This past Sunday I had the sorrowful task of officiating at the funeral of WJC member Maya Gold, age 15. After the service, many attendees asked if I could share the words of my eulogy with them. I think others might find value in my message, and so Maya’s parents Mathew Swerdloff and Elise Gold and I agreed that these words should be disseminated. Please feel free to forward this eulogy to anyone whom you think might benefit from reading it. -Rabbi Jonathan
Your eyes. Your eyes glowed with the light of awareness, pure, clear. I drew sustenance and joy from the light shining from your eyes. I communed with the sublime mystery, with your searching intellect, a portal into the infinite, as I blessed my good fortune at having met you. You were a gift to all of us who had the good fortune to know you, providing us a window into the endless sea of light from which we all spring and that sustains us. Now, dear Maya, the portal into the infinite that was your gaze is closed to us. You shone so bright, but so briefly. Our hearts are broken. As my wife was telling me, we are all walking on a dark path right now. We weep. Words fail. And yet we must speak, for the sake of each other, for the sake of our love for you, for the sake of your family.
I am trusting, praying, urging that your precious being is now immersed in the oceans of love that you showed us through your eyes. And we here in this land of the living, in our broken yet beautiful earth, we must continue to reveal that light through our eyes, our hearts, our gestures. We must be brave, and tender, and true, together despite our confusion and grief, and keep our hearts open and not shrink back from one another, especially from Maya’s family, Maya’s amazing parents Mathew and Elise, her big brother Adin, her sister Sasha and her husband Anders, who despite their devastation have so generously allowed us to share our grief with them today. We extend our hearts to Maya’s extended family as well.
Today we will speak our love. In the days and months and years to come we will show it, with the light from our eyes and with our loving presence.
Elise was telling me that Maya was the most empathic person she had ever met. Even from earliest childhood, Maya was always putting the needs of others above her own. Most moms have to tell their kids “stop being so selfish!” Elise found herself saying to Maya, “Maya, stop being so selfless!” Maya’s innate compassion knew no bounds. She had compassion for all creatures. She would absorb the feelings of others, a challenging gift to try to manage for one so young. Mathew was reminding me how deeply inquisitive Maya was, with a fierce and searching intelligence. Maya was brilliant, with a capacity for complex analysis. Her social and global consciousness and conscientiousness were far beyond her years. Mathew, along with many of us, shared so many deep talks with Maya about her life, the world, politics, religion. Adults often felt as if they were speaking with a peer, not a child. Maya was so troubled by the problems of the world, and she so deeply wanted to understand. It pained her so much to perceive the brokenness and suffering of the world, and she yearned to help repair it.
It was no surprise that Maya chose to become a vegan in recent years. After a visit to the Woodstock Animal Sanctuary and a visit with the rescued animals, Maya began to volunteer at the sanctuary (she wasn’t legally old enough, so Mathew had to chaperone). Maya wanted as always to alleviate suffering, and decided that veganism was a path to minimizing the suffering of animals.
But of course anyone who knew Maya knew how fun, and funny, she was. Maya had a gloriously goofy streak. She was quirky, whimsical, one-of-a-kind. In the family, I get the impression that Mathew was her special partner in unbridled goofiness. I heard some great funny stories. Her friends certainly encountered that part of her. Maya knew joy. Her sister Sasha was remembering Maya’s visit to her in Seattle last spring. They came to a dock by the bay with a diving board, and all Maya wanted to do was jump off the diving board again and again. Sasha wasn’t in a jumping mood, and Maya kept saying to her, “Don’t you want to jump? Come on, don’t you want to experience this?!”
Maya wanted to fly. She wanted to soar above the din of the world and experience the freedom of flight, and the bird’s eye view. When she was 3 she was climbing the bookshelves and cabinets. When Maya discovered trapeze she couldn’t get enough of it. And Maya had a ferocious will. If she wanted to, she would. She watched her big brother riding a bike, and at age three Maya learned to ride hers. Maya idolized her big brother Adin. More recently Maya had been actively trying to knock Adin off that pedestal, but Adin told me that he had looked forward to becoming friends with her again in the future. It would have happened, for certain.
Maya loved and needed her alone time. I know this about sensitive, empathic souls: they need time to recuperate, to regroup, to let the earth hold them and comfort them. They need a good book as a companion, a retreat – Maya was this kind of person.
In recent times, what gave Maya the most joy were her friendships. Her friends sustained her – friends of Maya, you know who you are! You made a difference, even if it does not possibly seem that way right at this moment.
But what happened? Why is Maya dead? How could a person of her caliber, her potential, her depth and character have become so despairing that she would think it better if she were not alive?
We are going to be asking these questions for the rest of our lives, and will never know exactly what Maya was thinking because she was not able reach out to us from her darkness. One’s greatest gift is also usually one’s greatest challenge. Perhaps in Maya’s desire not to cause pain to others, she mostly kept her own pain to herself. She did that as conscientiously as everything else she undertook. Maya was so successful at not wanting to burden others with her suffering that none of us truly understood the depth of her pain. But as we piece together this tragedy, we can understand some things, and we can learn together. So I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the young people who are with us today.
Life is hard. It is filled with challenges. That is the nature of life. To become a responsible – and happy – person we need to accept this fact and know that life will often be testing us, and that we will need to struggle and be brave and wrestle with what it means to do right and to love well. We adults are still working on becoming the best people we can be. We will be working on this the rest of our lives, and that is as it should be.
As teenagers, you are at the beginning of learning how to take full responsibility for yourselves. It takes a lot of practice, and a tremendous amount of trial and error. And it is often very painful. We adults who want to support you to grow into your own adulthood also need to get out of your way, and let’s face it, it’s a messy process!
Being 15 is hard, and never harder than for a sensitive soul like Maya. She – and you, her peers – are past your childhood, when the big world and all of its problems could stay at edge of your consciousness, while you are busy playing and reading and doing the work of being a kid. Now, your awareness has grown, and you know that the world is broken in many ways. You are child-adults. Maya felt the pain of the world, but she was yet to develop the armor we all need to face that brokenness. And we need that armor – the world is often a demanding and difficult place, and if we care about the world and want to make a difference in it, as Maya did, we need to learn how to protect ourselves from all that suffering that is out there. Being 15 is a dangerously vulnerable time of life because you care so deeply like the adults you are becoming, but are still wide open like the children you still are. It is so easy to become overwhelmed. I remember, even though it was long ago for me.
In the face of this pain and the lack of emotional protection many teens try to numb the pain by harming yourselves. Some of you cut yourselves. Some of you starve yourselves. Some of you use drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and temporarily quiet the chaos that seems to be everywhere, within and without. Some of you even think about killing yourselves, just so that it will be over. You are young, and life can be so overwhelming.
When you feel overwhelmed is when you feel most alone. I’m telling you, it’s a trap! At the very moment when you need the most help, your crazy mind is telling you that you are all alone, that you are a miserable human being, and that you don’t deserve to be helped, since it is all your fault anyway. I’m here to tell you that those thoughts are a load of crap. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone, that everyone has experienced those awful, isolating feelings. Never assume that you are the only one who ever felt this way – it’s not true. I’m here to tell you that at precisely the moment when you feel most alone, you need to be your most courageous, and reach out for help. I’m here to tell you that if your friend is hurting themselves, get in their face. Look out for each other. Be brave. Risk losing a friend in order to help them. Share your deepest fears with each other, and your biggest dreams. Loving one another is wonderful and life-giving, but also very risky and challenging work. And it is the best thing you will ever do. Be bold, take a deep breath, and reach out.
We adults, annoying as we are, are right here with you. We know that you teens sometimes move close to the edge of the darkness. Our hands are always ready to reach out and grab you and pull you back into our arms before you fall. Often you give us enough warning signs that you are losing your balance that we are able to run over and grab you before you fall. Maya’s descent into the pit was so quick and unexpected that we could not grab her in time! It is a tragedy, I can’t think of anything worse than what has just happened. We couldn’t catch this wonderful young woman in time, and now she is gone. But we adults are still here, we are still paying as close attention as we can to the rest of you, our beloved children, our hands are right here, reaching out. We remember being 15. Hate us, resent us, make fun of us – we can handle it! – but know that our hand is there.
And yet, we live in a time, thanks to social networking, when you kids spend more time in each other’s company than you do with us adults. Therefore you usually know more about each other’s lives than we know about you. That’s a fact. Thanks to the information revolution, you also know way, way more about the terrible things happening around the planet than we ever did at your age. This is amazing, but also a burden on you. And so, these days more responsibility than ever before is on you to watch out for each other. In a very real way, you teens need to grow up faster than we did, and take responsibility for each other’s well being. Will you step up? We support you all the way. Lives may be saved because you are looking out for each other.
But we can’t support each other effectively if we don’t talk openly about the dangers that we face. So I want to talk about drugs and alcohol. After Maya’s death, Mathew and Elise found over-the-counter drugs in her room, drugs with incredibly dangerous side effects. In recent weeks Maya had been depressed, and it appears recently turned to some drugs that made her feel better. They found Mucinex DM, a cough suppressant; Benadryl, an antihistamine; and synthetic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. All of these drugs are easily available on the street. All of them, taken too frequently or in large doses, have terrifying side effects: euphoria, hallucinations, temporary psychosis, even suicidal fantasies. It is very possible that young Maya, new to recreational drug use, took too large a dose of one or more of these drugs, and was in a deluded state when she chose to take her own life. Given how much Maya loved life, and all of her exciting plans for her future, it is hard to understand how she conceivably could have killed herself had she been in her right mind.
You teens have to be more mature than ever in looking out for each other around drugs and alcohol. When you see a friend losing their balance and teetering at the edge of the darkness of drug and alcohol abuse, you must be brave and act. Reach out your hand, and tell us what is going on, so that we can help. It will probably be messy, you might make a fool of yourself, you might lose some friends, but you could literally save someone’s life the next time. Is anything more important?
I also want to speak openly about suicide. The stigma and shame attached to suicide means that we do not usually share with others about the suicides we have been close to, or about our own attempts. Who here today knows someone, a friend or relative, who committed suicide? Raise your hands. It looks like at least half of us have someone close who killed themselves. If we don’t break the silence about suicide, if we don’t talk with one another about it, then we’ll never be able to help prevent it. Maya’s family and I encourage you to learn about suicide prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention‘s website. My father committed suicide when I was 24. After many years, naturally, of feeling angry at my dad, now I am left with compassion for him, maybe because I have been alive long enough to appreciate how hard it is to be good human being. It is time to break the cycle of shaming and harsh judgment when we learn of someone taking their own life, and instead respond with compassion, and try to understand the unbearable suffering that led them to their choice to die. Again, as I recall my own teenage bouts of despair, my young adult debacles and defeats, I too might have fallen into that pit. There but for the grace of God might I have gone. Do not judge Maya. You were not in her shoes, and will never know what she was experiencing. Instead, open your hearts to those who are suffering, and if you can, catch them before they fall.
Because I’ll tell you: it is a hard world, but it is a wonderful world too. Life is difficult, but it is worth it. It is overflowing with sunsets and laughing children, acts of kindness, great music, running barefoot, fresh fruit, great conversations – the list of goodness is literally endless. In the Jewish community, this is the week when we read Genesis, Chapter One, “In the Beginning.” After each day of creating, the Creator looks it all over and declares, “This is good!” And when it is all done, at the end of the sixth day, “the Creator looked at all that had been created, and behold, it was very good!” Yes, life is very good. So please hang in there, you beautiful people: it will get better. It may be hard work to be a person, but it is worth all the hardship.
Maya knew the good in life. Wow, did she enjoy life, and was she ever engaged in living. I ran into Maya and Elise in August in front of Mexicali Blue in New Paltz. Maya told me all about her plans: to graduate high school early, to earn money and travel and study, and then to find a way to help people as her life’s work. She planned to live a life of purpose. I listened to her with delight, I drank in the light from her eyes and her smile and her deep intensity and her zest, and I hugged her. If there was ever anyone I wanted to see grow up, it was Maya Gold, part of the solution. We have lost her, and now are faced with the daunting task of being worthy vessels not only for our light, but for the radiant light that was Maya. Now we must hold Maya’s family, reach out to them, stay with them, walk the path with them.
Maya was a seeker. Maya felt the ecstatic joy singing through the universe just as surely and just as intensely as she felt its pain. It was certainly my great fortune that Maya chose to study Judaism with me as she pursued her quest for understanding and manifesting the infinite love that is everywhere, yet so easily slips from our grasp. Perhaps in her passing from this plane into the Great Mystery, Maya’s glorious essence has now merged with the infinite sea of light and joy that each of drank from when we looked into her eyes. I will always miss her. I will look for her essence pouring forth, when I look in your eyes. Maya’s memory is truly a blessing.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
October 4, 2015