We Want to Know Why
by Jhos Singer
“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years: these were the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in the-city-of-four-corners, also called Hebron, in the land of Canaan and Abraham came to mourn for Sara, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead one and spoke to the terrified children, saying: ‘I am a stranger and a traveller among you and with you. Give me a place for burying with you, so I might bury my dead out of my sight.’ ” (Genesis 23:2-4)
It is strangely reassuring to open the Torah to an ancient text that might as well be a cover story in the New York Times. Here we are, thousands of years later, still snarled and tangled in the human condition, weeping for our dead. It is telling and wise that the Torah leaves the cause of Sarah’s death unnamed. Much has been made of this omission, especially as Sarah’s death follows immediately on the heels of her only son’s brush with mortality. Some rabbis posit that she might have died from shock or from relief. Some argue that she died consumed with rage or as the result of emotional trauma; others assert that her life was taken instead of Isaac’s; and still others say she simply died of old age. While the cause of her death isn’t clear, our desire to assign a reason is abundantly clear. We want to know why.
Death is a compelling mystery. Is it a punishment or a gift? Does our consciousness die with our bodies, or is our spirit eternal? Does it hurt? What does death mean? Can it be defeated? Every culture and age, outpost and ethnicity has probed this conundrum, up and down, back and forth, and we still don’t really have much of a handle on any of it. Mostly, we rely on imagination to sort it out. Live badly, suffer in hell for eternity. Live well, merit everlasting peace. Live badly, come back to straighten out your misdeeds. Live well, pass Go, collect $200.00. Live badly, enroll in a semester of spirit school, and try a do-over. Live well, come back to teach others how to live well. However you view it, we spend a lot of time worrying about and speculating on the importance and significance of death.
Last weekend, on Shabbat, a gunman walked into a synagogue and intentionally shot and killed 11 worshippers and wounded a score of others, thereby inducting the American Jewish community at large into the burgeoning consortium of church- and mosque-goers, children on playgrounds and postal workers, convenience store shoppers and concert attendees who were targeted and killed by disenfranchised, gun wielding men. Once again, the country was wounded, and like Sarah we went into shock, a sickening angst overcoming us. But unlike Sarah, we must resist the desire to give up.
Rather, this Shabbat, let us turn our gaze from the specter of death and violence. Instead, let’s focus on the outpouring of love and support, the generosity, compassion and understanding that has flowed to us this week like a mighty river. Let us grieve and mourn, for sure. But then, like Abraham, let us bury our dead, and honor them by attending to the great endeavor of living. Let us embrace fearless optimism, let us marvel at the heart’s healing, let us gather in courage with our neighbors and fellow travelers.
Invite new friends to join us at services at Chochmat HaLev. Offer to go to church or to the mosque with your neighbor. Build community. Sign up for a phone bank to get out the vote. Mentor a kid. Visit the sick.
Perhaps our most radical response to this horror can be to cultivate our tradition’s most precious gifts: empathy, compassion, a passion for social justice, and loving community. I’ll meet you there.
Blessin’s, strength and lots of love—Jhos