Friday, December 28, 2012

Parashat Vayechi  16 Tevet 5773 / Dec. 28-29, 2013
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26 

Transcending and Include Tragedy: Reflections on the Newtown Shooting
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ
The shooting in Connecticut last week makes it almost impossible not to feel the pain of an imperfect world. In such times it is easy to surrender our hopes and dreams of a better reality. As Jews we have unique tools to be re-inspired to live fully as we transcend and include such tragedy. For example, we can learn a powerful lesson from two archetypal characters - Jacob and Josef. In parshat Vayechi (“And he lived”) we read about the end of Jacob’s life. He is in Egypt surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Jacob is reunited with his beloved son Joseph, who he thought was dead for many years.
Chapter 48, verse 11 reads:
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי; וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים, גַּם אֶת-זַרְעֶךָ.
11 And Israel said unto Joseph: 'I had not thought to see your face; and, lo, God has let me see your children too.'

The Torah’s word choice for thought is very curious. In the Hebrew (see bolded above) we have the word pilalti. This is from the same root as le’hitpalel or tefilah – to pray or prayer. The Torah is providing us 
insight as to what it means to really pray in the face of the most terrible circumstances.

Jacob is not only saying simply that he had not thought he would see Joseph’s face, rather he was saying he never believed or imagined the possibility that he would see Joseph’s face again. This is what prayer can be – an opportunity to imagine the unimaginable, to create possibility where there seems to be impossibility. When we tap into our spiritual life through prayer we are accessing what Viktor Frankl calls, “the defiant power of the human spirit.” When we pray in a traditional sense, we say, “Hey God! There are a lot of things wrong with this world and the solution seems impossible – but I believe that life can be different and I am not going to give up on doing my part to make it different!” When Jacob says that he thought he would never see Joseph again, we see his lapse into despair, his disconnection with the possibility that life can turn out any different than the misery he was living in.

In the face of a horrendous tragedy like the one that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, taking time to dwell in the Jacob response is very natural and important. Little children’s lives were brutally cut short, as were the lives of the teachers and staff that stayed dutifully to protect them. It is important to acknowledge the brokenness of our world, though unlike Jacob, we should make sure that our spirits are not broken too.

An alternative to Jacob’s despair can be seen in Joseph, who keeps his dreams alive and never loses a connection with the defiant power of his spirit. It reminds me of the popular adage from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it." 

All across the country people are speaking loudly about gun and bullet control reform, about better care and sensitivity around mental health needs, and about the need for closeness and love in every community. Great tragedy exposes the great cracks of our society. We cannot escape the ugliness in the world, and we should not try to. Moishe House is not just a place where events happen. Each house is a space for community to unite through mourning and celebration. As Rabbi A.J. Heschel suggested, now is the time to pray with our feet. Allow your community to be inspired past the pain to meaningful Jewish practice and social service. Continue to create moments of caring and support where people can come home and be themselves. Learn from Jacob and acknowledge the despair and then act like Joseph and dream of a bright today.


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