I vividly remember that September night in 1987. We had left the hospital earlier that evening knowing that the end was near. The hospital called a few hours later to let us know it had arrived. We stood at mom’s bedside holding vigil. Each of us tried to say goodbye in our own way, a stroke of her hair, a whisper into her ear, holding her hand, a prayer in our hearts. The truth is we were only trying to say goodbye; none of us could bear the thought of being without her. And then it was over. Once the monitor was turned off, the silence was intense. And although I was standing before my mom with my father, brother and sister, I felt profoundly alone.
But there was another presence in the room. We had called our close family friend and Rabbi earlier that day, and he came to us in the middle of the night. I honestly cannot remember what he said. But I do remember feeling as though I was standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into blackness. His gentle touch somehow made me feel like I was not completely alone. He could not take away the pain, no one could. But the echoes of the psalm reverberated in my mind; someone was beside me as I began to walk in that very dark valley. Rabbi’s presence helped me to begin the process of grieving her loss, then picking up the pieces and beginning to move forward.
My work as a hospital chaplain and as a rabbi has given me many opportunities to be with people in their time special time of grief, vulnerability or need. I am privileged to offer this wonderful gift to others. But it is not a gift limited only to rabbis. We all have the potential to reach out to others in profound and meaningful ways. We offer ourselves to be present, to listen, to make a meal, to call a couple of weeks later just to check in, these are extraordinary ways that each of us can make an important impact on another’s life. At the time when a person feels most isolated, we can reassure them that they are not alone.
With Trayvon Martin gone, the question is not whether justice has been served or if George Zimmerman was really guilty. The Jewish question before us is, “How do we prevent another such tragedy from occurring?”
There is no justice to be served here. A seventeen year-old boy is dead. Trayvon Martin’s parents will be forever changed by the death of their son. George Zimmerman will spend the rest of his life knowing he left his home one evening filled with the self-importance of a neighborhood watchman and returned home later that night a murderer. Nothing we can do can change what has happened, we can only hope to change what will happen.
At this time of year, we begin to look toward the High Holidays and we begin the process of preparation. We engage in introspection and self-reflection as we search our souls thinking of our own shortcomings, asking for forgiveness and planning to make the coming year better if only we are so blessed with the precious gift of life. Yet there are other questions we are compelled to ask. We look at the world in which we live and ponder what we can do to make it a better place; to leave a place to our children that is better, safer and more secure than the one we inherited, moved ever slightly closer to repair through our actions. What is our role to make society more civil and more just for everyone? That is our historic mission, the essence of being chosen to receive the extraordinary gift of Torah at Mount Sinai and the real hope for being written into the book of life.
Charles Blow of the New York Times offers a thoughtful understanding of the implications of the Trayvon Martin tragedy:
My prayers go out to the family of Trayvon Martin. The pain of their loss is only compounded by the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. The jury has found Zimmerman “Not Guilty.” Although this is the verdict we are forced to accept, I wonder if the prosecution did the best it could to try the case or did it fail to meet the burden of proof the jury required. But no matter what the outcome of the trial, the devastating and tragic loss of a young life remains a stark reality.
May Trayvon Martin’s memory be a blessing, may his family find some comfort in their sorrow, and may we act to prevent such senseless tragedies from occurring.
During Tisha B’Av, as we contemplate our losses, let us also remember the hope that comes from our capacity to rebuild after tragedy. Let us also take time to reject Sni’atChinam, the baseless hatred that rips the fabric of Am Yisrael from within. Let us work to build our people based on respect for every Jew’s serious engagement with Judaism, even when we do not agree or accept it as our own personal practice.
The bad-guy in those gangster movies invariably says, “It’s not personal, it’s only business.” He rationally explains that he is simply doing what he must for his bad-guy business to be successful. “How would it look if I let this slip?” He expounds that word would get out and then everyone would take advantage. And then the bad-guy proceeds to do his really bad bad-guy thing.
I share this because as I understand in my practice of Judaism, things are precisely the opposite. “It’s not business, it’s only personal.” For me, the creation of relationships and the development of those relationships are paramount. Relationships are at the core of making meaning in my life. Judaism gives us a way to find that space to become connected to another and a greater community that shares traditions and values. It is not about the business of getting it right. I am not counting how many mitzvot you do, nor how well you may do them or how well you do in the business world. It is not about me judging you, punishing you or even rewarding you for how well you performed. It is acknowledging that we are all created in the divine image, although each of us is flawed and completely human. It is about learning to respect those who are different from us as they learn to respect us. It is about creating relationships that can bridge those differences. It is all deeply personal, and great business!