Shemini Atzeret – 5782/Sept. 28, 2021
By Melissa Berenbuam
Life loves on. I’ll say it again: Life loves on. These three words are attributed to Bobby McIlvaine, Jr., who perished on 9/11, at 26 years old. He worked at Merrill Lynch, but not in the towers. He had a colleague, a friend, who was making a presentation at a conference that morning at Windows of the World. Bobby went over to help him set up. He didn’t stay for the conference, and he had left the building before the plane hit. But he didn’t get far enough away and died when struck by the falling building.
Life loves on. These are poignant words at any time. They can take on added significance on a day like today when we say Yizkor. Those of us here, in life, continue loving those who are no longer with us. Life loves on.
The words were so important – they had become a family motto for Bobby’s mom and dad and his younger brother Jeff. Bobby’s mom, Helen, had a silver bracelet made with the words engraved. And his father, Bob Sr., made a tattoo with the words on one of his upper arms. Bobby left a pile of diaries and when a reporter from The Atlantic came around wanting to write a story about 20 years after, his parents gave the reporter the diaries. The reporter, Jennifer Senior, was connected with the McIlvaine family. Her brother had been Bobby’s roommate in college, and they shared an apartment in New York as they embarked on their careers. She read the diaries, carefully, multiple times. But she couldn’t find the words “Life loves on” anywhere in his diaries.
I won’t go into all the details of the McIlvaine story. I recommend you read the article. It’s available online – What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind in the Atlantic.
But the McIlvaine’s story does relate to Yizkor, as I’ve already noted. And to Shemini Atzeret. What is this holiday, in a season seemingly of unending holidays? Haven’t we all had enough? Atzeret, in at least one translation, means “to gather,” and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a German Orthodox Rabbi who lived in the 1800’s, wrote that it also means “to store up.” Accordingly, we must store up the sentiments of gratitude and devotion of this holiday season since it will be another two months until we celebrate another holiday, Hannukah.
And, of course, God wants us to stay. God has enjoyed our presence, our prayers, our expressions of praise and gratitude. And our togetherness among family and friends is probably quite satisfying to God. So God asks us to stay for one more day. Some have interpreted this holiday as a more particular and intimate celebration for the Jewish people, while Sukkot is intended for all of God’s people.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote about this holiday:
“On the eighth day, as they were leaving [Jerusalem], it was as if God were inviting the Jewish people to a small private reception. The word Atzeret, as we learned from Rashi, was interpreted to mean, ‘Stop, stay a while.’ Shmeni Atzeret was private time between God and his people. It was a day of particularity after the universality of the seven days of Sukkot.”
Those of us who enjoyed the folk rock music of the 1970’s will remember Jackson Browne’s song…
“People stay, just a little bit longer. We want to play, just a little bit longer. Now the roadies won’t mind and the union don’t mind if we take a little time. And we leave it all behind, and sing one more song.”
Shemini Atzeret is like the encore of a good concert.
We should revel in it and appreciate it. After all, what would we give for one more day with the loved ones we are going to remember shortly?
So where did the McIlvaines get Bobby’s words, Life loves on, if they weren’t in any of his diaries? Bobby had a girlfriend, Jen, to whom he was about to propose. He had already spoken to her father and purchased the engagement ring. Jen’s mother died in April and when Bobby didn’t come home on Sept. 11, she moved in with the McIlvaines. Bob Sr. gave her Bobby’s last diary, the one with her name scrawled all over it, and that became a source of tension between her and his parents because Jen wouldn’t let his parents read it. When Jen moved out, taking the diary, she never spoke to the McIlvaines again.
In pursuit of the story, the reporter tracked her down. As you might expect, she had met someone, was happily married now with two children. She still had the diary and she shared it with the reporter. She also remembered Life loves on, but not exactly where it came from. Turns out, she did use the words in her eulogy at Bobby’s funeral. Here’s what she said:
“This past week I have been searching for some sort of comfort to get me through the shock of losing the love of my life,” she told the mourners at Queen of Peace Church. “I came across one of Bob’s journals and as I opened it, I said to myself, ‘Please let there be something in here that will comfort me.’ ” Then she described finding this passage, which Bobby had written as her mother was dying. She read it aloud.
It is OK for people to die. It hurts, and it is a deep loss, but it is OK. Life loves on. Do not fear for those who are dying. Be kind to them. And care for them.
“Life loves on,” she repeated to the crowd. “After I read this, I vowed that very instant to love on in my life, just as I had made a promise to my mom to never let her be forgotten. It was a way that I could extend a life cut short.”
Bobby wrote those words in an effort to give Jen strength to go on after her mother died… Life loves on.
The McIlvaines and Jen were estranged, but the words Jen had spoken at Bobby’s funeral – Bobby’s words – had become an organizing principle for their lives… Life loves on. Their love for Bobby went on.
Except what Bobby wrote in his diary, after the reporter and her editor closely examined his handwriting was “Life lives on.” In other words, we go on, despite the absence of those we love. Also an important message for those coping with grief. But Jen saw what she needed to see at the time, and for 20 years, Bobby’s parents organized their grief and mourning around the words “life loves on.”
Whether “life loves on” or “life lives on,” and I submit it does both, the important point is that we embrace life and continue to remember the ones we love.