5 December 2008
8 Kislev 5768
Addressing our community at hakhel (morning assembly) on Tuesday morning was bittersweet. With open arms and open hearts, our community celebrated the return of half of our Junior class from their trimester in Israel. For the first time this year, our Beit Midrash was standing room only, as the Juniors filled, what this fall had been, their physical and spiritual empty seats with new energy and somewhat anxious anticipation of their reintegration with our community. But our joy at the Juniors’ return was somewhat muted by what I called tragedy and travesty – the death of the mother on one of our students; and, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed over 190 people, including a young Chabad Rabbi and his wife. I acknowledged to our students that, in moments like these, one of the hardest things can be our desire to do or say something, yet we experience a profound absence of clarity about what the right thing to do or say could possibly be. For all of us, but especially for young people trying to make sense of their world, the tragic loss of life can create disequilibrium and disillusionment. Nothing is more humbling, and for many scary, than the fragility of human life and the reminder that we are not always in control of our world.
All week I have been thinking about what we call the learnings, the educational messages that we might find in these events. I received an email from a Chabad Rabbi and colleague of mine regarding a memorial service for the slain Chabad Rabbi and his wife. At the end of the email was an announcement about a “million mitzvah drive.” As I understand it, the way the mitzvah drive works is that each person commits, Chabad suggests, to performing individual mitzvot for a certain period of time (for example, lighting candles for the year equals 52 mitvot). I would call this a spiritual response to tragedy and travesty – in the face of evil and destructive acts, we assert our human capacity to do good in the world, one mitzvah at a time. In the spirit of response and mitzvot, one of our faculty members, who was in Mumbai this summer, suggested that we raise money to help rebuild Chabad Mumbai. In his words, “We cannot bring back the dead, but we can honor their memory by helping to continue their work there.” Another one of our faculty members, Rabbi Moshe, a Chabad Rabbi himself, spoke to many of our students Wednesday morning about how he and his community are dealing with the attacks in Mumbai. Among the many beautiful thoughts and reflections he shared, he echoed this notion of the spiritual and ethical empowerment to respond, rather than react or explain. To paraphrase his words, “Chabad strives, through small acts of chesed (love and kindness) and mitzvot, to bring even small rays of light into times of darkness.”
Later on Wednesday, I heard a similar message of empowerment and response but in a political-ethical rather than a spiritual context. Our guest speaker, State Representative Ruth Balser of Newton, talked to our students about the legislative process and shared stories about how individual issues, small or great, become bills and ultimately laws. She emphasized one of the core tenets of our school, that the democratic process does work, and that every citizen does have a voice. Sometimes one citizen’s phone call about a difficult or unjust experience can result in new legislation that will protect others from having to go through a similar experience in the future.
Rabbi Moshe and Representative Balser spoke about taking action – political, ethical, spiritual – and about our capacity to respond and to repair, in small ways, our broken world. But this morning I experienced this message in a powerful way. I prayed in a place where no one should have to pray, at a shiva minyan (the morning prayer service) in the home of our student and her grieving family. At 6:45 am, along with a group of Gann students and parents, we ended the week as we began the week, honoring the memory of our student’s mother; and, trying in whatever miniscule way we could, to comfort our student and her family during their time of sadness and loss. Looking around the room at the overwhelming love and support of this family’s caring community, and at our high school students whose prayers and presence were their expression of solidarity with their friend, I felt the words of Yaakov in the opening of this week’s parsha (Vayetzei). After Yaakov dreams of the ladder and its angels, he wakes up and says: “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it.” For Yaakov it ironically took a dream to awaken him spiritually; and I think this line alludes to a spiritual and psychological reality that we face every day. How difficult it can be to find God, to see God, even to believe in God (let alone to feel God’s presence) in a world that feels so broken, so dark. As I looked around the room this morning, I could feel what Rabbi Moshe described as light in a time of darkness. Our community has the capacity to turn Yaakov’s realization both into a message of comfort and also into a form of spiritual empowerment: Surely we have the capacity to bring God’s presence into this place (this home, this world), even though we did not know it.
As we prepare for Shabbat, the Gann community sends love and our deepest condolences to our student and her family. We send thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed in Mumbai and to the Chabad community; and, we pray for the speedy recovery of all those who were injured. May we not lose our faith in the words of our forefather, that God is present in this place – in our world and in our community; and, may we find the strength to respond, to act, to repair (or at least bring comfort to) the brokenness of our world; and, through our actions and intentions, may we help illuminate even small rays of light in times of darkness.
Rabbi Marc Baker