Writing of the Jewish take on death and mourning in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant explains Pirkei Avot 4:23a from the Talmud: “Do not comfort the bereaved with their dead still before them” to mean [it is] ‘Inappropriate to offer words of condolence to mourners until after the funeral.’ I would clarify that indeed, even before the funeral, comfort and condolence are greatly needed – but of a different quality than after the funeral. When our dead lie literally ‘before our eyes,’ certain things necessarily come first; and our emotions are often in turmoil and we ourselves in shock.
I know that after last week’s events in France – the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo; the targeting, hostage-taking and murder of Jews in two groceries; the aftermath of mosques being fire-bombed; and Boko Harum’s slaughter of thousands in Nigeria – I am still in shock. And my emotions are in a tumult.
Just Thursday evening I was at Government House in Winnipeg, as Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose were honoured with the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding. The next night, just before Shabbat services, I was at Central Mosque for an evening of “sharing, caring and healing…standing in solidarity against violence and sharing traditions of mercy and compassion.” Other Jews were there, Christians from numerous denominations, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Moslems, humanists and atheists.
I think of all that has happened – and I turn to Jewish teaching for comfort and perspective.
In the Torah portion for last week, we meet a man who was born under a death sentence – all male babies were to be killed. He too was from a disenfranchised immigrant group, and he was sent out from his birth family and adopted at three months – he grew up essentially fatherless. As a young man, he went out and murdered a man – probably thought he could get away with it – until he was spotted and accused of murder. Then he did what many another has done – he ran; he went on the lam to Midian, where he seems to settle down after first getting in a tiff with the resident shepherds. He marries, goes into his father-in-law’s business of shepherding. And then, one day while he’s out, he sees a bush burning, and he watches it until he is sure that it is not burning up.
I have a firefighter friend who says, “I would have doused that sucker!” But Moses waits, watches, listens. That scene has always struck me, because I am much more impatient. But Moses isn’t: he waits, watches, and listens until he knows that the bush is not being consumed and until he hears a voice.
There are still people listening: for the past several months, an interfaith group has met every Tuesday for 15-20 minutes of silence. The leadership is shared, as one or another introduces the silence with 1-2 minutes of words. Then quiet: waiting, listening, becoming aware.
What do we need to be aware of in the aftermath of the events in France? My colleagues discussed their ideas on line; thoughts included parallels with Pharaoh as personifying hate or anti-Semitism or complacency. Others reminded us of the phrase “And there arose a new king who knew not Joseph” – perhaps Joseph could represent Western civilization or the Jewish people. Rabbi Emma Gottlieb made a parallel with Shifrah and Puah (the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the Jewish baby boys), asking ‘who will be France’s courageous midwives?
All earnest thoughts, worthy of exploring. But I return to the need for comfort, even with our dead before our eyes. What exactly though?
And then I read these words, from Hari Kunzru in The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/08/charlie-hedbo-collusion-terror-jihadi-twisted-logic :
Those of us who want to short-circuit the logic of confrontation have our work cut out….Mumblings about “respect” and “avoiding giving offence” seem cowardly and dishonourable. And compromise with the jihadi position is meaningless: the jihadi is absolute because otherwise he is nothing. Without the childish simplicity of binary logic, all his power and glamour leak away, and he becomes just another lost boy….
But refusing to compromise with the jihadi does not mean becoming his mirror. When I’m stupid enough to switch on cable news here in New York, the optics are different but I hear…the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team.
If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.
Our dead are still before our eyes, but this is comfort and condolence to me: that life is not simple but incredibly complex, that we are stronger when we integrate life’s complexity into our understanding, that we cannot divide the world neatly into ‘good guys and bad guys,’ and that no single solution answers everything.
This is my solace: we do not need utopia, but we do need each other.