When this past Saturday turned into Sunday, it was the first day of the holiday of Shavuot. We had finished counting 49 days since Passover. It was time to receive Torah. Together with about eighty congregants, I was cozy in the synagogue, studying words of Torah in groups of four, eating coffee ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.
When the sun rose on a new day, I was sleeping for a few hours before holiday services began again at 9:00 a.m. I was a bit groggy as I began chanting the blessings of the morning, but I felt happy and fulfilled in one of my favorite holidays, when we would be celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I was blissfully unaware of the outside world.
When this past Saturday turned into Sunday in Orlando, Florida, a mad man whose soul was poisoned with hatred and a fanatical view of life was holding more than 100 people hostage in a nightclub intended as a gathering place for celebration. While I was studying words of Torah, he was shooting 49 people dead and wounding 53 others. In the morning, the world that was attached to media started reeling from the news of yet another mass murder, another act of terrorism, a horrifying targeting of the LGBTQ community, an attempt to bring down the joy of Pride Month.
As Saturday turned to Sunday, I was discussing the meaning of: “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” In my havruta (study group), we thought that if we could possibly agree on a definition of holiness, we would know exactly what God expects of humanity and particularly of Jews. We would have the key to making our world a better place. At 1:30 in the morning on Sunday, it all felt so simple and uplifting. And all the while, a terrorist was shooting people dead.
How can there possibly be any sense in the world? How can God possibly expect us to be holy?
Since Sunday, people I have spoken with want to know how goodness can possibly matter in the face of evil. My stubborn answer is that goodness is the only thing that does matter.
Every act of kindness takes away the power of hatred and cruelty. I refuse to become a nihilist or a pessimist. Being an optimist is not frivolous or naïve or weak. Being an optimist in days like these requires immense courage.
Author Rebecca Solnit says: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it is going to take everything you have to steer the world away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and from the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
This past Sunday, the Jewish people celebrated Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation. In our all night study at the OJC, Rabbi Scheff taught that creation and revelation lead us toward redemption. Redemption will not fall out of the heavens above. The promise of redemption is in our hands, and it is what keeps us moving forward with optimism and hope, believing against all odds that we can repair the world. Join me please. Act by act, moment by moment, we can bring redemption to a world desperately in need of repair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Tonight, however, this open heart is a curse. Because I feel the suffering of my sisters and brothers. And I absorb the taunts of those who wish my children harm. And I shudder at the sounds of laughter and rejoicing over spilled blood. And I don’t see in the face of my neighbor another who is content with being my neighbor. And the voices of reason that provided me with hope just hours ago have been drowned out by the crowd applauding the gun shots in the theater of the absurd.
So in this moment I find myself closing my open heart to protect myself from the pain of all that suffering. And as the heart closes, I feel it hardening in anger and despair.
Please, God, slow my racing heart and grant me a few hours’ rest. And in my sleep, soften my heart again. Because I need to love. And I can’t truly love–even my own children–so long as this hardened heart beats within me. And once I can feel again, let the blessing-curse of my empathy move me to heal the sick, to comfort the mourner, and to set out rebuilding a shattered world.
In the words of Jeremiah from this past week’s haftarah, “Heal me, Adonai, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved.” Give me reason to praise You.