We had a fascinating conversation with our Confirmation class (10th and 11th graders) this week. In light of the recent terrorist attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, tonight marked the first time for our class to gather for a proper debrief. I began by asking the students what they were hearing in the news, what they were seeing online, what their friends were saying, and what they happened to think of the incident and the Jewish and wider community's response.
Our conversation began to focus on the presence of trauma in the Jewish community, anti-Semitism, the sense of victimization that we often feel as Jews, and ongoing reminders of the Holocaust and other catastrophic events. A number of students suggested that this very combination of factors leads us to be stronger and helps us to define our collective Jewish identity, indicated by "direction arrow 1" in the diagram.
A thoughtful conversation ensued. A few other students suggested that we should follow "direction arrow 2" in the diagram. Reading the diagram this way, the sense of togetherness as a people and as a worldwide Jewish community gives us the strength to unite together as a people when we encounter episodes of trauma, times when we might fall prey to victimization, or when we face terror and horrific moments.
So which way is it? Perhaps, the process is cyclical, a both/and, rather than an either/or.
An ancient rabbi named Hillel once said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Perhaps, in light of recent events, we might update Hillel's remarks with the following sentiment:
If the Jewish community does not remember and account for its own trauma and pain, who will do so for us? At the same time, if we only focus on trauma, victimization, and sadness, what will become of us? And if we don't consider the other aspects of Jewish life, when will we do so?
In an effort to move the conversation beyond aspects of suffering that unite the Jewish people one student came forward and said, "I look forward to lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night." Yes. This.
Tonight, we observe Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month of Kislev, and in a few weeks we will come to celebrate Chanukah. In essence, that there are students discussing and debating the past, present, and future of the Jewish people, that there are students looking forward to lighting Shabbat candles every week, that there are communities uniting in number for solidarity, should give us great hope. Each morning we bless God as the creator of light and darkness, yotzer or u'vorei choshech, indicating that life is as much about light as it is about darkness, and God is present in each of these circumstances.
Sometimes, we find that terrible acts bring us closer together, when we need the strength of community to surround us. Sometimes, we find that is our strength together, which helps us respond to challenging moments we face in our life. But we have to remember that the beauty of Judaism extends beyond the traumatic moments, into the everyday, into the very experiences that we sanctify and bless with each breath, into the occasions that help us to realize that our existence is imbued with the gift of life.
We cannot escape trauma. But we can choose how we respond to it. We are not limited to the times of solidarity. Like the student looking forward to lighting the Shabbat candles, we should be regularly in search of our very next mitzvah.
Husband, Dad, Rabbi, avid fan of classical music and the St. Louis Cardinals