The Story of Nephesh
Thoughts on death, memory, and life
Originally written as a Jewish sermon for the remembrance service that is part of the holiday we celebrate to honor the anniversary of receiving the Torah. (That’s the Shavuot Yizkor D’var for my fellow tribespeople)
I want to tell you a story about a man named Nephesh. When Nephesh was a little boy, he was first introduced to art by his mother, Chaya. Chaya was a respected painter who was revered in her community for her beautiful artwork and her inspired lessons. Early on, Chaya taught Nephesh how to interpret her artwork. She showed him how to understand not only the logic behind her choice of colors and shapes, but also how to perceive the textures, dimensions, and perspectives that reflected her complex emotions when she sat down to paint.
As Nephesh grew up, this deep appreciation for art led him to marry a painter, like his mother. Zichrona was beautiful and intelligent, like Chaya, Nephesh’s mother, and she shared a beautiful life with Nephesh. Zichrona introduced Nephesh to artists, artwork, and worldly cities. She gave Nephesh two beautiful children, who they raised together. And in this life, Nephesh would call his mother – daily, like all good Jewish sons – and reflect on the experiences he was having with Zichrona. During these conversations, Chaya taught him how to learn from his mistakes and how to find beauty in each new day. How to cultivate relationships and how to build community.
When Chaya passed away, Nephesh was devastated. But Zichrona was such a strong woman – she was a Jewish mother herself after all – that through sheer force of will she taught Nephesh how to survive without Chaya. And this worked, for awhile.
But one day, to help honor Chaya, Zichrona and Nephesh sought out all of Chaya’s old paintings from galleries and museums and covered the walls of their home. When there wasn’t enough space on the walls they raised the lid of their grand piano just to have one more place to hang a painting.
Now, you would think these paintings would inspire Nephesh to live as his mother had taught him, but instead, they reminded him everyday that she was gone. That she would never paint a new painting.
This realization began to eat away at Nephesh. And since his wife was a painter, too, he tried to replace Chaya with Zichrona. He began to study his wife’s art and ask her the questions he used to reserve for his mother. Nephesh, in his grief, began to devote himself to Zichrona. While he had loved her dearly before, he worshipped her now. Zichrona became Nephesh’s sole source of guidance and inspiration. She was all he lived for, and eventually, she was all he knew. He knew his children but only through Zichrona’s interactions with them. He knew his community, but only through her contributions. And so, when Zichrona got sick and passed on, Nephesh truly lost everything.
He had become so consumed in his Zichrona that life lost meaning without her. And while he survived without her, he never reconnected with those he ignored while he had had his Zichrona. Since his children had only been known to him through Zichrona for so many years, they felt little duty to keep in touch after her passing. His community, for which Zichrona was his only connection, turned their back when he reached out.
And so, Nephesh stayed in his home. He surrounded himself with his mother’s art, his wife’s art, all the images that reminded him of more beautiful times. And he stayed there, alone, for the rest of his life.
Nephesh, for those of you who don’t know, is Hebrew for soul. Chaya, life, of course, and Zichrona, memory. For this Yizkor service, on this Shavuot, I want us to reflect on how our soul reacts to the death of a loved one: does it honor their passing by living in their example or does it get lost in the grief of their memory? Nephesh, in our story, truly lost his life when he lost his mother, Chaya. While he continued to survive with his memories of her (with her paintings, and with the reflection of her that he saw in his wife Zichrona) he didn’t know how to get past his memories to live a full life.
Our tradition has us grieve in phases. It begins at the funeral where we are commanded to accept the death by emptying dirt onto the grave of a loved one. It continues with special traditions for a week, a month, and a year to give ourselves a chance to tangibly feel our loss: not shaving or showering or wearing clean clothes helps us remember that our loved one is not just missing, they are dead, and they won’t return.
But eventually, our grief must evolve. The time of Yizkor is not only a time of reflection, but also a time to give tzedakah. The Torah commands us to give tzedakah at these times of year and this allows us to honor our loved ones who have died. It is important as we remember those who have died, as we take the necessary time to grieve and reflect, that we think about how we can honor their memories through action. How we can make Tikkun Olam an integral part of our grieving.
It is said that men and women are made immortal through their children. But this is only true if we honor our parents by continuing their good work. No matter whom we have lost, we can elevate their soul by doing mitzvot. We can immortalize them with good deeds that they are no longer able to do on this Earth. Our memories, our Zichronot, of those who have passed, can help us paint a beautiful world if we let them inspire our souls to a life of action. So let us let them. L’Chaim.
Try reading the above story again, but in your head replace “Nephesh” with “Soul”, “Chaya” with “Life”, and “Zichrona” with “Memory”.
Zichrona, without Chaya, is not enough for Nephesh
Memory, without Life, is not enough for the Soul.