The weighty and lofty days High Holidays are upon us. The beginning of the Jewish New Year heralds us to pause from the mundane, from our ordinary daily lives, to take stock. Are we doing okay?
Our pockets may be full, but what about our souls? Goals from last year may have been reached, but were some downgraded in importance or did anything slip through the cracks of convenience? Are we self-aware enough to to honestly assess, and more importantly, to look towards the future with prayer and hope? Do we need to dig down to find the conviction to make the most and the best of life while conforming to the standards carefully and skillfully handed down for generations?
When one’s life has been interrupted, however, when life’s dreams and hopes have been shattered, these critical holy days take on other meaning. How can we pray to the Entity who partnered with us to create the spirit of our child, but who then turned around and snatched him back? A fistful of our future died along with Gilad, always our child, but in reality no longer counted among our offspring. Our legacy was supposed to be in the form of the children we assumed would outlive us.
So we adjust, and we deflect. Occasionally we step out during the prayers that speak of life and death, especially the one that reels off unnecessarily, and in gruesome detail, ways one may exit this world. Other times we find books to read that speak to our broken spirit and our spiritual challenges. The machzor is full of praise to Gd, and while we don’t always agree with the liturgy, we pronounce those that are innocuous. And sometimes we take a step back, albeit away from the prayer book, and look around the synagogue at the larger picture of community, the remaining thriving family, the health we certainly don’t take for granted, the bills we are able to pay. Through tears and frustrated emotions, and – dare I say – with envy towards those around us who seem satisfied, we check our disappointment at the door and focus on the good that is present in our life. Our survival plan is the kit bag we carry everywhere.
We are but infinitesimal cogs in the great wheel of life. Earlier generations were unaware of their future in us, and, in turn, we’ll be unknown in the centuries to come. But the key is to live our life so that we can leave a piece of ourselves behind, so that we can be remembered. In that way life becomes an amalgam of all the souls who have ever treaded, lightly or with great commotion, upon this earth.
Our sweet precious Gilad Hillel left us before he was fully able to make his mark on the world. Or did he? Gilad did not receive a university degree, yet he learned more than others do in a longer lifetime. He did not have the opportunity to reach professional or financial success, but he certainly possessed a remarkable self-assuredness and was surrounded by a constellation of friends who utterly loved him. And now we have entered the era of his peers naming their children in his honor and memory. Even in one’s absence, there are ways to distinguish a life.
Eli Langbaum was one of Gilad’s dear friends, and a few days before Gilad passed away, I was sitting next to Gilad as he was saying yet another goodbye to a friend. It was heartbreaking to witness him telling Eli that he loved him and asked Eli not to forget him. (Sigh. Breathe.) In July, just a few months ago, Eli and his wife Elianna named their newborn son Yehoshua Raniel. I instinctively knew that Eli would remember Gilad with his son. Eli told me that they were looking for a name derived from the meaning of either Gilad or Hillel, and found that in Raniel, which comes from the hebrew shoresh (root) reish-nun, or Ran, primarily meaning joy or happiness, similar to Gil in Gilad. Ran also has a secondary meaning, to sing, which fits nicely with the name Hillel. Eli would have gotten one of Gilad’s infamous half-smiles for the notable deed of producing a child, and for the kindness of remembering Gilad.
And this morning, another one of Gilad’s close friends, Shaya Katz, along with his wife Rikki, named their baby son David Menashe. I was crying when Shaya told me that last week, on the 16 of Elul, he received a text from from his wife informing him that her labor was starting. He was in the exact same place at precisely the same time 4 years earlier when Adam Neuman texted him early in the morning, also the 16 of Elul, that Gilad was gone. It’s not only the cycle of life; it’s what you choose to with your journey of opportunities.
Shaya shared with me that long before our Gilad was born, Gilad was a geographical location in Israel, given to the 2 ½ tribes, Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. Apparently 2 of the brothers, but not Menashe, requested this particular plot of land. Gd assented, but also gave Gilad to Menashe to to fill a void that Gd perceived among the people, in order to sustain the other 2 tribes. Incredibly, thousands of years later, a new Menashe was named to fill the empty space that has been echoing with what used to be Gilad’s existence. These are Shaya’s words at the bris of his son: “Menashe was filling the void of Gilad, the essence, the soul of the region. They inhabited the void of Gilad. So too, our hope is that our Menashe will join Yehoshua Roniel Langbaum in filling the void of our own spiritual landscape, one which has been lacking in our lives for the past four years.” Shaya would have gotten more than just props from Gilad.
As a way for Sarit Rothschild to bring Gilad’s spirit into her wedding last summer, she chose to use Gilad’s kiddush cup under her chuppah, drinking sips of wine from the same vessel Gilad used since his Bar Mitzvah. Sarah Kraut, one of Gilad’s friends of his heart since preschool, recently married. Her favorite movie may still be The Lion King, and when she was young, she spent quite a bit of time with Gilad watching the movie, singing the songs, and playing with the action figures. What strikes me is how years later we are enacting the cycle of life with the weddings and babies of Gilad’s friends. He may not here to experience or enjoy or be a living part of it, but his friends are taking Gilad along with them. They are living their lives remembering him, thinking of him on their wedding days, and naming their children as a legacy and tribute to Gilad. It is priceless; it is heartwarming; it is what I add to my survival kit.
Rosh Hashana is waiting for us just around the corner. This year when we think about who we are and what we want to be, please remember a sweet boy whose legacy is us. Gilad left all of us behind, and it’s our responsibility to live well, and to do what is right and good in Gilad Hillel’s honor. I may answer to Gd, but I am accountable to my son Gilad to unequivocally ensure his legacy. Shana Tova.