I rate Ira: That’s how we knew him, this loyal member of my congregation for decades. Loyal, yes, but always complaining, always whining about something that was not right with the shul. It became a playful game between us. After every Shabbos davening I would ask Irate Ira how things went today, and on cue he would respond with his litany: the singing was off key, or one couldn’t hear the chazzan, or too many children making noise, or loud chatter out in the lobby, or I forgot to give mazel tov on so-and-so’s engagement, or the siddurim are old, they’re coming apart. Complaints were his lifeblood, as natural to him as breathing.

The High Holidays were manna from Heaven for Ira, a gift basket of potential mistakes and oversights. Hundreds of things could go wrong, and for Ira they all did: The bathrooms were overcrowded; davening took too long; too much talking in shul; air-conditioning was too strong; air-conditioning was too weak; the acoustics need fixing; they should’ve given Eisenberg an aliyah; why does Goldberg get all those honors.

After one Rosh Hashanah, in keeping with our traditional ritual, I asked Ira how things went, and I braced myself for the usual torrent. But Ira just smiled and said, “Rabbi, it was great. Everything was perfect.”

“ Ira,” I said, “you gotta be kidding. No problems this year, no critiques? Are you okay?”

Ira smiled again. “Rabbi, something very funny happened to me during Mussaf. I was really upset the way the chazzan was stretching things out. It was getting late, the clock was moving, Rosh Hashanah is a long davening as it is, but he seemed totally oblivious to the time. Every single line was a different melody. Fine, congregational singing is nice, but enough already! With every passing minute I became more upset, really agitated, jumping out of my skin. Why was the chazzan kvetching so much? And then out of the blue something strange came over me. I said to myself: Ira, you’re already well over 80. How many more Rosh Hashanahs are you going to experience? Who knows, maybe you won’t even be around next Rosh Hashanah. No guarantees, Ira. You might never hear another magnificent Rosh Hashanah Mussaf ever again. This could be your very last one….

“You won’t believe this, Rabbi, but that idea sobered me up, calmed me down. I lost all my edginess, my jumpiness. All the tension and anxiety melted away, and all of sudden the words of the davening were speaking to me personally. I savored every word, loved every sound. Because I realized that, yes, maybe, who knows, but this could theoretically be my last Rosh Hashanah Mussaf. I became transformed, like a new person.”

“You mean that knowing that this might be your last High Holidays made you actually feel better?”

“Exactly, because then I knew it was out my hands. G-d was in control, He was making the decisions, He was in charge. Like we say in Unesaneh Tokef, “Who will live and who will die, who will have a full length of years and who will not….” So if we take that seriously, a few extra minutes in shul on Rosh Hashanah should be a privilege, Rabbi, and not something to agitate us. Same goes for complaining: Next year I might not be around to complain about anything. So I’m gonna take each day as it comes. After all these years I finally figured it out. I’m not in charge. Someone Else is.”

“Ira,” I replied, “ that is terrific. I wish you had told me all this earlier. You could have been the topic for my High Holiday sermon.”

Ira is no longer in This World — he lived into his nineties — and I miss him and our regular sweet-sour “lemon squeeze” rituals, but that Mussaf epiphany did something to him. Irate Ira became genial Ira, and his perpetual scowl turned into a radiant smile.

Ira taught a crucial lesson, one that applies not only to Rosh Hashanah but to every hour of every day. Whenever one is irritated by any of life’s myriad frustrations, bear in mind Ira’s lesson: Who knows if you’ll still be here tomorrow to experience this frustration? So ignore it and savor the positive in your life today, because there’s no guarantee that tomorrow you will be able to be frustrated about anything.

Thank you, Ira, for what you taught us. I assume that when you finally reached the Heavenly spheres you didn’t find too much to complain about. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 682)