The Meaning of a Life

(Published with permission from the family)

Time moves strangely, especially for those who follow two calendars. Tonight’s sunset was beautiful, reflecting gold off of the stones and shining pink and purple through the pine trees on the hill, followed by a moon so bright it cast shadows in the dark parking lot. I noticed this even while I listened to a father talk about how he had a hard time still, an entire Jewish calendar year after losing his son, when listing his children’s names, or taking a picture, or seeing something that he wanted to share with his missing child. Nature’s beauty both hurt and soothed, a reminder that the world goes on even when those we love are gone. Just starting his twenties, Gilad was and will always be his parents’ child. Dan then mentioned the Friday night blessings over the children, and the empty seat in the synagogue which would never again be filled by Gilad, as many of us cried with him. When he stopped speaking to us, and started speaking directly to Gilad, when he spoke about how he couldn’t believe a year had gone by, I could only silently agree and feel his loss, the pain of knowing that he would no longer get a response.

I also can’t believe it has been a year, but I think certain dates get fixed in my head on one or the other calendar, which is why September 1st, the start of a new school year here, will forever mean the day that Gilad was taken from us, and that date is not here yet. I am glad that this year it is on Shabbat, as I won’t have to face my classes as well as the one year English date since Gilad’s death. Tonight only his father spoke, yet it still brought to mind the strength and love Gilad’s mother, Yael, showed when she spoke at his funeral last year. I don’t remember all that she said, but two words have echoed in my head this long year. Yael bravely spoke of Gilad’s struggles, the person behind the beautiful smile. His family knew and did their best to help him, but in the end, it was too much for Gilad. Yael lovingly hoped that he was now at peace, and she also spoke to him, saying it was ok, and she understood. But at the same time, she made it very clear to all of us as she said in Hebrew, “הוא שם קץ לחייו”;  he put an end to his life.  When I first heard about his death, I was devastated; he is a soldier, I thought it was a terrorist attack, an enemy, a tragic training accident. When a friend told me there were rumors it was suicide, but that I shouldn’t listen, I couldn’t even believe people would say that. Of Gilad? The boy with the big heart and sunny smile, who always had a minute to say hello? I didn’t believe it was possible, and even spoke angrily with someone who mentioned this to me. Only now when I look back on what I wrote the night before the funeral do I see that part of me believed it might be true. And it was true; Gilad’s enemy was, in the end, an invisible enemy. I was floored and impressed with Yael for making it public, for sharing this with everyone. After all this time, and after other events this past year, I now understand why she did. I don’t know what Gilad was struggling with, and I am not asking; it isn’t for me to know. But I do know that many people have serious problems; both those that we think we know about, and those that can be masked by even the sweetest, sunniest smile. Late in the year I attended a seminar on resilience, because, having felt heartbroken so many times, I wondered how so many people get through it; I even wondered how I keep managing to go on sometimes, when the losses keep piling up. Ultimately, the talk was more about raising awareness of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. The same night there was a talk in my own community to raise awareness about how to be there for your children if they tell you they are gay. These and other issues can lead to depression and possibly suicide, and it is time for us to start talking about them openly if we want to help even one soul find its way back to the light. Yael’s openness even led to me being able to help someone I know, to help them fight for to get the help they needed. I too, have been struggling with the baggage that accompanies losing both one’s parents in a short period of time, as well as other issues. Thankfully, my husband encouraged me to get the help I needed, and I am in a much healthier place today. I say this because I agree with Yael; we can’t fight the demons if we keep letting them hide in the dark.

As for comforting those who have lost someone, I also learned an important lesson tonight. After the kever (graveside) visit, we were invited to Gilad’s former high school to share songs and stories with the family. I debated whether to go or not; in the end my friend Rivkah, who has also known great loss, reminded me that as with the shiva, the family wants a place to talk about their loss, and to hear more about their loved one. So I went, hoping to hear more about the years since Gilad graced my classroom with his presence. When I saw Yael, she said she was glad I came. After the evening I realized what the comfort is that others give to mourners. If you are there for them and did not know their loved one, they feel your presence and your caring. But even stronger, if you knew the person, you carry your own piece of them inside you, and it is a gift you can both keep and pass along to the family. When my friends spoke to me during each of the shivas for my parents about their own memories, I was comforted by the knowledge that they were known and loved by others as well.  Gilad’s passing will irrevocably be tied up in my mother’s, whose third yahrzeit is in just a few days; last year I went to say kaddish the night of Gilad’s funeral. My mother was young in my mind, though she lived so much longer than he. Gilad was just beginning to live, but could not stay with us any longer. From my mother I learned that if there is something you want to do, don’t wait; no one is guaranteed more time. From Gilad I learned that a soul who burns bright can give so much love and even a short life can have meaning and pass a flame on to others. Gilad was a youth group advisor, and one of his chanichim (students) spoke briefly tonight about how, at the end of an event, he went over to hug Gilad; it just came naturally. This was just who he was. The other part of the reason I went tonight was to hear these stories about him so that I could smile at his memory instead of cry for the loss. His family seemed to focus on the positive while they shared their loss with the community. They give off the feeling that somehow, it will be okay.

Tzachi, tonight you asked me if I was okay, and I said I was just going to ask you that. You said that you were, but still made sure I answered you. Since 7th grade when I only taught you on occasion as a substitute, you continue to impress me with the way you reach out to others. I know there will always be a hole in your life, in your family. There will be times when you didn’t even know it was coming, but you will be hit with the loss. A memory, a thought you wanted to share, a question you wanted to ask. I only realized this summer that I have a bag that holds these feelings, and sometimes it opens at unexpected moments and they hit me hard. I still don’t know if time will make it better, or if we are the ones who decide that we have to move on, keep living, so we will be okay. Your brother made a positive impact on those he met, as you do. We keep learning and growing, and I have learned that every life has meaning, long and short.

I hope that in some way, I have given comfort to you and your family, and thank them that I was blessed with knowing Gilad, even if only for a short time. May his memory be for a blessing.z

About the Author
Mori Sokal is an ELEVEN year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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