Latest update: December 2nd, 2012
The following is a revised version of the speech Rabbi Rackovsky gave in his shul on November 10, Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah
Usually, when I begin a speech, I start with something interesting, lighthearted or funny – to get your attention and lead into the speech itself. Permit me to deviate from that this week, because there is nothing funny, lighthearted or interesting about what so many of us are experiencing, and if not us, than our friends, loved ones and neighbors, and if not them, than people a few miles away from us in Long Beach or Far Rockaway who have lost everything to 14 foot waves, or a little farther away where helpless Senior Citizens are living without water or power in high rises on the Lower East Side. The scope of the utter devastation, the loss of so much – property, money and memories – is too much to comprehend. So what is there to say when perhaps it is more appropriate to say nothing? I’ve been struggling with this for the past few days, so permit me to share some of what I’ve been thinking of that may give us a framework. I hope my words will be accepted, and apologize in advance if they are somehow simplistic, insensitive or inappropriate.
This morning, we read the incident of the Shunamite woman’s encounter with the remarkable prophet Elisha. On his way back from saving the family of the wife of one of the prophets, who was in danger of having her children taken into slavery by creditors, Elisha stopped in Shunam at the home of a self effacing woman who was so desirous of such an illustrious guest that she built an addition onto her home so he could rest there on a regular basis, and that is what he did.
On this particular trip, Elisha asked his assistant, Geichazi, to find out what this woman wanted. Geichazi perceived that she had no children so Elisha promised her that within a year, she would be hugging a child of her own. That is what happened. Then the Navi tells us that some time later, that child began to feel sick, and in his mother’s lap, he passed away. She lay him down and then sent for a young man and a donkey so that she could go to Elisha.
Her husband was surprised – after all, it was not a time that one would normally go to visit a prophet, but she said, “Good bye, I’m going.” The Haftorah ends with the child being resurrected by Elisha, but that is only in one tradition. If you look in your Chumash, there is another custom, that of Sephardim, Yekkies (German communities) and Chabad Chassidim. In their mesorah, they end the Haftorah reading when the Shunamite woman leaves to see Elisha.
I can understand the former custom, the one we adhere to here and in many other congregations. It brings the narrative to a satisfying resolution; a woman faced with the tragic loss of her only child is given that child back. But what is the meaning of the second custom? Why end there, right in the middle of the story?
My friend and colleague Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Pittsburgh suggested that that is precisely the point of the pause. When we read biblical narratives, we know how they end. We know that Yitzchak, in the end is saved from the Akeidah, we know that Korach and his followers were all swallowed up by the earth, and we know that the Jewish people are saved from Haman. But we only know that because we have the benefit of hindsight, where we are privy to the entire narrative. But to really understand what the protagonists are feeling, we need to put ourselves in their place, and understand that to them, the narrative was far from over. The Shunamite woman was grasping at straws, and she had no idea how the story would end, whether Elisha would be able to help her at all during her darkest moments, but she turned to something and someone greater than her for help. It is in this unfinished ending, and where it leaves off, that we can learn some powerful lessons.
Right now, we are in an extraordinarily dark time for our community, and we have no idea how the narrative will end. There is little we can search for that will reassure us that things will somehow be okay. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. In the aftermath of the Hurricane, our community institutions – shuls and yeshivos alike – have become hubs of tefillah and chesed. Though it is difficult to daven at a time like this, when confronting a wrathful God, there is no doubt that even if a House of God can’t provide answers, it can provide comfort, and that’s why people come. Perhaps this is why the Shunamite woman reached out to Elisha – as a man of God, his presence could be a comfort even if he could do nothing about her situation. Our challenge is to continue seeking, and continue to be a place where people who are seeking an encounter with the Divine – whether because they are angry at Him, want to thank Him, don’t understand Him or are seeking closeness – will be able to feel spiritually fulfilled.
Another lesson we can learn from the Shunamite woman is that of perspective. When Elisha asks what he could do for her, the Shunamite woman refused to focus on what was glaringly missing from her life. She instead was thankful for the simple life she led and the gift of community and support she received. Throughout the past weeks, many people expressed similar sentiments. In the midst of depressing and crippling power outages, many wrote or told me that they were enjoying the family togetherness this experience afforded. One person even focused on the character building aspect of the whole experience, writing how interesting it was to see his children redefine the “necessities” of life.
Of course, it is not our place to pass judgments for and on others and tell them that their suffering is noble and builds character. Chazal tell us that Iyov’s friends were especially faulted for making these kinds of calculations on behalf of their friend who was suffering epic tragedies. We can’t tell other people that “it’s just stuff,” because it’s not just stuff; it’s a lifetime of memories. Chazal also tell us that we are not supposed to offer words of comfort at the time that mes motel l’fanav, when a person is not yet buried and the loss of a loved one is still fresh. Baruch Hashem, we have not suffered that kind of loss, but the loss of a home, or even significant damage to one, no doubt engenders feelings of grief and heartache. But it is humbling and heartening to see others who have suffered loss, or even great inconvenience, say the same thing.
Perhaps there is another lesson, though, one that may, indeed, provide some comfort. When we leave a narrative incomplete, we realize that we still have a hand in writing the conclusion. Because as much as our community has suffered, we have also shown – and been shown – unprecedented levels of chessed, in the spirit of Avraham Avinu, whose hospitality and kindness were a by word and, for him, even superseded the value of a conversation with God. Our community has been inundated with e-mails from people who are blessed to have power, heat, electricity and internet service, offering the use of their homes to anyone who wants, and people with fridge and freezer space and a dry home offering that, as well as Shabbos hospitality for sleeping and meals. People from across the tri-state area have been coming to volunteer on the Lower East Side, the Rockaways and Long Beach, and even if the help is not on that scale, it’s amazing how much chessed can be done with a simple electrical outlet! Mi K’Amcha Yisrael! This kind of selfless unity is what a community should be like, and not only at times of tragedy. Events like this remind us how powerless we are in the face of God’s awesome Might, as expressed through natural disasters, and how pointless and insignificant our egos and so many of our personal issues may be in the face of this kind of destruction, when we need to respond affirmatively and positively. The only way to counter wrathful devastation is through constructive love- as Dovid Hamelech wrote ki amarti, olam chesed yibaneh, the world is built through acts of kindness and charity, and it must be rebuilt in the same way. There is still a lot more to be done as people begin sorting through the wreckage and debris. Our friends and family will need help financially, physically and emotionally, and that is when we will put our best face forward.
Time will tell and only God knows how everything will turn out in this sad chapter. And while we cannot reverse or obliterate what has been decreed upon us, we can and must do whatever we can to soften its physical and spiritual blow. May we witness the fulfillment of that poignant prayer we recite every Monday and Thursday:
“אחינו כל בית ישראל הנתונים בצרה ובשביה,העומדים בין בים ובין ביבשה,
Our brethren who are in despair and crisis, who stand whether on land or in the sea. That is the standard translation of this part of the pasuk. But we can interpret it homiletically to describe our situation- we stand between the land and the sea, geographically and emotionally
המקום ירחם עליהם ויוציאם מצרה לרווחה, ומאפילה לאורה השתא בעגלא ובזמן קריב”
May Hakadosh Baruch Hu take them (and us) from despair to joy, from darkness to light, speedily in our time.
About the Author: Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky is the rabbi of the Irving Place Minyan, a new Modern Orthodox Community in Woodmere, New York. He is a graduate of Yeshiva College and YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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