbalah; 
a resolution to make some small change in our behaviour.” 

Being inspired by her life will not transform us all 
into someone like Marion Blomson overnight, 
but in this major crisis of our lives, 
we can respond by taking a page out of her Soul Story, 
and choosing one aspect of our own lives to work on. 

Whether we decide to deepen our commitment to learning, 
try to develop a daily practice 
of naming what we are grateful for, 
or work on being better at showing up for others, 
each of us can choose to write a new chapter 
in our own Soul Stories. 
Each of us can make a choice 
that we will look back on with pride.

Today is Yom HaDin. 
The Day of Judgement and the Day of Awe. 
It is the last day of our lives, and it is the first day of our lives.

Let us live like Marion. 
Let us be wise. 
Let us be brave and strong. 
Let us be content.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Scroll to Top