I’ve often thought about a brief exchange I witnessed between an FBI Agent and a mourner on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. I had been called to Logan Airport’s Hilton Hotel to offer grief counseling to the family members of those who had lost their lives on the planes that struck the World Trade Center. The Agent knocked on the door of a room where I was sitting with a grieving husband and gently said, “The President is about to address the nation, would you like to come and watch?” This suddenly single-parent of three young children lifted his head and plaintively responded, “Huh? Oh…No, no thank you” sinking his face back into his palms. His loss was agonizingly personal. Geopolitics and history held no sway for him.
This story came back to me yesterday. It had already been a difficult day. Observed as a minor Fast Day (10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet) when Mourners’ Kaddish is collectively prayed throughout Israel to honor the unknown Yahrzeits of the Six Million. By midday in Jerusalem – just a couple of blocks ahead from where we were driving – we found ourselves letting ambulances pass through as it was clear that a terrorist attack had just occurred.
Four young people in their early 20s with bright futures yesterday were buried today. Yael Yekutiel age 20. Shir Hajaj age 22. Shira Tzur age 20. Erez Orbach age 20. More than a dozen remain hospitalized, a couple fighting for their lives.
Most people pause. They shake their heads. Then they finish their coffee and move on with their day. But Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose forty-fourth Yahrzeit is observed this coming Shabbat, taught that indifference to evil can be worse than evil itself.
We do pay attention to those who do much worse than objectify. We recoil in disgust over those who celebrate murder by passing around candy – going door to door in Gaza at the behest of Hamas. Likewise to the first responder to Israeli Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld’s tweet who justified the attack as legitimate resistance. By contrast, we are more reassured by the condemnations from our State Department, the UN Security Council, and from Turkey.
Yet there is also something deep within us that beckons. We know it is personal as Sarah Tuttle-Singer vividly conveyed in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s attack. We want to learn about the lives of those who were taken from family and friends so ruthlessly. The urge toward empathy stirs us to make this sadness feel less vicarious and more immediate.
Beyond the deeply humane allure of empathy and compassion, something in this week’s portion of Torah calls us to assume greater agency in history. Jacob tells his sons “Gather close and I will tell you what will happen (asher yikra) in the future” (Gen. 49:1). Curiously, the Hebrew word yikra is not written the way we would expect – with the final letter ‘hey’ indicating ‘what will happen to you’. It appears instead with the letter ‘aleph’ which can mean ‘what you will be called to make happen’.
As Jacob’s descendants, what we are called upon to make happen can be telling. What we actually do about what we feel called to do is defining. May we get to know better those who deserved to share much more life with us, and may our empathy be transformed to agency as we strive to make their loss matter.