Making loss matter

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is coping with the sudden death of her husband by schooling readers in resilience.  Her important new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, makes a compelling point:  “Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive, and permanent, but resilience can be.”

This wisdom feels germane in the wake of an particularly ugly hate-crime last Friday on a Portland, Oregon train.  Three men intervened to defend two women being assaulted with venomous slurs and threats for practicing their Muslim faith.  The attacker stabbed two of the men to death and and wounded the other.  Although these three men could not have come from more different backgrounds – one a recent college graduate, another a 53-year-old Army Veteran, and the third a poet who studies at Portland State University – they shared an insistence that malignant hatred must be repelled.  They represent what is best in our Country’s moral fiber, the opposite of what became known as the Kitty Genovese bystander effect back in 1964 when 38 witnesses did nothing to prevent her from being stabbed to death on a New York City street.  Yet two of these defenders of decency lost their lives.  How do we begin to recover with lessons learned from their wrongful deaths?

A subtle lesson is found in the way time is treated as we deepen our learning of the Torah’s fourth book.  Time actually moves backward.  As the blessing offered by the Priests and the leaders dedicatory gifts assemble in this week’s portion of Torah (Num. 6:22-2; 7), we become aware that this ceremony is taking place a month earlier than the book of Numbers began.  What is the meaning of events opening with a census in the second month of the second year (Num. 1:1), only to return to the first month of that year (Num. 9:1)?  A careful review of earlier contents of Leviticus, the Torah’s prior book, indicates where we left off in the first month. Immediately prior to the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons who were punished for deviating from their Priestly responsibilities, the subjects had been blessings from the Priests and the dedication ceremony (Lev. 9:22-23). What follows their death is a book-long detour (one month in duration) of precepts and laws until the Torah eventually resumes with Priestly blessings and dedicatory gifts this week. Poignantly. in deference to the untimely death of two of Aaron’s sons, the Torah interrupts the flow of the dedication ceremony to assert values, laws, and principles. 

In the wake of tragedy, when time is out of joint, systems cradle us and carry us forward through emotionally painful times.  This is the function of the Mourners’ Kaddish.  There is also something telling about the need to rewind before we can reboot.  Often, recovery begins only after reversal. 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” as President Lincoln urged more than a century- and-a-half ago “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”  If we can pause to reclaim our values, laws, and principles, we may yet prove that resilience is personal, pervasive, and permanent.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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