Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Becoming a Community of Comforters: Newtown’s Charge to America

“There is no revenge for the blood of a little child – such a revenge has yet to be devised by Satan,” wrote Hayyim Nahman Bialik about a very different massacre over a century ago. In lieu of vengeance, Bialik calls for a cosmic response: “Let the blood pierce through the abyss!”
As the children and teachers of Newtown are being taken to their final rest this week, one can feel the blood piercing through that abyss – the abyss of human cruelty, the abyss of our inability to fully protect our children, the abyss of society’s obligation to its weakest links.
Many of the darkest challenges of American society have been exposed through this massacre, but one often overlooked challenge is American culture’s relationship with death and offering comfort. Newtown might present a moment of change for this culture.
You are not alone in your grief Newtown. Our world, too, has been torn apart. All across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. (full text here)
The “Comforter in Chief” has enlisted us in the work of consolation. As we as a nation struggle to answer this call, we would be wise to take some cures from Jewish sources, renowned for their unique approach to mourning and loss, and the emphasis given to its importance. Indeed the Talmud describes the work of comforting as the most sacred of acts:
Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina taught:
What is meant by the passage, "You shall walk after the Lord, your God" (Deut. 13:5)?
Is it possible for a human being to 'walk after' the Divine Presence, about which it is written: "The Lord, your God, is a consuming fire" (Deut.4:24)?
Rather what it means is: Follow the actions of the Holy Blessed One. Just as God comforted the grieving…
so you too – comfort the grieving.
Talmud Bavli Sotah 14b
ואמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מאי דכתיב "אחרי ה' אלהיכם תלכו"? וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה? והלא כבר נאמר "כי ה' אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא ?! אלא הלך אחר מדותיו של הקב"ה -
מה הוא מלביש ערומים... אף אתה הלבש ערומים.
הקב"ה ביקר חולים... אף אתה בקר חולים
הקב"ה ניחם אבלים, דכתיב  "ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו [וישב יצחק עם באר לחי ראי] - אף אתה נחם אבלים.
בבלי סוטה יד:
If there is an action that feels like walking after consuming fire, it is the act of entering the home of a bereaved family with the charge of offering consolation. Indeed, the art of comforting has become a lost art: many refrain from other people’s suffering, as if their loss is contagious. Perhaps standing by their abyss threatens to rip open an abyss of our own. I’d suggest this hesitancy stems in an expectation of  ourselves to “fix their problem” or “heal their wounds” – an impossibly high bar. America’s culture of the “denial of death” and addiction to heroism (as Ernest Becker described it) makes us want to “solve” their crisis, instead of simply help them soak up the pain. True comforting, on the other hand, is a much more modest act, eminently human and yet touching upon the divine.
Psychologists Haim Omer and Nahi Alon suggest that the very framework of comforting is to be distinguished from a framework of “control” and “healing”. Healing assumes the ability to become whole again, to regain control. Comfort, on the other hand, is not found in regaining wholeness, but in accepting a “tragic reframe” – that the world is not perfect and wholeness is not achievable. Where there is life, there is distress and lack of full control. In lieu of complete healing, comforting works towards acceptance and the creation of communities of compassion and relief.
This reframe, which might sound “un-American” in its anti-heroism, is fitting for our times and specifically to the tenure of President Obama. In the recent campaign, Obama positioned himself as the “imperfect President”, promising to “push forward in a tough world” rather than offering a vision of victory and control. This might seem too dark for some. I personally find it to be courageously modest, humanely optimistic, and a useful frame for working in a complex world.
The “tragic reframe” of comforting comes to the fore in a Talmudic story about Resh Lakish and his assistant, who seek to console a friend who lost an infant son. As the assistant fumbles for words, Resh Lakish instructs him to say five blessings: start with the deceased, continue with the God who revives all life and add a blessing for the mourners. It doesn’t stop there: Resh Lakish continues with a blessing for those who have come to comfort the mourners  - highlighting the importance of this role. Finally he offers a blessing for the entire community. This week these ancient words feel eerily appropriate:
Concerning the mourners, he said: Our brethren, who are worn out, who are crushed by this bereavement, set your heart to consider this: This it is that stands for ever, it is a path from the six days of creation. Many have drunk, many will drink. As the first ones have drunk, so will the last ones drink. Our brothers, may the Lord of consolation comfort you.
Blessed be He who comforts the mourners.  ברוך אתה מנחם אבלים.
Concerning those who comfort the mourners he said: Our brethren, bestowers of lovingkindnesses, children of bestowers of lovingkindnesses, who hold fast to the covenant of Abraham our father. Our brothers, may the Lord of recompense pay you your reward. Blessed are You who pays recompense. ברוך אתה משלם הגמול
Concerning the entire community he said: Master of the worlds! Redeem, save, deliver and help Your people Israel – from illness and from the sword, from preying and from drought, and from the mildew, and from all kinds of calamities that  break forth and come into the world. Before we call, You answer us.
Blessed are You who stops the plague. ברוך אתה עוצר המגפה
The order of these blessings suggest the concentric circles of mourning. To the mourners, crushed by their bereavement, comfort is offered through presence, shouldering their burden, and reminding of the “tragic reframe” of mortality that faces us all (“many have drunk, many will drink”). Around those mourners we create a community of comforters, a community of lovingkindedness.
Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver II
Having said something about our responsibility to comfort the mourners, we must expand our view to the entire community, and to the plague of violence which haunts our society. The tragic reframe does not imply passivity, the opposite is true: we must fight the plague with all the powers at our disposal. Whether the solution is more “sword” control, or better services for the ill, we must do everything we can to stop this plague, and we cannot quit until we create a community where lovingkindedness, and not violence, are the rule of the land.
Alongside this subdued comfort, we still hold on to our messianic dreams. When raising a mourner from Shiva, the following verse is said. Messianic in its focus, this verse speaks to the day when the “tragic reframe” can be relinquished, and all plagues will be brought to an end. The time is not nigh, but we continue to work towards it nonetheless, every day:
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי ה' דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל פָּנִים
“Death will be vanquished forever, and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces”
(Isaiah 25:8)
May God wipe away tears from all faces, soon. In the meantime, it is up to us.
In memory of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison.