Crying and Moving Forward
At 10:30 pm on Saturday, 9 March 2002, in the Rehavia neighbourhood of Jerusalem, just one hundred yards from the prime minister’s residence, a suicide bomber walked into the crowded Moment Café and detonated a powerful explosive charge killing 11 people and injuring 54. The explosion completely gutted the popular restaurant. In the days following the attack, the remains of the café became a memorial to those who had perished. One of the signs contained the expression in Hebrew, “Bochim, bochim, umamshichim ha’lah,” meaning, “We are crying, we are crying, and we continue moving forward.” Such words offer some vision of hope amidst horrific tragedy, some proverbial light at the end of a tunnel to strive for, to reach for, when it might be preferable to drown oneself in all-encompassing grief.
Crying as an outpouring of emotion in response to tragic circumstances is both acceptable and necessary. News of last Friday’s massacre, in which twenty primary school-aged students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, U.S.A. were brutally killed, has left many of us shell-shocked and dumbfounded. In the wake of such an event, tears come easily. Continuing to move forward is much, much harder.
We wonder how we can reconcile the loving presence of a living God with such horrific tragedy. Kohelet wrote that “Everything has its season, and there is a time for every experience under the heavens.” If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a 20-year-old man to walk into an elementary school and kill children? If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a principal to sacrifice herself in the hope of defending her school? If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a teacher to barricade fifteen students in a classroom closet, have the foresight to take out art supplies so that they might occupy themselves by coloring pictures, and be told by one of her children that he was taking karate lessons and was willing to protect his teacher and classmates? So many questions, so few answers. So easy to cry, so difficult to find any semblance of meaning in the face of such terrible circumstances, and so painfully challenging “to continue moving forward.”
In a time such as this one, where there are few or no words for events such as the Sandy Hook massacre, perhaps there are, at the very least, positive actions, constructive ways in which to continue moving forward. The opening of our Torah portion this week offers us a glimmer of light amidst darkness as we read of the dramatic reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Previously, Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Subsequent to that episode, Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, advising the Pharaoh on a serious famine that spread throughout the region. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, but do not know that they are speaking with Joseph. It is only in the opening of this week’s parashah that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. What is remarkable about our portion is the lead-up to Joseph’s revelation. The parashah opens with the words Vayigash ei-lav, which our Etz Hayim commentary translates as “Then Judah went up to him” (Genesis 44:18). But more than a simple approach or “going up,” the Midrash explains, “He drew close to him emotionally as well as physically” (Genesis Rabbah 93:4, Etz Hayim p. 274). What the Midrash wishes to explore here is the depth of our level of connection, the closeness that we share with each other, the presence, support and comfort that we offer to one another.
We respond to the tragic events in Connecticut with the fullness and depths of our emotions, by grieving, honoring those who lost their lives, and at the same time by savoring the preciousness of and recognizing the very fragility of our own lives. We respond by telling our children how much we love them, how much we care about them, by telling them how much we appreciate their uniqueness, their smiles, by giving them cuddles and hugs and reassuring them, even though we as parents know that much as we would like, we can neither protect nor shelter them from every circumstance or situation they will face in life. We respond by reaching out, by offering our support (google “supporting victims of the Newtown shooting” for more information), by continuing to speak about such an event, so that positive action emerges from tragedy.
Ultimately, Joseph and his brothers moved from darkness toward light too. When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, Torah tells us, “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear,” (Genesis 45:2). It is only when Joseph recognizes the depth and fullness of his emotions and owns them that he is able to go forward in relation with his brothers. It is only when we do similarly, drawing close to each other physically and emotionally, that we find the strength to continue on in our journey through life. Bochim, bochim, umamshichim ha’lah.