Sunday, April 21, 2013

After the deaths, you shall be holy: Reflections on #Boston

Here are the words I shared with my congregation on Friday night, April 19, 2013. As I said to a colleague, it felt simple--maybe too simple? But as I wrote, and as I spoke, I realized they were the words I needed to hear--and maybe you as well. 


In Israel, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, is marked not with barbecues and massive sales, but with silence and sirens. For 24 hours, names play continuously on Israeli televisions. The siren sounds, and an entire country stands still.

Amidst all of the pictures from the Boston Marathon—the blood and the chaos, the terror and the heroism—one picture stuck out. Thousands upon thousands of runners, literally stopped in their tracks, being held by Boston police officers. I can only imagine the emotions of the runners, the feelings as the news spread through the crowd. An entire community---standing still. I saw on Twitter that one woman, writing from Boston on Friday, wrote the following about her morning. She said:  The incongruous world outside our window: helicopters, then birdsong, then sirens, then silence.

Just a couple of days ago, this sanctuary was filled with New Yorkers, many by way of Israel, celebrating Israel’s 65th Birthday under the auspices of the Israeli consulate. And as people filed in, we were treated to the hits of the last century by way of Israeli music. They’re all songs I love, and one in particular has stayed in my head throughout the events of this entire week.

Al kol elehh, al kol eleh
Shmor na li eli ha-tov
Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets
Al ha-mar vehamatok
Over all these, Over all these
God please watch over them for me,
Over the honey and the stinger
Over the bitter and the sweet

Over the honey and the stinger, over the bitter and the sweet—on the joy and on the sorrow, over death and over life. In any given year, this paradox is the experience of the week of Yom HaAtzmaut. This week, all the more so. We went from Yom HaZikaron right into the bombing in Boston; my newsfeed changed from heartbreaking pictures in Israeli cemeteries to heartbreaking pictures from Boylston Street. And in just hours, we moved into Yom HaAtzmaut, the celebration of a truly miraculous 65 years….just as we read miraculous stories of heroism and bravery, of first responders and ordinary citizens. Over the honey and the stinger, over the bitter and the sweet—we held sorrow and joy in our hearts and in our hands.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll open Torah to the double portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. For centuries, our rabbis have tried to connect these two parshiot; one with its focus on sexual ethics and forbidden relationship, one with its focus on building holy community—by linking one behavior with the other. How we behave in our most intimate relationships, say our sages, guides us in our behavior with the rest of the world.

But tonight, this week, I want to look no further than the very words that open these two parshiot: Acharei mot…kedoshim tihiyhu. Taken at their most literal: After death, you shall be holy. What a lesson, what an imperative, to hold with us this week. After death—after witnessing terror and tragedy, loss and grief, you shall be holy; you shall be your highest self, your best impulses. An ancient teaching, made new again this week, as taught by Rabbi David Ingber: after death, after witnessing life cut short, unexpectedly, without warning or preparation, ‘holy ones’, rededicate yourselves to holiness, to making the world a more meaningful, more loving, more compassionate place to be.

In a 2009 series on Leadership and Crisis, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman said the following, which seems prescient today.  How do we experience crisis and grow from it? How do we experience crisis and not become depressed, not become frozen, not become debilitated? Crisis becomes a catalyst for us to investigate who we are and to raise new principles of ethics and decency to the forefront of our consciousness both individually and collectively.

In a well-known Talmudic teaching (Sotah 14a), the rabbis ask what it means to, in the words of Deuteronomy, walk in God’s ways. How can we, they ask, walk in the ways of a Being we cannot see, or feel, or touch. Their answer: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you.” Acharei mot, kedoshim tihiyu….

In a beautiful article about first responders, Rabbi Shai Held wrote the following:

Notice something about the Talmud’s list. The naked are vulnerable, but their situation is reversible; the sick are vulnerable, but at least sometimes they can heal. Mourners have sustained an immense loss; nothing can bring back their loved ones. And the dead are… dead, and never coming back. Their situation is the very paradigm of irreversibility. Each situation the Talmud invokes is more irreversible than the one before, and hence, I think, also more frightening. Yes, the Talmud appears to be saying, these people’s circumstances are scary. Stay with them instead of fleeing.
Faced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of out vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.
Laura Wellington posted the following story on Facebook; within a day or two, it had gone viral:
As some of you know, I was 1/2 mile from the finish line when the explosion went off. I had no idea what was going on until I finally stopped and asked someone. Knowing that my family was at the finish line waiting for me, I started panicking, trying to call them. Diverted away from the finish line, I started walking down Mass Ave towards Symphony Hall still not knowing where my family was. Right before the intersection of Huntington, I was able to get in touch with Bryan and found out he was with my family and they were safe. I was just so happy to hear his voice that I sat down and started crying. Just couldn't hold it back.
At that moment, a couple walking by stopped. The woman took the space tent off her husband, who had finished the marathon, and wrapped it around me. She asked me if I was okay, if I knew where my family was. I reassured her I knew where they were and I would be ok. The man then asked me if I finished to which I nodded "no." He then proceeded to take the medal off from around his neck and placed it around mine. He told me "you are a finisher in my eyes." I was barely able to choke out a "thank you" between my tears.
I don’t think—though who knows!—that Brent Cunningham of Sitka, Alaska is a religious Jew. But on Monday, he certainly walked in God’s ways.
As they always are, the stories out of Boston following the attacks were beautiful— the runners who finished the race and ran back to help and comfort the injured, marathoners running off the course to go give blood, thousands of strangers opening their homes—and more.
I was talking to a dear friend--one of my rabbis-- this week, wondering what words we could share tonight that would bring some comfort, that would allow us to be angry and sad, but also move us forward. She reminded me that life is really scary, precarious and uncertain and these situations bring that everyday reality a little to close and a little too real. She’s right, of course. We know in our own lives, in our own private stories, that life can change in an instant. And moments like these, these national tragedies, bring that home—writ large. We see our fears played out on the big screen, in living color and high-def details. So, what do we do?

Kathleen Treanor’s daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, 18 years ago today. She wrote a public piece for the family of Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy killed in Monday’s attack. His mother and sister remain in critical condition, and so she wrote that she would eventually reach out to them personally, but they are too far in grief and disbelief. And so instead, she directed her words toward all of us. She wrote:

What I want to tell them is that they didn’t do anything wrong. They were living their life without fear, and they have to continue to live their life without fear in honor of their boy. That’s the way you move forward. You’ll get angry. You’ll go through all the phases of grief, but eventually you’ll get to acceptance. And acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve let go of the person you lost, but you understand where you are now.

And so, just as Yom HaZikaron gives way to Yom HaAtzmaut, and just as next Patriot’s Day thousands will again line up to run the Boston Marathon—we will move forward, just as we each do in our own lives and our own griefs. We will move forward, as the song says, holding on to the honey and the stinger, the bitter and the sweet.

But, Kathleen Treanor goes on to add something important, something that—consciously and unconsciously—we all came for tonight. She writes about what she learned in the aftermath of her loss, a loss that changed our society. She writes:

We need each other. That’s why we live together. Do not pretend that you’re disconnected, because you’re not. That’s why we choose to live in communities like we do. We need to be there for each other. Don’t assume that your neighbor is coping. They’re probably not. That’s what we learned in Oklahoma 18 years ago. That we’re stronger in numbers.

As we always do, in the honey and the stinger, in the bitter and the sweet-we come together. We share the words of our liturgy, that we go to bed tonight in peace—and wake up in the morning to a world that is a little brighter, a little better, a little more hopeful. We wish Shabbat Shalom to a stranger, we hug a loved one a little closer. We walk in the world with a little more empathy, a little more compassion, a little more kindness.  We try to walk in God’s ways.

And then, acharei mot--kedoshim n'hiyu: after the deaths….we will be holy.

Ken Yehi Ratzon--may it be so.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Each of Us Has a Name: #YomHaShoah Reflection 5773

Each year, the synagogues of the Upper West Side, organized by the JCC of Manhattan, gather to read the names of those murdered by the Nazis. The reading begins at 10PM, and goes all the way through until 6PM the next day.

 Each year, the rabbis of Upper West Side synagogues and organizations begin the reading. This year, we read names from the Jewish community of Lithuania.

Each year, I am struck by the familiarity of the names. And this year, I was struck by the number of spaces in which there was only a last name, a void, someone forever missing from a family--but not from our memory.

(Image from 5772)

Each of Us Has A Name
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.
~ Zelda ~
(Trans. by Marcia Lee Falk in
Beloved on the Earth, ed. by
J. Perman, D. Cooper, M. Hart, and P. Mittlefehldt)

Each year, we read about 14, 000 names. We're going to be reading for a long time to come. 

Never forget.