When the Ordinary Becomes Tragic, and the Tragic Becomes Ordinary

A d’var Torah on parashat Terumah, in response to this week’s shooting in Parkland, FL. For the Jewish texts, I relied heavily on Dena Weiss’s “From Table to Grave.” Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which means “gift,” and it refers to the gifts that God requests from the Israelites for the purpose of building the mishkan. The mishkan is a dwelling place for God, also called a mikdash, or holy place. The Torah tells us:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved….and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:1-9).

The instructions that follow deal with the interior furnishings—the ark, the table, and the menorah—as well as the external structure—the coverings, frames, and textiles, the altar and the enclosure.

The juxtaposition of the instructions for the aron, the Ark of the Covenant, and the shulchan, the table for the bread of display, caught the attention of 14th century Spanish Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, and reminded him of a peculiar custom of his French neighbors:

“It is the practice of the pious in France that they make their casket ([also called an] aron) for burial out of their table. [They do this] to show that a person will not take anything in his hand and nothing of his labor will accompany him, except for the tzedaka that he did in his life and the goodness he bestowed at his table. Therefore the Rabbis said, ‘One who sits at his table has his days and years lengthened’ (Berakhot 54b).”

At first glance, this custom reminded me of a story I told last month at Tisch Shabbat, in which a miserly man finds himself poor and hungry in olam habah, the afterlife, because he didn’t send anything ahead for himself (except for a piece of cake that had fallen on the ground). Whether we believe in such a model for the afterlife or not, stories like this remind us to share what we have while we are here, because we can’t take anything with us when we go.

This custom is, in a way, one step beyond the humility normally required in a Jewish burial. While our custom is to bury our loved ones in a plain pine box, here the aron must not only be plain, but recycled.

While for Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, the connection between ark and table signifies what awaits us after our death, forDena Weiss of Mechon Hadar, this custom might impact how we live our lives. An aron is a place of storage, whether we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant, our household closets, or our final resting place. As such, an aron has a sense of permanence and stasis, rather than of change and movement. A table, on the other hand, is “the domain of the temporary,” and as such, items—and people—are in constant motion, coming to the table, and being cleared away. Weiss writes:

“If your table becomes your coffin when you die, every time you see your table, eat at your table, set something upon it, or remove something from it, you are reminded that you are still alive. So long as your table is still a table, it is not a coffin, and you still have the option to do what you want and need to do with the days that remain. Yes, life is short, but it is not over.”

I had this realization myself about a year ago, when I asked the funeral director for a ride to a graveside burial during a snowstorm. He ended up putting me in the hearse. Someone later asked me what it was like, and I said, “Well, if you’re in the front seat, I guess there’s nothing to complain about.”

Sometimes it takes riding in a hearse, having a near miss, or realizing that your table will be your coffin, to shake us out of the fog of routine that keeps us from seeing clearly.

Weiss tells us that, if we let habit control our lives, our table can easily become a coffin in our lifetime. However, she adds, the reverse is also true: “You can look at your life’s course, look at your habits, and decide to revive what feels dead, hopeless, and irrelevant.”

When I initially read this interpretation of the Torah portion, I planned to give a lovely, upbeat little drash on how we can transform our coffin-like ways to a more table-like existence of movement, possibility, and generosity. And I hope that you do take that message away with you. I hope you take time this Shabbat to think about how you can make sure you are living your life fully present at the table, and not with one foot already in your coffin.

But this week, in the wake of the 18th school shooting in 2018, I can’t help thinking about how easily one’s table can become one’s coffin. On Wednesday morning, thousands of high schoolers in Parkland, FL woke up, probably reluctantly, checked their social media, showered, got dressed, did their hair and makeup, grabbed something for breakfast as they rushed out the door. It was Valentines’ Day: maybe they were engrossed in some romantic drama, their own or their friends’. It was Ash Wednesday: Maybe some of them stopped at Church on their way to school, felt the priest’s thumb on their forehead as they said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How many of them fought with their parents over hugging or kissing goodbye, since, as far as they knew, it was just going to be an ordinary day?

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What ordinary coursework were they studying—or not studying—when the fire alarm went off? How many of them were staring at the clock, willing it to be the end of the school day, as they always did, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the campus, armed with an AR-15, and began shooting?

Nearly 3,000 students went to school that morning, thinking it was an ordinary day. As of this writing, 17 of them will only come home in a coffin. Many others have been injured, and for everyone at that school, their family, their friends, and their neighbors—life as they know it has been changed forever.

All of these children are our children, but particularly close to our hearts in the Reform Jewish community was Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen-year-old freshman who spent her summers at URJ Camp Coleman. Her cousins go to synagogue with my cousins, at the Reform Temple of Rockland, just over an hour from here. She is part of our family.

Her mother, Lori Alhadeff, wrote on social media:

16victims-alyssa-master180“My Daughter Alyssa was killed today by a horrific act of violence. I just sent her to school and she was shot and killed. Alyssa was a talented soccer player, so smart, an amazing personality, incredible creative writer, and all she had to offer the world was love. She believed in people for being so honest. A knife is stabbed in my heart. I wish I could [have] taken those bullets for you. I will always love you and your memory will live on forever. Please kiss your children, tell them you love them, stand by them no matter what they want to be. To Alyssa’s Friends honor Alyssa by doing something fabulous in your life. Don’t ever give up and inspire for greatness. Live for Alyssa! Be her voice and breathe for her. Alyssa loved you all forever!”

Alyssa’s death, and the death of her classmates, is a painful reminder of how quickly our table—our ordinary routine—can become our coffin. But it is also a disturbing reminder that our coffin has become our table.

This is the 18th school shooting in the first six weeks of 2018. That means that, on average, children are being shot in our schools three times a week. We have allowed the tragic to become the ordinary.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As long as we are still alive, we owe it to those who have died to use our voices and our votes and our resources to bring about meaningful change.

This might take many forms. We can advocate for safer schools, not just with the presence of metal detectors and law enforcement, but with funding for social workers and psychologists who can address mental health issues, at school and at home, before they lead to tragedies like this one.

We can advocate for better mental health care in our communities, something that is always on the chopping block in state and national conversations about health care.

And we can and should demand sensible gun laws, particularly regarding background checks and the sale of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. Many recent shootings have been carried out with AR-15s, what some call a consumer version of a military-grade weapon. It is lightweight, affordable, and capable of penetrating a human body and the wall behind it. It can quickly fire off multiple rounds, particularly when modified with a bump stock, which is also legal, despite attempts to ban them following the Las Vegas shooting in 2017.

An AR-15 is not a handgun. An AR-15 is not a hunting rifle. An AR-15 is designed to kill people, quickly and efficiently, and it can legally be purchased many places in the United States. AR-15s, as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” were part of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Now they part of the epidemic that is killing our children, nearly three times a week on average. We have allowed them to become ordinary.

But as long as we are alive, we can still, as Dena Weiss suggests, “look at the priorities that [we] have stored away in [our] closet and restore them to [our] table.” After Shabbat, I encourage you to visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Everytown for Gun Safety to learn more about what you can do to remove the stain of gun violence from our table.

I offer, in closing, the words of Rabbi David Wirtschafter:

“It is the word gift, t’rumah, … that this Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, takes its name. The slaughter of more young people, the squandering of yet more gifts, constitutes a level of grief that we cannot accept. The spilling of innocent blood can never become acceptable. It can not be tolerated, rationalized, trivialized, marginalized, or stoically endured. No one should have to endure it. So, may every person, whose heart so moves us, consider the cost of our current state of affairs.

May we be moved to ask if this is how God intended us to use the gift of life.

May we be moved to go beyond thoughts and prayers.

May we be moved to act on behalf of our children, our students, our neighbors, and our communities to demand a more responsible use of our most precious resource.

Children are among God’s greatest gifts to us.

Our ability to cherish, protect, nurture, love, and value them, is among the greatest gifts we have to offer in return.

To receive a gift is to accept the promise that comes with it.

To give a gift is to express the expectation that it will be received with gratitude and utilized responsibly.

For the sake of our children, past, present, and future let us become better guardians of our gifts. May this be our blessing, and let us say:

Amen.”

 

 

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