Todd Berman

Concentric circles of sorrow, love, and holiness

A colleague took me to the military cemetery in Jerusalem, Har Herzl, years ago. We arrived the day before Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, intending to prepare for leading students on a tour. Many families sat quietly at the graves of their loved ones. They came the day before Memorial Day to mourn personally without the interruption of the crowds who arrive on Memorial Day for the ceremony and to visit the graves.

The need for personal mourning struck me. I believe this may be unique in Israel. Israeli memorial day allows the country to mourn those who died, defending our right to live in our homeland. Yet, every national hero was a father or brother or sister or daughter, a nuclear family member.

The problem of national mourning struck me recently in the wake of the horrendous murder of my neighbors, Lucy, Rina, and Maia Dee. In a real way, the death of the mother and daughters was a communal tragedy. But their tragic murders at the hands of terrorists are a soul-crushing blow to Rabbi Leo and the other Dee children. He lost a wife and two precious daughters. The siblings lost two sisters. Such a colossal tragedy is beyond words and repair. Unimaginable pain and loss. A sorrow so deep and permanent that even getting up in the morning seems to me to be heroic.

I was not close with the Dee family. I know them from my neighborhood; we shared a carpool. But the tragedy and community reaction highlights the nature of the concentric circles of pain and loss. It’s as if the entire neighborhood went into mourning. Their synagogue held prayers, vigils, and Torah learning events in response to the tragedy. People cried in the grocery store and looked down at the ground during walks.

But the circle expands. Thousands attended the funerals. During the week of shiva, the period of Jewish mourning, thousands more came as much to grieve with the family as to offer comfort. Throngs of people moved in and out of the home, allowing even more people to arrive. Members of Knesset, Arabs from local villages, the son of the former Shah of Iran, rabbis from America, and other places attended as well came to offer condolences. The waves of pain spread like the ripples created by a stone cast upon the still waters ever moving outward. All of Israel mourns.

And that is what happens on Yom HaZikaron. The Dee children asked Prime Minister Netanyahu how he dealt with losing his brother, who fell in saving hostages in Entebbe. Every family has a story or knows someone who has a story or felt the loss in the neighborhood. Israel is a small country, and the Jewish people are small in number. Sometimes it’s as if we all know each other. Jewish geography is a game often played upon first meeting someone, “do you know this person from New York?” Surprisingly, more often than not, the response is yes.

I have attended more funerals than I care to remember. Friends murdered in terror attacks, soldiers killed in the line of duty with who I am somehow connected, and others for various reasons. I have stood at the graves of soldiers whose relatives have long passed or never made it to this country. And I have cried with the entire nation for victims of war. We are strong people but sensitive as well. Knowing when and how to keep a distance when the family needs the space to mourn is a sense that developed over time. But no matter the distance, we all feel the ripples. We spend day and night listening to the recitation of the names, the stories of the surviving families, and the hopes and aspirations erased by the cruelty of war. Our country has stood for only 75 years. We paid for each of those years dearly.

Despite the contentious past few months this year, calls have come from all sectors to leave politics alone for the day. But the ripples also reflect love. Various communities sent candies and gifts to the Dee’s community. At Har Hertzl and other military cemeteries, youth groups and the army send young soldiers to pray by abandoned graves. Waves of people flow into the ceremonies embracing the families. Soldiers hand out flowers and water bottles, and every community stands together while the siren blows for a moment of silence and during the period afterward. It’s impossible to express the solidarity and love which flows from all directions on Yom HaZikaron.

The ripples of love match the waves of sorrow created by the tragic blows. While these later events can not erase the pain and feeling of loss, a nation becomes unified indescribably as a community embraces one another. From the outside in, the love blankets the mourners, even if it means giving them space.

These concentric circles of pain and love remind me of how the rabbis of old described our holy land. In the Mishna, the main text of the Oral Torah, the rabbis describe a series of circles of holiness that begins with the land of Israel and gets smaller and smaller until reaching the Holy of Holies where God’s presence, the Shekhina, as it were, dwells. How apropos the metaphor. According to the rabbis, when one or someone suffers, the Shekhina itself calls out in pain. (M Sanhedrin 6:5) The Shekhina, God’s everlasting embrace, joins in the suffering of all those families and friends crying. The manifestation of God’s presence, as it were, goes through a process of Holy suffering with the people. This Divine empathy with human suffering is a message of love flowing out from the Holy Indwelling. If we listen, we can hear the voice sending a message of love to all those mourning.

One of the traditional sayings to comfort mourners consists of the phrase, “May the [Holy] Place (a name of God) comfort you among those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” It’s as if the Divine self comforts all those who lost loved ones building this country. We join with the Heavens and comfort the individuals, the families, and the nation.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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