Those of us who routinely say Kaddish at the close of Jewish religious services are generally aware that the Hebrew prayer for mourning makes no actual reference to mourning nor to death. It’s a prayer of glorification, sanctification, and praise for God and the world He made, and it’s a call for the peace He can bring to that troubled world.
The guttural and beautiful sing-song in the middle makes clear our connection, dependence, and awe –
Yit’barakh v’yish’tabach v’yit’pa’ar v’yit’romam v’yit’nasei v’yit’hadar v’yit’aleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha B’rikh hu. L’eila min kol bir’khata v’shirata toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah, v’eemru: Amen.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and let us say, Amein.
I don’t know if any of the parents of twenty dead elementary school children, or their families, or the families of teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT said this prayer last night in their homes or at Shabbat services, but I am certain some of their friends did. I know their neighbors in Connecticut did. I know their brothers and sisters around the country and around the globe had those stricken families in mind when they said Kaddish last night, and will when they say it for many weeks to come.
The image of Christmas presents under trees today, presents that would have been puzzled and obsessed over between now and the 25th, presents that now will never be opened by their intended recipients, is really too horrible to contemplate and yet that’s the image that’s going to fill my mind each time I say Kaddish for a while, I’m just sure of it.
Last night we had a small Hanukkah gathering in our home, with children of dear and long-standing friends lighting our candles with help from our teens. It was beautiful, warm, and holy. And all I could think about was that these children, our children, are those children, the ones shot dead with no understanding and no doubt sheer terror in their final moments. As my wife Sharon wrote in a Facebook comment this morning, “This can and will happen again – could be anytime, anywhere.” Referring to the epidemic of gun violence this year, the last five years, she wrote, “It used to be an unthinkable event, and we thought of it as isolated and unlikely to happen again. Can’t think that anymore.”
And yet we praise, even through sorrow and it tears when that’s what we’re feeling, when that is how we are moved.
It is also a matter of our faith as we practice it that God’s world is not a complete work. We must be partners in completing the work of creation – God needs us, and we need each other, to make the world as we wish it to be. So waiting for an answer to mass murders is not an option. Waiting for sensible gun control that keeps spouses safe from angry husbands or wives; that keeps teens sneaking back into the house after midnight mischief safe from mistaken, later horrified, parents; that keeps toddlers safe from their parents’ negligence, stupidity, or just plain carelessness; that protects innocents from the horror of dying alone or in a crowd – since it’s all dying, the only difference is one makes headlines and one generally doesn’t.
And it is part of our faith and worship that we saying Kaddish is a communal act. In our congregation we ask mourners, or those marking the anniversary of a death of a loved one, to stand, and then we very consciously ask the rest of the congregation to stand with them, and we recite as one those words that look forward, not back, that praise, not plead, that sanctify and glorify but which don’t ask why or try to solve the unsolvable.
What I draw from this is that we cannot wait and we must work together. Last night, Andrew Sullivan posted an excerpt from a letter from a reader on his blog:
“… My personal, emotional reaction to this story, is that I am done – done with the absolutists whose only contribution to the conversation is that there be no comprise, that it be all or nothing. I am done. Period. It is time to have the conversation again, to break the Second Amendment taboo and have a civic conversation. I suspect patience/tolerance towards the far right will be in short supply. The blood of innocents is a deeply rooted, ancient, psychological thing. And these were innocents in the purest sense.
“I am very far away in Seattle, but this kindles a certain sadness and fury I have not had since 9/11. This has to change. My heart tells me the response is/will likewise be primal and communal. Maybe I am completely/emotionally wrong. Yet, it is in these moments when the tide turns and public sentiment sweeps away barriers that the day before seemed so strong – this feels like one of those moments. Today is not the day … but tomorrow may be.”
I want to know this neighbor and give him a hug and tell him I’ll help.
I fervently hope he is right. I hope that the “blood of innocents” moves us to action. I hope there are many, many more who pledge that they are done with no compromise, done with mindless Manichaeism, done with volume trumping reason. A bunch of years ago, when writing your “25 things” on Facebook was a craze, my number eleven was, “Process leaves me cold. Rigidity makes me crazy. Manichaeism is a sin.” I have only become more sure of that in the years since, even as the shouting has become louder, the refusal to compromise more obstinate, the willingness, stubbornness, insistence to not undertake the “constant struggle” to see what is in front of one’s nose (hat tip to Orwell, relayed by the same Andrew Sullivan) has become stronger and crazier.
His reference at the end to today not being the day, but maybe tomorrow, is to the response to yesterday’s carnage that was the first to bring me to tears yesterday. White House spokesman Jay Carney had done what White House spokesmen do – deflected the politics until he had an answer. He chose a phrase that is as innocuous as it turned out to be frustrating – “today is not the day” for that discussion.
People, ones and twos and small groups, then larger, organized groups, came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and said they had a different opinion. With signs, with candles, with their hearts and their tears and their voices, they affirmed that today *is* the day. That this moment cannot escape us. That sometimes we have to use tragedy to spur what is right and what must be done. The response was, as the writer to Andrew Sullivan had predicted, primal and communal.
I stand with those citizens, and I was proud when our president told us he was reacting to this horrible attack not as a president but as a parent. When he took a moment to compose himself in the middle of his remarks, when he sadly, gently shared his frustration at the frequency of events like this and allowed as to how, now, we need to start that conversation. Today *is* the day.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I know it’s not continuing down the path we are on. It’s not the status quo. I can guess as to the solution’s ultimate dimensions and form, and know enough to know that there will still, somehow, mysteriously be opposition. So let’s get together, follow leaders who will lead, follow the best and brightest organizers in our communities who will declare this their passion plea, and start down what will surely be a rocky path.
Let us be able to say, finally, of Sikhs in Wisconsin, of holiday shoppers in Oregon, of students at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, to thousands of nameless victims of accidental or intended gun violence each year that their deaths were not in vain.
Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yis’ra’eil v’im’ru: Amein.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. And let us say: Amein