By any measure this past week was very difficult, even by recent standards. I do not need to go into details, but we also have to remember all the people who suffered challenges on a smaller and more private scale. They tend to be overlooked during these times.
It is hard to know what to do. It might be even harder to know what to feel. We want to help, but we do not know where to start.
The two recent Torah readings give a powerful teaching on how to face tragedy.
In the portion called Acharie Mot, we are reminded of The High Priest Aaron’s personal tragedy of losing two of his beloved sons. God had told him not to mourn publicly, which sounds very harsh, but it might also mean that God understood that was not what Aaron needed himself to face his grief.
God tells him to resume his work as Cohen Gadol, the high priest. Aaron is to prepare to offer sacrifices, which is discussed in a lot of detail.
There are two important things going on. One, God reminds Aaron that he is still a person, and a person who has much to offer. His tragedy did not have to steal his humanity. The other is that God understood that Aaron needed privacy and silence to work through his grief. This does not mean that this is for everyone, but that it was something Aaron, for who he was, needed.
This teaches us that there is not an official template of mourning that everyone must follow. There are traditions and practices which can be very helpful, but we have to make sure not to impose our own feelings of what works best or what we think is right for someone else. We have to help them find their way.
The following Torah reading, Kedoshim, is about creating a community that is compassionate and safe, which is one of the meanings of Kadosh, of holiness. The Torah demands that we find a way to protect those who are most vulnerable in society, economically or socially. It is not just altruism and for our own moral development. Things change quickly in this world and we may become the vulnerable ones ourselves. How many people begin their day thinking that it will be like every other day only to have their lives changed in a moment? A sacred society creates opportunities to help and is there when one needs the help. A giver today may need help tomorrow. A person who feels they have nothing to offer can become a hero in a moment if they are open.
I believe this model of a sacred community comes after the discussion of Aaron’s grief because it teaches us that we cannot help the community until we confront our own tragedies and challenges, but that also we cannot completely confront them on our own. We strengthen the community and the community strengthens us. This does not necessarily take away our pain, but it allows us to live fully within our humanity.
One of the most famous teachings of Hillel was his response to the person who wanted to learn Torah while standing on one foot. He said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.” This is not about our own ego, or being hurt, it is knowing that we are capable of hurting others, we know what it is hateful to others, and we make an effort not to be hateful where we know it would hurt the most.
Instead, the approach to life is “Vahavta l’reicha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.” The phrasing in Hebrew is slighty different from what one would expect and reveals a deep way of thinking about compassion. It should be vahavta et, not vahavta l’ reicha. It does not mean that you like your neighbor, but that you are sending them thoughts of compassion. We recognize that everyone suffers, and that everyone could benefit from kind thoughts. Thisd oes not mean approval of destructive actions. Everyone who causes harm needs to be accountable. I think this means that we have to remember that despite our grief we are always capable of love. We can still be kamocha, like ourselves at all times.
The bad guys win when we forget who we are. That is what they want. They attack us with the everyday products of our lives. Who will ever look at a pressure cooker the same way?
There will never be an end to those who try to bring terror to the world, but if we remember that there are always more people who try to help than there are those who try to harm, we can stand together in our fear and in our grief and block the darkness with the light of our souls.