20 November 2015
7 Kislev 5776
Sometimes there are no words.
Yesterday morning I returned to Boston with the members of our junior class who had just spent three life-changing months in Israel. Their last day was an emotional rollercoaster. One moment they were at Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, paying respects to the founders and political visionaries who made Herzl’s dream a reality and crying at the graves of fallen soldiers who were just a few years older than they were. An hour later the group was singing and dancing joyously in front of the Kotel, the Western Wall. Riding this rollercoaster is a significant part of what it means to be Jewish, to be human.
We arrived home safe and exhausted, only to learn hours later about the murder of Ezra Schwartz z”l, a Maimonides graduate who was very close with many in our community. Our Boston community lost one of its children who was living, studying, and serving in Israel—like our juniors and so many of our alumni.
I was at a loss as I sat with our students who were closest to Ezra and his family. What do you tell high school students who have just learned that one of their friends or their siblings’ friends—one of them—was murdered? I did all I could to bear their shock and tears without breaking down myself. We just sat—together.
We also learned this week about two other sudden losses including the wife of our dear Gann teacher, Steve Wood, and a former Gann grandparent, Dr. Bernie Kosowsky z”l, one of the great lay leaders of Boston’s Modern Orthodox community. Our hearts and prayers are with their families during these difficult times.
On the more global front, last Shabbat we learned of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and, just this morning, we woke up to news of 170 hostages being held in a hotel in Mali— not to mention the terror and bloodshed in Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
Whether or not the world is actually getting crazier and less predictable, it certainly feels as if it is right now. How do we prepare our students and ourselves for global citizenship and for lives of meaning, purpose, and responsibility in such an uncertain, even scary, world? I believe that honestly asking this question is more important than any answer I can give, but I will share one thought.
One of the most natural human responses to uncertainty and loss is fear. Sadness is an important part of a fully lived emotional and spiritual life. Fear, however, can paralyze us as individuals and disconnect us from one another and from ourselves. Parker Palmer points out that feeling some fear is important, practical, realistic, and even biologically necessary. But we need to be careful not to be overcome by fear. Perhaps, this is why our Jewish spiritual tradition, along with so many other spiritual traditions, repeat the refrain over and over: “I will not fear.”
One of my close friends in the Maimonides community wrote to me yesterday, “People need to be together and communicate at this time and not be alone.” People need to be together and to reach out to one another, letting one another know, “I am with you in your pain, your loss, your confusion, your shock.” Sometimes, that is all we can say.
My friend’s words reminded me of the words of the 23rd Psalm and so many other Psalms: “Lo ira ra ki ata imadi – I will fear no evil because You are with me.” The Psalm does not say “I will fear no evil because I know everything will turn out okay.” We find comfort and confidence not because we know what will happen in the end, but rather because we do not need to experience our not-knowing alone. This is why, when comforting mourners, we try not to say the tempting phrase, “It’ll be okay.” In moments of loss, that comment can feel trite and alienating. Instead, all we can really say with words and actions is, “I am here. I am in this with you. You are not alone.”
One of the ways we prepare ourselves and our students to go on living lives of meaning, purpose, and responsibility in the face of sadness, loss, and, perhaps most scarily, uncertainty, is by learning to connect and reconnect—with a deeper, higher Power, with one another, and with our truest, most authentic selves.
I wish us all a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of connection, comfort, and peace,
Rabbi Marc Baker