Feb. 27, 2023

The Wisdom of Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Living a Meaningful Life and Facing the Reality of Death

Today, we sit down with Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, to discuss his journey to becoming a rabbi, and expert on death...
See show notes at: https://www.thinkunbrokenpodcast.com/the-wisdom-of-rabbi-steven-z-leder-living-a-meaningful-life-and-facing-the-reality-of-death/#show-notes

Today, we sit down with Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, to discuss his journey to becoming a rabbi, and expert on death and living a meaningful life. Rabbi Leder shares his insights on how we can learn to face the reality of death and live fully in the present moment. From his experiences teaching at Hebrew Union College to his appearances on The Today Show and CNN, Rabbi Leder's wisdom and guidance will inspire and challenge you to live your life to the fullest. Tune in to discover how to move from waiting to live to truly living.

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 Michael: Hey! What's up Unbroken Nation! Hope that you're doing well wherever you are in the world today. Very excited to be back with you with another episode with my guest, Steve Leder. Steve, my friend, how are you today?

Steve: I'm well. I'm really looking forward to our conversation, I think you and I will have a lot to talk about.

Michael: I think so as well. And before we dive in, tell us a little bit about your backstory and how you got to where you are today?

Steve: Very quickly. I grew up in a working-class family in a suburb of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park. I'm one of five kids, my parents were 17 and 18 when they got married both fleeing incredibly abusive parents of their own. And they had five kids before they were 30, no safety net. My dad and my uncle owned a junkyard called Leader Brothers Metal. And it was a junkyard and I worked there as a kid every summer and on weekends. And my parents were certainly doing the best they could, but I was the fourth of five and I think I was kind of just raised by wolves, I don't know, they weren't around that much were kind of over parenting when I came around. When I was 14, I was playing drums in a rock and roll band and smoking weed every day in ninth grade. But my grades were good, which was the only thing my parents ever checked in on. And then I got arrested for shoplifting Bob Dylan albums with my band mates from Target this was 1974. So, I was pretty enlightened I think at the time. And my parents were on vacation in Florida and my big sister, Marilyn had picked me up at the police station and take me home and I had to call my parents on vacation in Florida and tell 'em what happened and they came back. And to make a long story short, they realized they should probably start paying some attention to me and keeping their eye on me and they went to see our rabbi because in my cosmology of my youth, everything was a waste of time except working at the junkyard, except there was one acceptable place we could go, which was the synagogue. So that was the place I went to be around people who read books and to be able to express myself creatively, etcetera. And my parents went to the rabbi and said, you know, what do we do? Steve's on the wrong path. And he said, well, you need to change his peer group. So, they sent me to this Jewish summer camp, I had just turned 15 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I stepped off the bus and fell in love with everything about it, everything. The pretty girls from Chicago, ‘cuz if you grew up where I grew up, Chicago was like going to Paris, you know? Yeah. And the cool counselors who were hippies and wore earth shoes and played guitar and liked the music I liked and it was the first time, Michael, it's the first time I ever saw a young rabbi in shorts and a T-shirt who could throw a baseball, and it blew my mind. I couldn't believe it. What? Rabbi’s? They can be regular normal people, because my rabbis were these kind of old, scary guys with crooked teeth and greasy hair and you know, I couldn't relate, but wow. So honestly, that was the moment, I fell in love and never looked back and decided what I was going to become. This is all separate from some of the personal hardships I've faced, which have really formed who I am going forward from that moment. But that's the genesis of a lot of it.

Michael: Wow! That's fascinating, man. I sitting here, I had a thought that most kids who are in rock bands, playing drums, getting high instilling records are probably in homes where no one's paying attention to them because that was exactly what I was doing to some extent as a kid. So, my number one dream as a kid was to be the drummer of the Foo Fighter. And so, I had this drum set that I bought from this kid across the street, and since I was skipping school and getting stoned all day, I'd play it and you know, unlike you though, because I maybe have a little bit more talent, I wasn't arrested when I was stealing things.

Steve: Wait a minute, in all fairness. My buddies were the ones actually stealing the albums, and my job was to keep the cashier busy in the record department and I thought, that's not illegal. I had no concept of what it meant to be an accessory to a crime, none. I thought I was cool no matter what happened to these guys, but they hauled me in with the others too. I tried to be cool about it. Yes, you were more thief in your adolescence that I work.

Michael: That's hilarious. You know, it's a talent that I no longer utilize, so let's just call it what it is. You know, Steve, I mentioned this to you before we started recording. I don't know if it was me reaching out to you or your team reaching out to me to have this conversation, but I initially had come across you when you did an interview with Bob Saget and I'll say this, I don't share it a lot on the show, but I'm a huge, huge, huge fan of comedy and I loved Bob dearly and I rarely, if ever, am impacted by the loss of celebrity. And that's just simply cuz I don't know them so I'm emotionally removed from it. But growing up in the eighties and seeing Bob on full house and then finding out he's the dirtiest comic of all f**** time, right? And really that sparking this further love when we lost him, dude, like I felt a visceral physical response. And so, in listening to that conversation, I hate to use the word irony ‘cuz it doesn't really apply here, but the conversation you guys having about death and the work that you do to watch you have that experience with him prior to this loss, I was like, man, that must have been really beautiful to be able to look back on and be like, I got that time. The work that you do around death, I think is incredibly fascinating ‘cuz we live in a society where we hide from it all the time. And so, I'd love for you to kind of just talk about the experience leading into the work that you do and why you do it?

Steve: Hmm. Well, first of all, I left out a small piece of the origin story, which is as far back as I can remember. Well, the farthest back I can remember is fourth grade, and it was Ms. Hollingsworth class, and there was a girl in that class who was different than all the other kids. Now, we didn't have the language in the sixties, we didn't know what on the spectrum meant, nobody said it, we didn't know about autism, I just knew she was very different. And I remember fantasizing about going to Ms. Hollingsworth and saying, could I just have a few minutes alone with her because I think I can help her. For some reason, I was compelled to run toward the fire and I have been ever since, and I don't know why.

So, that's part of what led me to the work of being a rabbi is I want, I am interested in fact, almost only interested in the muck of life, in the brokenness of it all, in the scar tissue, in hope and regeneration. I want to be in the front row seat to life, I've always been that way. And that's part of what led me to dealing with death so much because death is not about death, it is always about life. Every brush with death is actually a brush with life, our lives, and death look, I wish, and there are other things that wake us up, but death is the great teacher, and in some ways, death is the only teacher. Kafka said the meaning of life is that it ends and it is really that simple.

So, I know that the more I am thoughtful about death, the more seriously I take my own life and the life and love of others. I mean, imagine for a moment, if we were deathless creatures. Imagine if human beings never died. Think about what meaning would life have at that point? None. There would be no ambition. No one would get married. No one would build. No one would have to do anything because there would be zero sense of urgency. And I got more interested in writing about all of this when my father died, because when my dad died, I had to take this journey from Steve Leder, the rabbi, who thought he knew so much about death and loss because he had vicariously helped a thousand families through it, and discovered through the journey of my father's 10 years of Alzheimer's in his death, how little Steve Leder the rabbi, knew about death and loss and life until he became Steve Leder the son.

Michael: That's powerful, man, because what strikes me in that is ultimately, we have to face reality. And I'm gonna put this into my own scope for a moment. The only way I've been able to effectively help people change their life is two ways. One, really, really, really trying to ingrain in them that I'm not the one doing it, and two, that been there. And I think with this concept and this ideal of death, like it's around us all the time, but it's like swept under the rug.

Steve: Oh. Especially in America.

Michael: It's wild to me. Right. And you look at that, and I remember my first experience with death was very young. My uncle had never shared this on the show before so, Unbroken Nation bear with me. My uncle on New Year's Eve, 1990, drove his car off the side of an overpass and was decapitated by the seatbelt because he was drinking and driving. And at the funeral, I will never forget this, I went up to my grandmother and I said, what's going on? Why are we here? And she said, just go play. And it made me think about how, like, you know when little kids, when like their fish dies or whatever, their parents just like replace it and you're like, isn't that dismissive?

Steve: Yes. I wrote an article two months ago for Women's Day Magazine called Don't Flush the Fish because it's an opportunity to begin to help children realize that death is not something we run from, that death is an opportunity to glorify and magnify life, and death is an opportunity for gratitude and humility and reassessment and pretty much every good instinct human beings are capable of. And you know, people call me all the time and say, Steve, you know, the funeral tomorrow, should I bring my five-year-old? And my answer is always the same. If a child is old enough to remember as you were in 1990, if a child is old enough to remember not being allowed to participate, they need to be there because what they will remember, therefore is death is something you stay away from. Death is something you play and pretend doesn't exist. That's the message your grandmother gave you. And here's the crazy thing, when there's a 5, 6, 7 year old, four year old at a funeral that I'm officiating at, I always get there early. I talk with them a little bit about what's gonna happen. These kids are fearless. They don't fear death. They get that from adults. They take, I say, do you want to go see? And they take my hand and they're fascinated by the lowering of the casket, they're standing right there holding my hand, looking down and is that grandpa? I say, well, that's grandpa's body and it's gonna be put in the ground so it can return to the earth where everything comes from, they're fine. We're the ones with the problem? And you know, your grandmother made a mistake 32 years ago that you still remember like it was yesterday.

Michael: Yeah, that's such a great point, man. And what ended up happening is because I was so removed from that, so I've had like everyone, right, like, you are going to have to deal with death like it's a part of this game. Like you can try to avoid it, but I promise you, as much as I know the sun's gonna rise tomorrow, you are gonna have to deal with it. And one of the things that I believe, I'm always looking for causation and correlation, Steve, I'm always figure out like, why do I do the things that I do? How do I get to where I'm at? And so, in my twenties, I had to deal with the murder of a couple of my close friends and I just could not pull myself to go to the funeral, right? I was so removed from it and I shut down in this real. And honestly, at that time, my life was pretty chaotic with drugs and alcohol and a lot of other things but I couldn't bring myself to do that because it was easier to be avoidant. And I think one of the things that happened when I really got deep into my spiritual journey, this healing journey, is that I recognized that I had to actually embrace death. And I had thought process one day, gosh, it must have been probably about 10 years ago now, so it's probably like 27, 28 and I thought to myself, if I change my relationship with time and death, I will change the way I operate in the world.

Steve: Absolutely. It gives meaning to everything. And let me just tell you how important and difficult it is. So, I've always had this idea to write a book called “How to Have Your Second Child First” but it's a great title, but it's impossible. It's like writing a book to teach someone how to swim, they could read it a hundred times over, you put 'em in the deep end, they're gonna drown. Reading about something is different than living it. And I had dealt with really over a thousand deaths before my father died, and I knew, as you just articulated, that in some general theoretical way, everything dies. Okay, sure, of course. But listen, this is what happened to me, I was 58 years old. My dad died and I flew home to Minneapolis and we were sitting in the room at the synagogue off to the side of the chapel where the funeral was gonna be. I was in there with my siblings and all the everyone's spouses and all the kids, and my mom and the young rabbi walks in to take us into view my dad's body and then the caskets closed and the funeral would begin and they would let people in the funeral begin. And I remember when the rabbi walked in saying to myself, I know exactly how the rabbi feels right now, but I have no idea how I feel because I had walked into that room for other families a thousand times. I had stood next to a thousand families looking down at the body of their loved one in front of an open casket. And to be honest with you, it didn't affect me very much like I could have eaten a sandwich standing there and it's not ‘cuz I'm a cold, hard feeling, less person, it's that it wasn't my loved one. I was there to help them; I wasn't directly experiencing that. So, this was a new world for me being walked in to look at the body of my father. Now, in order to understand the power of this, you have to real know one thing about me and my dad, which is that at each age of our lives we looked almost identical. So, if you saw a picture of me at 15 years old and a picture of my dad at 15 years old, you would have had a hard time telling the difference. And so, we walk into the chapel and I approached the casket, yesterday was the fourth anniversary of my father's death. We approached the casket and I put my hand on my dad's chest because I didn't want to feel how cold I knew he was. And I looked down and my first thought was, hmm, that's how I'm gonna look when I'm death and my son is bending over my casket, I am going to die. I never really felt it a thousand times before, but when I looked at my dad and therefore myself dead, it changed my life for the better.

Michael: It's heavy, man. And I'm thinking to myself in that this exercise that I've done before and a lot of people in the personal development space have started doing it more and it's writing your own eulogy and it's about exactly what we're talking about, changing that relationship and recognizing the truth because it feels so far removed all the time. And so, I did this exercise and to be honest with you, it didn't really impact me that much ‘cuz I'm always, dude, I think about death every single day like at some point I wonder if I'm plagued by it, but it also becomes this motivator that like keeps me.

Steve: Yeah, you're motivated by, you're not plagued by it, you're motivated by it. You're enlightened by it.

Michael: I am. I've faced it like I don't get to call my best friends. I don't get to call my grandmother. I don't get to call my mother. I don't get to call, you know, my uncle, so many people have existed and Steve, dude, this is what's crazy most of them have died in these massively tragic ways. Right. Things that you pray like, I'm always like, dear God, spirit universe, holy mother, whatever it is, let me die in my sleep. Please, please, and or thank you

Steve: Yeah, I often say, you know, all deaths are sad, but some are tragic.

Michael: Yeah. And that's the reality, some have been massively tragic, and so I'm wonder the change that you experience, and maybe reconciliation's the wrong word ‘cuz it hasn't happened, but in like, the willingness to sit in the truth of this new found reality, like what happened?

Steve: I've written, I wrote a book about it called The Beauty of What Remains, and it is all about the dualities that my father's death revealed to me, it's everything the rabbi thought he knew but the son discovered was far more complex. So, death exposes so many dualities that we deny. I'll just give you a few examples. Memory. We're all full of these platitudes, clergy, they're full of these platitudes about memory. May his memory be for a blessing. You always have her in your memories. Okay. Yes, that's true. Memory is beautiful. But it is equally true that it really, really hurts sometimes. It's like being caressed and spa on at the same time, that's memory. There's a dichotomous tension to it, there's a duality to it. I want to think about him, I don't want to think about him at all. I want to talk about him. I don't wanna talk about him at all. I wanna move on. I don't wanna move on at all. It is this duality of memory that we try to avoid. Number one, there's a duality about grief, we have this idea that grief is linear and it's not true. Now, the reason we think it's linear is because every generation from mine down to yours and beyond has been raised under the sort of tutelage of Elizabeth Kubler Ross when it comes to death and grief that it comes in stages; there are five stages and here's it's A, B, C, D, E, and F. And first you feel one, then the other, then the other, then the other, and then it, it's over like some rash that clears up and that's b****.

Grief is non-linear. Grief is waves and they come and they're fast and they're hard, and they're huge at first, and then they spread out and then, but they're still there. And then sometimes you have calm, beautiful seas for days, weeks, months, even years. And your back is turned and this massive rogue wave rises up and takes you down and you're thrashing and gasping for air, that's grief. And that means that you need to learn how to lie down when the wave comes and float with it ‘cuz you can't stand up against it. You can't. It'll throw you upside down. And it means you have to learn to reach out to your hand when you're floating because very often there's someone next to you who can reach back and help raise you from that suffering.

And there’s a duality to the material world that death forces us to reconsider. There's a chapter in that book called Nobody Wants Your Crap. Right? And the double entendres intended, and I'm gonna get to your eulogy idea through this vehicle. What is the last word that most people get from their loved one after their loved one is gone? The final words we leave for the people we say we care most about in the world. You know what it is most of the time? It's a last will and testament, which is a boiler plate legally document written by someone who barely knew us, and it is entirely about who gets what and when and how much of our crap, the jewelry, the money, the Paperweight collection, whatever.

We fool ourselves into believing that somehow the material will express the emotional. And I say to people all the time, that's like giving someone you love a picture of food, it's false, right? It's not gonna sustain our real legacy to people. What do I really cherish from my father? I have only two material objects from my father. One of the saddest visuals after his death was going into the basement in my parents' home and seeing all of his stuff in a pile on the basement floor ‘cuz nobody wanted it. Even good-willed in one most of it. I have only two material objects for my father neither one of them is worth $5. I have his hat. And I have his ruler from his toolbox that is still hard when I would work with him as a kid, I was like the scrub nurse. Hand me the wrench, hand me the pliers, hand me the ruler, and I have that ruler, it's on my desk right here. But what do I have that's really a treasure? I have his guidance, his blessings, his wisdom, his failures, his shortcomings, his hopes and dreams for me, that's the greatest treasure we can bequeath to the people we love and so, few of us actually take the time to articulate it.

So, I wrote this second book After the Beauty Of What Remains Called For You And I'm Gone and in it, it's exactly what you're talking about. It poses 12 questions for every person to consider so that he or she or we, or they, can tell the truth of their life. You know, an obituary is the fact, a eulogy is the truth. Right. So the fact that I was born in St. Louis Park, Minnesota on June 3rd and 1960, that's a fact, it may be the most important fact of my life, but it doesn't tell you anything about me. Now, if I were to say to you when I was a little boy and the stress of my parents' marriage and my father's harshness and the chaos in my house, I would get in the canoe and canoe on the mini creek that ran through my backyard and find comfort and solace in nature and the aloneness of it and I still seek that same comfort in nature. Now, you know a truth about me and I didn't tell you a single fact.

So, this idea of articulating and I call it an ethical, will you call it a eulogy, it doesn't matter what we call it. We're talking about sharing our truth with the people we love. Now, when we do that, it also does something else, it's not just a bequest to them. You write your own eulogy. You consider, what do I want carved on my headstone? When you consider what is love? What do I regret? Have I ever had to cut someone outta my life? What's the best advice I ever received? What would my final blessing be to my loved ones if I could speak at my own funeral? When you ask and answer these questions, you also have kind of an MRI of your internal spiritual being that you can then hold up to the light and ask the most important question I think any of us can ask, and it's why you're alive today, I believe you specifically, is you get to hold this document up to the light and ask and say to yourself, okay, this is what I say I believe. This is what I claim to be my truth. Am I living it? Or is my life kabuki?

Michael: Hmm. Yeah. There's a few different thoughts that come to mind. First when you say what's on my tombstone? Well, my brain goes to pepperoni and cheese, right?

Steve: But let me ask you this question differently, the way I ask it in the book. When you die and your family is asked to make a decision about what's gonna be carved on the headstone at your grave, they're in most places told you have 16 characters per line and four lines total. That's half a tweet. So now we are engaged in a real exercise of powerful essential. When you have to distill your truth down to 70 characters. Now what? Because the truth is, it's not gonna say pepperoni and cheese.

Michael: No, it's not. But nineties marketing got to me, man. The thing that it would say no is, I thought about this a lot, man it really, really matters to me. It would say he became the change that he promised he would become.

Steve: He lived his truth.

Michael: Yes, a hundred percent.

Steve: And that's your goal, then you get to reverse engineer your life. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, no surprise. And I'm always struck by the fact that despite each of us being unique and we all lead unique lives. You walk through the cemetery, almost every headstone says the same thing. Loving father, great mom, loving husband, father, grandfather, friend, loving wife, mother, grandmother, friend. There are outliers, but almost all of them say the same thing, not your GPA, not your grandchildren's GPA, not your gene size, not your zip code, not your net worth. None of it. It’s all b****. And once you realize that, then you get to ask yourself, okay, that's what I want on my headstone loving husband, father, brother, grandfather, and I haven't called my sister in six months. Really? I'm out of alignment. The unhappiness people I know are people whose professed values and lived values are not the same. The most content people I know are the people who are most aligned, none of us are completely aligned, we all fall short. But the people who are most aligned with their deepest health truth and they actually live it. I didn't even get close. I didn't even get close until my late fifties.

Michael: I've had a few brushes with death myself, my own mortality. I got pretty sick when I was 28 by 29 it was pretty close, things were not looking great. And in that moment, it further solidified this idea that I really had to, with the time that I had try to do something that matter. It's hard. I think for especially people listening to this show, man, we grow up in pain and suffering, and abuse, and abandonment, and our own parents telling us, you're not good enough, you don't matter, you're a piece of shit, you're a loser, that gets reinforced by society. Next thing you know we're in this miserable life that we don't want to have. And yet they're like, yeah, but on my tombstone, I wanted to say something different. And I think that's what I'm always trying to push towards is like, how do we really give people the tools to be able to do that, to leverage these understandings from experts like you, like you're an expert in death, right? You're an expert in what it is to be able to deal with the moments of loss, to look at yourself and ask the hard questions and make the difficult decisions. And one of the things I was thinking about as you were talking is we get inundated with the ideals of the people that we should and it is a unmasking of that while simultaneously unbrainwashing yourself that allows you to get to that place to live in integrity with who you are. In my passport wallet, I carry a photograph of my grandmother. Now, my grandma was a f**** crazy person, Steve. I'm biracial, black and white. My grandma's an old racist lady from Tennessee.

Steve: Is she black or white?

Michael: She was white.

Steve: ‘Cause you know what Chris Rock says, the most racist people on earth are old black men.

Michael: Hundred percent. And so, I knew where you're going with that. And so, I keep this photo of her in my passport because when I was about 12 or 13, we were watching Anthony Bourdain's, travel show, whatever the very first one was called, and I cannot remember it, but I think it was called Chef's Tour and we were watching it and I looked at her, she's in this rocking chair chain smoking Misty Slim hundred cigarettes, playing this electronic poker device. And I look up at her and I go, I'm gonna travel the world one day. And she goes, I don't think you should do that, it's scary out there. I don't think you should go. You know, it's dangerous in the world, bro. My grandma never even got on a fucking airplane. And so, I'm keeping this in my passport all the time. I've lived in 12 countries. I've traveled the world. I've done these amazingly beautiful things because I realized the truth, like I am gonna die and I don't want regret in my life because someone told me what I can or cannot do.

Steve: Very often we learn by negative example. You know, I talked about the duality of death. Well, another duality is the cognitive dissonance we have for the people we love. We love our parents. We hate our parents. We love our parents. We hate our parents. You love your grandmother, you hate your grandmother, you love your grandmother, you hate your grandmother. We all have that. Now, here's the deepest part of that for me, all of these dualities. Dualities, definitionally, are irreconcilable, right? They cannot be reconciled, making peace with the impossibility of reconciling the duality for me is a resolution, is a reconciliation, making peace with what cannot be reconciled. You couldn't be your grandmother and yourself. It's impossible. And making peace with that liberates us. And your story about your grandmother who essentially taught you how not to live. It reminds me of this, there's this theological concept called Negative Theology in Latin it's Via Negativa by way of the negative, and basically, and I'm oversimplifying, but basically it is that you can understand what God is by deciding what God is not. The way I like to think of this in life, not theology, but in life, yours and mine is like a beautiful marble statue, that beautiful marble statue started out as a solid block of marble, and it took a skilled artisan, a skilled sculpture to remove everything from that block of marble that wasn't beautiful. That beauty of that sculpture was hiding within that block of marble all the time. But it took a chipping away of so much to leave behind what was beautiful. And death chips away, and strips away a lot of nonsense from our lives. And another way to look at it is that behind every “No” is a “Yes”. When you say no to one thing, you are simultaneously saying yes to another. And so, death strips away so much b**** when you realize I am going to die. It really declutters your life and leaves behind so much that's beautiful.

My father's death, changed my attitude to money, for example. So, my dad grew up on public assistance, which today, you know, we call welfare. And he was born in the thirties, a lot of people don't know this, but Jews were the second poorest minority in America on welfare in the thirties ‘cuz they were all immigrants, they came with nothing. And my dad, who was not poor, I mean, we were not poor, but we lived like we were poor, we weren't rich, but we lived like we were poor. My father, just to give you one example, reused his dental floss. Yeah, for real ‘cause it was a perfectly good piece, you know? So that was my dad and I lived that way because of it, that was my father's equivalence of your grandmother saying it's a dangerous world out there. My father, I was raised with an extraordinary fear of impending poverty. Disaster looming around every corner. I would come home from college my dad would say, come take a walk with me. We go out in the backyard and he'd say, you see that tree over there? I buried some gold coins under there in case we ever have to, you know, make a run for it, like, what? The Nazis are coming to St. Louis Park, Minnesota. What are you talking? But this was my dad and when he died, I realized that's just wrong. And life is to be lived and money is to be spent not recklessly, but spend it. I am going to die. Therefore, I wanna really live and it's this stripping away of death that is such a powerful and beautiful embrace with life.

Michael: I'm curious, a thought came to mind as you were going through this. I believe, obviously I can't ask her, but I believe in my heart, this is the way that my grandmother lived. I believe that she was so scared of death that she actually never lived a moment.

Steve: Right. I'll tell you something else. This is a something I talk about in for you when I am gone. Many years ago, a psychologist named William Marston did a study, he asked 3000 people what they were living for? 94% of them answered with an event or reality that was going to occur in the distant future, they were living to pay off the mortgage, they were living for the kids to go to college, they were living to have grandchildren, they were living to retire. 94% of us waiting to live rather than living.

Michael: What were the 6% doing? How are they thinking?

Steve: They were thinking like, I'm enjoying my life.

Michael: Why is there such a big discrepancy?

Steve: Well, part of it is I think there's a lot of denial of death and people think they have forever. It couldn't happen to me. And part of it, I think, is that we live in a culture of deferred gratification. We don't really live in the moment very much in this country. You know, I remember, one of the kids that I worked with, you know, I've worked with thousands of kids over the years obviously, as you know, the rabbi of a big synagogue. One of our kids went for her junior year of high school to Central America. She was a very thoughtful, very bright kid, and when she came back, I said, well, what did you learn? What's different there? She immediately said to me, people are happier there. I said, what do you mean? She said, well, they have much less than any of us have here, but they eat together, they cook together, they sing together, they dance together, and they're happier. And I think that's what the other 6% are doing. They're living, they're not waiting to live.

Michael: How do we get people from waiting to live into living? What do we have to do?

Steve: Well, I think, I can speak for myself. You have to impose some boundaries. Remember when I said behind every no is a yes? So, we need some nos. We need some guide rails. We need some. Boundaries in our frenetic lives in this centrifuge that tries to spin us all apart from each other. So, for example, for me, the Sabbath is very important like I don't answer emails. I don't use my phone. I don't shop. I don't run errands. I garden, I pray, I read, I nap. We have dinner at home 95% of the time. Do we get invited out a lot? Yeah. Do I say no? 95% of the time. Yeah. So, we have to have some boundaries so that we protect the inner sanctum of life. And you know, we all can do this in our own ways, but we can all do it. You know, we all need to find a way to create an Armas day in this war for more and more and more, because more is not better.

Michael: I agree. And it took me, you know, actually the thing that really sparked that for me was about five years ago I sold everything I owned and I went to the world because there's something here that's not working for me.

Steve: Yeah. And by the way, I'm not an aesthetic. I like money as much as the next guy. I like really good old PD scotch. You know, I'm building a little cabin in the Joshua Tree Desert, and it's not cheap, like, I like nice things but I don't confuse them with my life.

Michael: Yeah, that was the thing that I was getting to me. When I sat and I wrote my first book, it was sitting on the beaches of the islands of Thailand, watching the sunset, drinking a coconut, right? Am I working? Yes, but I'm working in this thing that I wanted not behind the desk, not in the cubicle. Dude. I used to have to wear f**** khakis to work. I hate khakis more than I hate anything on planet Earth. And it was like, what do you have to do? I asked myself when I was 26, I was heading into 26. I hit this massive rock bottom in my life like it was death or anything, right? And I said, what are you willing to do to have the life that you want to? And my answer was ultimately no excuses, just results. And that meant I had to get massive clarity about who I wanted to become and realize that it was like this tumultuous journey of the willingness to say no. And it took a long time to actually recognize that because I was always the yes person, because to grow up the way I did and many people do in poverty, in abuse and trauma, we are yes people. People who are abused are yes people far more than people who are not. And to say no feels like maybe you'll suffer consequences, maybe you'll get in trouble, maybe people won't like you. Well, Steve, you know this, people don't like you anyway, so it's fine.

Steve: Right. And so, like people think of you Michael?

Michael: No, I have some ideas though.

Steve: You wanna know what most people think of you?

Michael: Please.

Steve: They don’t.

Michael: Exactly, and that's the thing that people like, we're all so concerned and like, I can't name the a hundred people I walked by on the street today. Right? They're outliving their life; they're doing their thing. And I think that to not live is terrifying, man.

Steve: So, you think about your headstone, he lived his truth and that is now your journey, and that is beautiful.

Michael: I want to go deeper into this because this is my greatest fear literally is this, that I will die with regret. Nothing else scares me. Dude, I will do literally anything else, but I do not wanna die with regret.

Steve: Well, okay, first question in for you when I'm gone is, what do you regret? And here's the common denominator to what most people regret most at the end of their life. And you're a guy who doesn't wanna die with regret. So, here's my prompt for you to think about. What most people regret most is not something they did, it's something they didn't do?

There are two types of, in religious terms, let's call them sins in human terms, let's call them mistakes. There are two types of mistakes we make in life that lead to regret. There are mistakes of commission, the things we do, and there are mistakes of omission, the things we failed to do, the time we didn't show up the words, we didn't speak the path, we didn't take, the fear we didn't stand up to. So, if you wanna be a person who dies with you, won't die without any regret, but you'll d who dies with less regret than the ordinary person then the thing to focus on are these regrets of omission because most of us find a way to forgive or be forgiven for the things we did in life therapy. Apologies. I'm only human. We find a way over the course of our lives to forgiven, be forgiven somehow for the things we did. But you can never really make up for the things you didn't do in the same moment or at the same time. And this so important and something I wish I had realized sooner, but the thing most people regret at the end of their life is not having reached out for help sooner. I wish I had fill in the blank and it's almost always gotten help sooner, come clean, sooner, come out sooner, told the truth sooner, live the truth sooner. And I often say to people when they come to see me in my office to talk about regrets, and maybe this will be helpful for you and everyone listening.

I kind of triage the conversation to get people headed in the right direction by looking at them in the eye and saying, Michael, personally, I have given up all hope of a better past. Think about it. I have given up all hope of a better past, which immediately says to someone, regret is not about the past, it is about the future that we do not have to be slaves to yesterday's ways. We do not have to be shackled by the past. You know, just to get biblical on you for a minute. Many people know the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gamora, and as the cities are burning and being destroyed Abraham's nephew lot and his family are allowed to flee and survive. But God says to them, don't look back, whatever you do, when you're fleeing that destruction of Sodom and Gamora, all that misery and pain, the heat of that fire don't look back. So, they're fleeing and lot's wife turns around and looks back and of course this is all metaphor for me, at least, the Bible says, and she was turned into a pillar of salt. Now, I have always understood that to mean, I've always interpreted that in my life and for my followers, that if we orient ourselves to the destruction and trauma of the past, we become paralyzed and bitter, a pillar of salt. The regrets of the past, the trauma of the past at their best, inform and liberate and create a different kind of future. Dusty said his greatest fear was that his life would not be worthy of his suffering. I think that's a very powerful idea. What you are doing with your life with the Unbroken Nation, you are living a life worthy of your suffering. You are not coming out of the hell of your past empty handed. We all go through hell. We all go through hell, but we don't have to come out empty handed. And is it worth it? No. Is it worth what I learn through my father's Alzheimer's and death or through the car accident, what is it that I was in that resulted in spinal surgery and opioid addiction and clinical depression and anxiety? Was it worth it? No, but my job is to make sure neither is it worth less, right? If I could give you a different childhood, I would. What you have become is not worth what you had to go through to become it, but you haven't allowed it to be worthless. You're being worthy of your suffering. And that to me is an enabling and powerful idea.

Michael: Brilliantly said, my friend. This has been an absolutely incredible conversation. Before I ask you my last question, please tell everyone where they can find you?

Steve: You can find me on Instagram @steve_leder. You can find me at steveleader.com. You can find me, all the books on Amazon, and that's where you can find me.

Michael: Of course. We'll, put all the links in the show notes. My last question for you, my friend. What does it mean to you to be unbroken?

Steve: Let me put it to you this way. There's a verse in the Bible that says, God puts words upon our hearts. And the sages, a thousand years after that was written ask, well, why? Just upon our hearts, why not in our hearts? Surely, if God has the power to put words upon our hearts, God has the power to put words in our hearts. Why just upon our hearts, and the answer that the sages give is so powerful, and it's an answer to your question. They said, God puts God's words upon our hearts, and it isn't until our hearts are broken that the words can enter, which to me means in a sense, forget the religion part of this, what it means to me is that in a way, in a very real and beautiful way we are more whole, somehow, we are more whole when broken, that pain cracks us open. In a way we can't otherwise be open. And so paradoxically, and you know, I'm fascinated by dualities. To be unbroken means to be first, means to be broken, the truly whole person is a broken person.

Michael: Oh man, he's got massive goosebumps as just consuming that. I just wanna say thank you so much for being here.

Unbroken Nation, thank you for listening.

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My Friends, Be Unbroken.

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Michael UnbrokenProfile Photo

Michael Unbroken


Michael is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, coach, and advocate for adult survivors of childhood trauma.

Rabbi Steve LederProfile Photo

Rabbi Steve Leder

Rabbi and Author


After receiving his degree in writing and graduating Cum Laude from Northwestern University, and time studying at Trinity College, Oxford University, Rabbi Leder received a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Letters in 1986 and Rabbinical Ordination in 1987 from Hebrew Union College. He currently serves as the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a prestigious synagogue in Los Angeles with three campuses and 2,700 families.

In addition to his many duties at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Leder taught Homiletics for 13 years at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He is a regular contributor and guest on The Today Show, writes regularly for TIME, Foxnews.com, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, Woman’s Day Magazine, contributed a chapter to Charles Barkley’s book Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?, and has published essays in Town and Country, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal where his Torah commentaries were read weekly by over 50,000 people. His sermon on capital punishment was included in an award winning episode of The West Wing. He regularly appears on CNN, NPR and Spectrum 1 News. Rabbi Leder received the Louis Rappaport Award for Excellence in Commentary by the American Jewish Press Association and the Kovler Award from the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. for his work in African American/Jewish dialogue and in 2012 presented twice at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In the New York Times, William Safire called Rabbi Leder’s first book The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things “uplifting.” Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein said he “is everything we search for in a modern wise man; learned, kind, funny, and non-judgmental, he offers remarkably healing guidance.”

Rabbi Leder’s second book More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul received critical and media attention including feature articles in the New York Times, Town and Country and appearances on ABC’s Politically Incorrect, NPR, and CBS This Morning.

His third book More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us reached #4 on Amazon’s overall best sellers list in its first week. It remains a best seller in several categories and has been translated into Korean and Chinese. His book The Beauty of What Remains; How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift was published by Penguin Random House in January, 2021. Publisher’s weekly called it “…elegant and compassionate” and it quickly became a national best seller. Rabbi Leder’s newest book For You When I Am Gone; Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story, also published by Penguin Random House, launches on June 7, 2022

Newsweek Magazine twice named him one of the ten most influential rabbis in America but most important to Steve is being Betsy’s husband and Aaron and Hannah’s dad. He is also a Jew who likes to fish. Go figure.