Sigh. Deep breath. Boston. Beantown. What a week. The highs and lows of heroism and tragedy, fear and triumph. Our beloved sports teams did play, didn’t play, and individual players visited victims in hospital beds. Neil Diamond flew himself here to sing his iconic sweet caroline at the top of the eigth, bringing people together in puerile camaraderie. The absurdly sublime feel-good gesture of a fatuous placebo. And on Shabbat at the end of that week, we read in the Torah the double portion Acharai Mot / Kedoshim, or, after (tragic) death, holiness. With so much uncertainty and lack of logic, this felt like it actually made a little sense to me for the first time in my life. Truthfully, I’ve always had trouble reading acharai mot – after the insensible death of Aaron’s sons he is told not to grieve overmuch. That just never sat right with me. I would never be able to (or desire to) look into the haunted eyes of a bereaved parent and tell them to limit their grief – and I have seen plenty of bereaved parents in my line of work. So we read that and then in a blithely insouciant leap, Torah follows that portion with our holiness code – be holy for God is holy. Oh, ok. Sort of like “just say no”. It doesn’t make sense.
All through the week I planned and led prayer slash religious gatherings that were meant to bring people together in solidarity and support. As I looked out over anxious, shocked and anguished faces, I realized, yeah, it’s relatively easy to be holy – to be loving and kind and compassionate and gracious and generous – when everything’s going smoothly and well and easily. But in the aftermath of violence, pain, suffering, and tragedy, holiness seems to be a bit more difficult to access, a bit more of a reach. At least, in the face of those things, it understandably doesn’t seem to be our natural first response. It feels so much easier to tap anger and frustration, asperity, fear and loathing. Who the hell wants to be compassionate when you’re furious and terrified, fighting the fight or flight response of your quickened yet broken heart, when there is a killer on the loose, when all you want is revenge?!
How are we supposed to deal with this? What was I supposed to say to all those people looking to me for some message of hope? I kept coming back to the same thing. The painful truthful bottom line is that we can’t prescribe the way others behave. We can’t, much as we’d like to, control the terrorist’s actions or curtail the thief’s behaviors. Most of us would not choose callous violence or the intentional infliction of pain on others. But in response to those things, hatred and anger and fear are not our only options. Where our instinct may be vengeance, we can pause, breathe, and choose to respond with love, with hope, with faith, with compassion. With holiness. And while that is so not easy, it is the one thing we do have a choice about, it is the one thing we can control. After tragic death, holiness. And once again and still, the enigmatic yet timely message from Torah gives pause.