How to we find meaning after shocking deaths?
It’s been a heavy week. Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day, and the past seven days have been filled with heart wrenching violence, both at a school in North Carolina and a synagogue in San Diego, only a few hours from where I live in Los Angeles.
It seems fitting that this week’s Torah portion is equally weighty, and is also at the crux of what many read on Yom Kippur. The name of this week’s Torah portion is Achrei Mot – “after death.” In last week’s section, two of Aaron’s sons, the next in line to be high priests, shockingly died because they approached a holy space inappropriately. In the aftermath, God speaks to Moses and gives him the ritual details to convey to his brother Aaron, the high priest, for how to correctly come into connection with the divine and atone. This includes the infamous passage that outlines the ritual of the scapegoat – The two goats that are brought and lots are drawn to determine which is sacrificed for God and which receives all the burdens of the community and is sent off to die in the wilderness. Certainly a complicated grief, guilt and connection ritual that has filled the pages of many a Yom Kippur sermon.
Since ritual slaughter is no longer on the table for our coping rituals (I hope), I turn to a more modern resource to help make sense after profound loss and suffering. In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust surviver and psychologist Viktor Frankl writes: “We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
For me, I often engage with #1 and process through music and words, and art. So I’ve shared with you a poem here that tackles some of these topics in a way that feels true to me, and is inspired by this week’s complicated parsha.
In a few months we will be gathering at camp for a time of joy, connection and exploration. I know I generate meaning through creative work, and this summer I will be so honored to do the same with your kids, weaving Jewish text and thought into plays and music. It is my hope that coming together in celebration of Jewish life, in the face of these haunting realities, is also a true work, an act that gives meaning and defiance. And we will certainly engage with #2 as well—we will experience new things by the ocean, on our adventures, and creating plays and music together. We will encounter each other and be deeply in community. Camp is a meaning making machine, and I can’t wait to plug into that energy.
And in the meantime, I encourage everyone to engage with Frankl’s suggestions—to make or do something and to be with people. And when that doesn’t work, to explore #3—to sit through the unavoidable suffering. We try to refocus and make meaning of the sacrifices – a woman sitting shiva who protected a rabbi with her life, and a young man tackling a gunman and saving others. And we work toward forgiveness, the true heart of Yom Kippur, which requires exercise throughout the year.
not the one bought for two zuzim
but they were sacrificed just the same
They are in the field now
chewing on grass
thinking they have perfect bodies
They listen for the approaching footsteps
The violence to come
One cuts, drips back to the divine
will hold the weight of wrongs done by others
they’ll put their hands on him
don’t lay a hand on me
hush. not to injure
just to transmit
to give away
A father who lost his sons,
His sons who sinned
his guilt is in his silence
as he goes through the motions
of putting on his linen robes
His children – gone
sacrificed just the same
and now he will atone. For himself.
For being a bad parent. For melting the gold down.
his whole family will also try
to get rid of their guilt
And then the whole community
Because it really takes a whole community to raise children
to know when they have guns
to know how to shape their minds
It’s everyone’s fault
They violate sacred spaces
And so we all put our hands on a goat
just one left, now
His wirey hair is under your palm
his warm chest moves up and down with rapid inhales
You are surrounded by the sweat of others
the stench of their failures
the closeness of their flaws
press up against your back
maybe even touch your fingertips
And you cry
For the goat
For the boys
For the guns
For the bodies
And then in one exhale,
a demon baby being pushed out
He is gone
led by a man with a Rolex watch
Off scampering in the wilderness
Lost in the craggy rocks
trying to understand where he went astray
And we leave bloody footprints
in the dust
Whispering to each other
on the way back to our houses