I’m on a flight to San Diego.
A central theme of my rabbinate has always been presence. In times of tragedy, it’s important to go – just be there. As a general rule, I have found that once going, matters fall into place.
I write these words as I fly with my daughter, Dena, to spend Shabbat in San Diego with the Poway Chabad as an expression of solidarity, just a few days after the synagogue was attacked, leaving one dead and three injured. I am grateful and proud that Dena is with me. As I advance in age, my wife Toby no longer wants me to fly in such circumstances alone. I wondered what the next days would bring. Dena has made some Shabbat arrangements, but we’re not sure we’ll be able to make shiva or hospital visits to visit the bereaved or injured. Certainly, we are unsure we will be able to meet the rabbi, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who had his fingers blown off in the attack, and has comported himself with great Kiddush Hashem.
Two hours into the flight, Dena turned to me and said, “Abba, I think Rabbi Goldstein is on the flight. I see a man with a beard and his fingers are bandaged. I think I recognize him.” I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Walking down the aisle, I saw him. His flight from Washington, DC yesterday where he spoke at a White House prayer service had been cancelled. He flew to New York, visited the Rebbe’s grave, stayed overnight, and by coincidence was on our flight.
As it turned out, we had had contact before, and so we hugged, and hugged and hugged. I felt I couldn’t let him go. The rabbi has become the symbol of a Jew attacked because he or she is a Jew, and the resilience of our community to make it, to survive. We stood and spoke for at least a half hour. The conversation focused on nifla’ot Hashem, God’s miracles. All things being equal, the rabbi said, I shouldn’t be alive.
With all of his heroism, he spoke of others, like the Rebbe, whose presence he insisted he deeply felt as the horror unfolded. Lori, the lone fatality, was also on his mind. It’s not true, he said, that she took a shot for me. What I did say, he went on, is Lori was shot four times, which means she conceivably saved the lives of 3 people who could have been targets of the bullets which continuously hit her.
No one knows how they would react in such circumstances. Rare has it been that someone has spoken with the eloquence and holiness of Rabbi Goldstein. His message of bringing light to darkness has resonated, gone viral.
We’re well into the flight. Only time will tell what else awaits us this Shabbat. As for me, it will be enough to pray with my Chabad brethren, letting them know from all of us, we are with you in your distress, our people are strong, the sweetness, the goodness the holiness of Shabbat will prevail – for Am Yisrael, for all of humankind.