I was sitting in my dining room last week preparing for the funeral of a man of tremendous value who lived life to the fullest.
He busied himself in mitzvahs, which give life meaning. He worked for a healthcare company, providing home care for people. His job became a calling, which meant that he cared for people in ways that respected their humanity and allowed them to retain some dignity as they suffered from illness or loss.
His family was present when he died. And they felt, at 76, he had been taken too soon. They were right. Here was someone who treasured each moment, who counted each day, and who had genuinely acquired a heart of wisdom.
Just as I was getting ready to leave for his funeral, I checked the news and saw that Sonya Raymakers, a 17-year-old student at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, had died in an apparent suicide, stepping onto the Caltrain tracks in front of an oncoming train.
Sonya’s funeral was held June 5 at Palo Alto Congregation Etz Chayim, where Rabbi Ari Cartun co-officiated along with the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. According to newspaper accounts, Sonya was remembered as a bright and creative person who loved to make theatrical costumes, and had been accepted to New York University next fall to study costume design.
Upon hearing about Sonya, I was struck by the contrast of a man so much wanting to live and finding the inner strength to die with dignity and a young woman on the verge of adulthood seeing her life come so tragically to an end.
Life is a gift. It’s easy to forget that as we busy ourselves in the activities of living. Certain issues come to seem so huge, so important, that we allow them to define us. Grades. College admissions. Friends. Girlfriends, boyfriends — or the absence thereof.
As we allow these things, the works of human hands, to define us, it’s easy to feel that our life is a failure. An overpowering anxiety is awoken in us that can so easily lead to despair.
But it comes from a loss of perspective.
When the Israelites stood at the entrance to the Promised Land, they sent 12 spies to report back. Ten of those spies said that the problems in conquering the land could not be overcome. “We were like grasshoppers in their eyes,” they said to Moses.
Even as they spoke, they admitted that it was a problem of perspective. While they said they appeared as grasshoppers in the eyes of the Canaanites, they were grasshoppers only in their own eyes. They allowed their own problems to overwhelm them.
But two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb responded differently. As long as God is with us, they said, we can overcome any problems. We aren’t grasshoppers, we are giants.
It’s similar with us and all of our day-to-day problems. It’s easy to feel like grasshoppers, especially when we make our own issues seem like the entire context of who we are.
For example, everyone tells us that grades matter. And they do. But they are only one narrow measure of who we are. They are the work of human hands. And we are the giants capable of remembering who we really are whenever we remind ourselves that our lives matter, that the choices we make have meaning, that we are created in God’s image.
At Sonya’s funeral, the Rev. Morgenstern reportedly described Sonya’s art-filled bedroom and noted a quotation on her wall: “It’s never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise.” Then Morgenstern said: “Why couldn’t she have taken those words of advice from her wall? We cannot know.”
Our culture lacks images of healthy community. We focus on material things and externalities. And then we allow ourselves to be judged on these externalities and to forget the inherent value placed within our own souls.
Talmud offers a contrast. There is a story of a dispute between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua in which the community almost breaks. And then Rabban Gamliel went to Rabbi Joshua asking for forgiveness. “And Rabbi Joshua was appeased.” That is, community, even broken community, can heal and become creative, open, filled with blessing.
I saw an example of healthy community on June 7. I went to a dinner honoring the teen volunteers at Friendship Circle, a charity that meets in part at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.
These teenagers volunteer to be “buddies” for special-needs children, some who cannot talk or for whom emotional engagement is incredibly difficult. And I saw a healthy culture, teenagers who took their studies seriously.
But they were also dedicated to doing good, to discovering within themselves a capacity to help others and so realizing their own value. It was a community that included faith though did not mandate it. It reminded me that we all have gifts that can allow us to deeply impact the lives of those around us in caring ways. I was very moved by the example of these young people.
But what about the sadness over Sonya’s apparent suicide? The pain might fade or be pushed aside by other matters in the days ahead, but it will still remain. And then I feel bad — how can I forget? How can I just go on?
I have no choice. I feel in my own heart a mitzvah, a commandment, to continue to live and to treasure each day. And God heals broken hearts, sometimes in ways and at moments when we aren’t even ready yet to be healed.
I feel so strongly that I want to say something to high school students, to their parents and the whole community at this time of loss.
I, too, feel broken and affected, though at arm’s length, through my relationships with high school students and through the newspapers, by this loss and tragedy. There is a cacophony of advice, grief and even blame. May my words, by contrast, be received as my own reactions and as words of comfort.
May God offer comfort to Sonya’s family — and to all of us.
Rabbi David Booth is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Palo Alto.