Because it is one more way for people to gossip and to engage in verbal warfare under the cover of a laptop, I resisted joining Facebook for a long time. I had enough noise and prattling going on in my life, and I did not need to add social network media to that mess. When friends, family and colleagues would post information about simchas and sadness, I would hover around the edges of my wife’s Facebook account. I was thankful that she would forward important news to me, though I still shunned participation. I derided “on-line community” as a distortion of the dying concept of community.
When a close friend died suddenly last year, I began to change my mind about this new version of communal solidarity. Steven was a prominent anthropologist, a thoughtful intellectual, and a good friend. His world-wide connections and influence became so painfully and blessedly apparent to me through hundreds, of postings on his Facebook page. Friends, colleagues and family from every stage and place of his life came together to grieve with his family and to pay respects to him in words and pictures. I do not believe I trivialize the mitzvah of nichum avelim (comforting mourners) when I say that all of these tributes became a huge on-line shivah visit; a genuine outpouring of concern and solidarity from people who loved Steven, hurt for his family and would never make it to New York for his funeral and shivah.
Not surprisingly, Facebook was glutted with postings about the terror attack in Boston and its aftermath. For the most part, writers attempted to confront our fear and anguish, and to rebuild a sense of meaning and hope using words, our most distinctive social networking tool. Where words have failed miserably, the on-line photo of Martin Richard will not stop speaking, and we cannot stop looking and listening. Martin, the eight year old boy murdered in the bombing along with two other people, smiles at us with his look of childlike innocence and hope that effectively utters the howling protest of Psalm 94:3: How long shall the wicked, Adonai, //How long shall the wicked rejoice?
However, we always return to words, regardless of how inadequate they feel. Martin’s father is grieving his child’s violent death while caring for his wife and one of their children who were badly injured in the attack. Last week, he issued a statement thanking everyone throughout the world who has helped them or expressed concern. I came across his letter through a link from a Facebook friend, and I was stunned that in the midst of so much suffering he could connect with the world in any sane fashion. I was annoyed at first that below his posting, dozens of people who do not know this family had written to offer condolences and words of prayer. I understand the value of well-wishers writing to a grieving family to remember a friend or a colleague, but this outpouring struck me as cheap compassion: who were they, or I or anyone else to offer words of comfort to a family we do not know and whom we will probably never meet? Then I thought again about what was being created. Every few seconds, a seemingly endless wave of words kept coming in, in the form of new postings. As it was for my friend who died, the world was paying a shivah visit to Martin’s family in the only way we knew how. I added words of condolence as well.
My experience reminded me how significantly words and speech factor into the sacred work of helping those who suffer a loss. Halakhah (Jewish law) is quite strict about the things we may not say to them because they can do so much damage. A person who visits a shivah house is not supposed to speak until the mourner speaks first, and the Talmud warns us not to speak insulting platitudes about God’s justice to a person who loses a child. Nonetheless, words remain an integral part of the comforting and healing process for Jews. The last thing we say to a mourner in a shivah house is “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This is not a theological statement as much as what my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, calls a religious response to suffering. We place the mourner’s loss in the context of an entire community’s pain, even as we invoke God’s loving presence as one of the shivah visitors. We remind the mourners that they are not alone, even though they sit isolated in the loneliness of their grief. We also give ourselves a structured way of transcending the paralysis of speech and sense we may be feeling when we confront death and tragedy.
May God comfort the Richard family, and may Martin’s memory be a blessing.