Dear TEE community,
During the course of my first year of rabbinical school, four of my cousins were murdered in two separate incidents. One of them was 13 and had just celebrated his bar mitzvah. Like others in such situations, I searched for answers as to how such things could happen. One of my teachers, Rabbi Albert Friedlander, of blessed memory, who was himself a Holocaust survivor, suggested I read a book by a Christian theologian, Dorothee Soelle. It was called, simply, Suffering.
In the book, Soelle argues that there is no inherent meaning in suffering. Rather than excusing God or asserting a purpose for apparently needless human pain, we can only make the choice to create meaning out of the experience. For many survivors of trauma, that meaning comes from working to prevent further suffering. I have seen this frequently in the engagement of all kinds of survivors, from those who lived through the Holocaust speaking out for human rights, to veterans working for peace, to formerly battered women creating shelters.
I found great comfort in Soelle’s writing and find myself turning to her insights at times like these when the world seems to be particularly full of incomprehensible suffering. I can’t imagine I will ever come to believe there was a purpose to the murders in Buffalo, Ulvalde, or the 212 other mass shootings in our country so far this year. I do believe that I have the choice to act against gun violence.
As a rabbi, I’ve learned that no one goes through life without apparently meaningless suffering. We lose loved ones unexpectedly or too soon. We face critical health issues or unemployment. We see our children struggle with addiction or mental illness. We live with the aftermath of childhood abuse or family violence. I can’t pretend to know why it has to be this way although I do know it’s bound up in the experience of being human.
At times of great suffering, it is natural to despair. Our Jewish tradition has emerged from experiences of overwhelming trauma and developed some important insights into how we might embrace life again after such events. A number that I have found useful come from a collection of short rabbinic teachings called Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Sages):
“Rabbi Yannai said: We are not capable of explaining the security of the wicked, even more so the afflictions of the righteous (4:15).” The inability to understand certain kinds of suffering or injustice is as ancient as humankind. We are not alone, nor are we more sophisticated than our ancestors in searching for answers to this problem. There can be comfort in knowing those who came before us had the same questions even if, like us, they struggled for the solution.
“Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not try to…comfort [a friend] at the hour while their dead still lies before them…(4:17).” Judaism does not try to hide grief or hurry the process of mourning. We need time to sit with our feelings, whatever they are, rather than suppress or deny them. In this regard, the rabbis seem to have anticipated our contemporary understandings of the grieving process.
“Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community…(2:4).” Someone once explained to me that in pre-modern times, a minyan would have represented a community of ten households as the minimum for a Jewish life. Our tradition teaches that human beings were created to be in relationship with each other and has developed powerful rituals to bring us together at times of distress. Less formally, being a part of community can provide both spiritual and material support and connect us with others who have had similar experiences of loss or illness.
And finally, an injunction in which generations of Jews have found encouragement: “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it…(2:16).” In the face of destruction and despair, Jews throughout the ages have followed the biblical injunction to choose life by seeking a better life and a better world for themselves and their descendants. In a world we know to be deeply flawed, we persist in improving it and, in doing so, choose purpose and meaning in our lives.
As we mourn the violence and suffering around us, may we find comfort in our tradition and our community, while choosing to honor those we have lost by reducing affliction in whatever ways we can.
Rabbi Drorah Setel
For Jewish resources on working against gun violence: https://rac.org/issues/gun-violence-prevention
For general information and to get involved locally: https://www.everytown.org/