Astray By Deanna Neil | Camp Ramah Northern California

Astray By Deanna Neil

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.


Two goats

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

ears perked

They listen for the approaching footsteps

The violence to come

One cuts, drips back to the divine

an offering

the other


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

an escape

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