“Jonah and I were talking about death tonight. We were talking about the existence of the soul, and how we feel when the body dies, the soul continues in some form, conscious or unconscious of its previous existence. We were talking about cycles – how everything is a cycle – you wake up, and you go to sleep, the tide goes in and out, the leaves on the trees turn lush and green in the spring, and shrivel and die in the winter. Your body is formed in the womb, you are born and then you die. An everything continues… But where the soul goes is something completely different and mind boggling to me. You could say that the soul only exists in the body, if you think that the soul is formed through the same process of personality and cognition that are developed through receptors and reactors in our brain. I feel that the soul is something deeper than just our genetic makeup, each person has a soul that drives them in certain directions, and it is not something that is necessarily tangible. Sometime I am looking at so beautiful in nature that I feel it just cannot be explained through science, through the chemical composition of different molecules and compounds and light refraction that produces all these different colors. When looking at a mountain, I can deduce that it formed by the crashing together of tectonic plates in our lithosphere, but somehow knowing exactly how something as awesome as a mountain came to be solely through scientific explanation is fun. I like to believe that souls power the beauty of this earth. Something is behind the wind and the rain and the beauty of nature that just can’t be explained through hard science. Death has been surrounding me a lot lately.”
These insightful and beautiful words were written by a woman who was a scientist, an environmentalist, an artist, a writer, a radio broadcaster, a teacher and a lover of life. My friend, Annais Rittenberg was 21 years old when she died this past summer. I never knew her writings before her death. I knew her as a young woman with a radiant smile and an infectious laugh, a young woman who was courageous and loving, who was adventuresome and kind and most of all as someone who really loved life.
This afternoon at our hour of Yizkor – of remembering our loved one, Annais is our teacher and our inspiration.
Losing a loved one is so very difficult – a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, a teacher – losing anyone who we shared life with us leaves us empty, confused, wondering how to go on. Sometimes after a long illness or after lots of suffering death is welcomed as a blessing.
Yizkor is our time to grieve for how alone at times we feel, to grieve for how much we yearn for our loved ones presence; it is the time for us to let down our well developed defenses and weep for the people who were a part of our life.
We need this kind of time. Whether or loss was just this week, this year or many years ago there is a hole in our hearts for our loved ones. However, Yizkor doesn’t just leave us sad and alone – it demands that we value the life we live. Remember in Jewish life doesn’t lead us away from life but rather toward life.
Over the years in experiencing death of my own loved ones and in sharing the loss of other people’s loved ones; I find our words to be so inadequate. How does one really console a man who loses his wife after decades of marriage, a child who is now grown and loses a loving parent – a parent who was there to support and be an anchor through all the storms of life and in the most tragic of situations parents who lose a child.
There really are no words to explain death and how we feel about it. Absaence, void, a deep hole, a searing pain, a broken heart are often our best attempt to explain our sadness and our grief. We don’t just recover from the loss of a loved one, like we get over a flu. For each of us, our mourning takes different amounts of time. We continue our journey in life – with memories and deep yearning for our loved ones.
The hour of Yizkor is a powerful one because we all sit here thinking about our loved ones and doing our best to remember and to bring them into our lives now.
Annais is our teacher today, because even at the age of 21 she had a profound understanding of the preciousness of life. A year and a half before her death, she had been hit by a car in Santa Cruz and almost died. It took a lot of courage and resilience to find her way back to health. At times she was depressed but most of the time, her spirit soared above her injuries, allowing her to be optimistic and joyful. She recovered and returned to life with a great passion for making the most of each day.
One of the things I learned from her and about her is that she never gave up. Even at a young age she knew life was sacred. I think she would say to us today – it is good that you mourn your loved ones, reach out to them bring them into life, hold on to them. She might have then said but don’t forget to let the hour of remembering end. She would want us to return to life, embrace life, sanctify life, and hold on to life for yourself and for all of your loved ones.
Perhaps her final wish for her was expressed in her Field Journal after seeing a beautiful sunset:
“I got to experience seeing where the land meets the water, where the starry night met the
warm vibrant day. Seeing the ocean and its vastness, huge turbulent waves looking so gentle,
magically pulsing, as if fueled by a giant heart. To love and be loved, that is what I felt tonight
coursing through my body, flowing through the golden washed grass, between all of us sitting
on that hill, some in deep thought, some with ear to ear grins, pensive, weeping, smiling,
holding each other, the space for one another. Thinking about all those who came before us,
who walked among the pines, whose legs the grasses grazed. Who got to experience our
Blessed Star, in all of its glory, descending off the edge of our earth, leaving the red, orange,
yellow, greens of its light as it gives over to the night. I felt so part of it all tonight…….. I feel
so honored, just everything, to be in the presence of these sacred lands and this phenomenal
group of people.”
May Annais rest in peace. May all of our loved ones rest in peace. May their memories always be a blessing to us as we live our lives as fully and as meaningfully as possible.