Thursday, December 20, 2012

Through the Cracks We Can See the Light


The breadth of terror cannot be deciphered through a gruesome body count, nor can it be encapsulated by a detailed recounting of a given calamity. The quintessential experience of terror occurs as its eerie message gradually permeates, and subtly haunts, countless bystanders who are ostensibly disconnected from the original assault. The aspiration of terror is not confined to a particular moment; rather, it is realized by the inevitable cultivation of a pervasive, and effectively inconsolable, anxiety. Twenty children and six adults were brutally massacred, yet no number is able to capture the extent and the comprehensiveness of our pain. As Judaism proudly affirms the infinite dignity of each and every individual, “26” seems to be a woefully inadequate description of the loss. Those “26” were not the only ones killed a week ago; a real part of every American was irretrievably lost. Each of us who experienced this tragedy, on whatever level or from whatever distance, is eternally tainted.

There is an important Jewish concept that  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, our patriarchs’ experience did not exist in isolation; it is, rather, a premonition for future generations. My undergraduate thesis adviser, Professor Daniel Pekarsky, suggested that this concept should be foremost in our vision of Jewish education; we can, indeed we must, contemplate our own existence through the legends of our predecessors.

This perspective becomes jarringly relevant as we contemplate our position in the yearly Torah reading cycle. In a remarkable tale, Jacob’s sons have recently descended to Egypt, hoping to fetch food amidst a difficult famine. Unbeknownst to them, the viceroy, the very minister responsible for allocating food, is their estranged brother, Joseph. Joseph, deliberately declining to reveal his true identity, tactfully conceives of a series of mini-plots that will ultimately delay their mission. It will, he figures, provide him with the opportunity to detain his maternal brother, Benjamin, while simultaneously attaining information regarding his father, Jacob. As we approach the climax, Joseph instructs his servants to plant his prized goblet in Benjamin’s sack, and, as a punishment for Benjamin’s alleged betrayal, Joseph insists that Benjamin remain with him as a slave, while the brothers are free to return home.

Judah, in a display of great courage, frantically pleads with Joseph. וְעַתָּה, כְּבֹאִי אֶל- עַבְדְּךָ אָבִיו, וְהַנַּעַר, אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁ וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי-אֵין הַנַּעַר—וָמֵת .  “Now when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, since his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul; it will transpire, when he sees that the boy is not with us, that he will die.” In this impressive sign of parental love, Judah insists that the thought of losing another son will be so unbearable that his father will surely die. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a19th century German scholar, comments that, “as soon as [Jacob] sees that the lad is not there, he will die on the spot. We shall not have time to explain the matter to him, and try to make him see the matter in a less serious light.” In other words, the unimaginable pains of child loss would undoubtedly debilitate any loving father. The loss of a child, in a certain sense, accelerates, or may even perpetuate, the fatality of a parent.

By means of his love the father becomes part and parcel of his son. Onkelos, a second century rabbi renowned for his generally precise Aramaic translation of the Torah, offers an insightful interpretation of the words “his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul.” Rather than using the expected Aramaic term for “bound up” (ק,ט,ר),  Onkelos verbosely suggests that Benjamin’s soul is “beloved to [Jacob] as his own soul.” Any pain inflicted on Benjamin is simultaneously inflicted on his father. By enslaving Benjamin, Judah suggests the Joseph is concurrently enslaving a piece of Jacob, and a real part of Jacob will be irretrievably lost.

The core of Judah’s message is clear: the consequences of Joseph’s actions will not be confined to those directly affected by his verdicts. These decisions will have extensive ramifications that will go beyond the limits of any perceived reality. The pain will not just affect those that immediately surround him, but will continuously spread, as it strangles an array of hopes and dreams. Such is the power of tragedy.

As we contemplate the pain of a loss, I pray that we have the strength to appreciate the potency of our love. The “26” lives lost took with them a piece of each of us. Parents are now trepid as they send their kids to school; students now cringe as they climb onto the once hallowed yellow school bus. This mass murder stole our serenity and kidnapped our resilience, as it shook our optimism and faith in humanity. It created a schism, and irreconcilably warped our apparently naive vision of the world. There is no way to heal this schism, no magic potion to reincarnate those lost, and no plausible plan to reinvigorate our passion. Yet, we must move forward. Like Judah, we must stand up for love, and tirelessly defend human dignity. We must always be there for each other, for, at the end of the day, all of our souls are inextricably tied.