With the death of a loved one, the ground beneath our feet feels less stable. The truth of our deep vulnerability in the world seizes us. With great loss, we are often flooded with emotions that come so quickly they threaten to overwhelm us. The attack on Paris—and all that Paris represents—has shaken many of us because we are reminded of our profound vulnerability in a violent world.
There is a wise statement of Jewish law that declares: “One whose dead lies before them is exempt from the saying of the Shema prayer, from wearing tefillin and from all of the other mitzvot of the Torah.” This dispensation extends broadly to other commandments at the moment of such intense personal tragedy.
One of the motivations of this law certainly is that the all consuming responsibility of attending to the preparations of the funeral must take precedence over everything else. But I suggest that this halakhah (Jewish law) refracts an important psychological truth.
At such moments, our tradition asks us to pause and simply feel. This detail of Jewish law actually works to help us create the space to feel our pain more deeply and not allow us to become distracted by things that should come later. We do not have the presence of mind to make certain decisions. We are asked to use all our energy to attend to the immediate needs of our families and the honor of the dead.
Paris and the larger community of civilized nations still have their “dead lying before them.” Families are still attending to the funerals of their loved ones. Other victims still struggle with their wounds in hospitals. All of us—once again—are confronted with the type of brutality that undermines a faith in the goodness of human beings. There are some acts that are almost beyond our imagination. To walk into a theater and open fire in a crowd of civilians, executing people without a moment let up, strains even our cynical imaginations. To our great sorrow, the Jewish people have too much practice in conceiving of the inconceivable.
At such a moment we need to resist the urge to vilify refugees and those seeking a peaceful place for their children. We need to grapple with our justified fears of an extreme iteration of Islam and not let such acts demonize entire religious peoples. We must acknowledge our shock, despair, rage, and sadness. But we must not viscerally act from this place of fear and frustration. Ours is a tradition that has always shown concern for the struggles of the stranger and those forced to wander. From Abraham and Sarah and their open tent to the call of the Torah to “love him [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To forget this message would be to abandon the core of our mission as a people.
We do not naively hide from our world and the fight that lies ahead, but we know what the halakhah demands of us at this moment of great vulnerability.
At this moment, we focus our attention on the families whose lives have been shattered.
We pray that the Almighty heal the hundreds who have been wounded.
We pray that God give strength to the families who have lost a child and to the children who have lost a parent.
And we pray for the strength not to act or speak from a place of terror.