Thursday, July 3, 2008

Numb and Number (The Jewish Week, July 3 2008)

This past Shavuot, my congregation joined with Temple Sinai, a neighboring synagogue, for a late-night study session. When I left at the end, I was shocked to see that while we were immersed in study, a violent storm had submerged the parking lot in rippling puddles.

Here I was — at Sinai, on Shavuot, no less — and I hadn’t even heard the thunder.
It’s one thing to miss the Still Small Voice, the subtle miracles. But when I doze through the entire Sinaitic storm, the snapping branches and swirling leaves, I have to begin wondering whether I’ve been in this profession too long.

Twenty five years ago, I stepped out into the world from Park Avenue Synagogue with the rest of my rabbinic class. From that day until this moment, I’ve struggled with the issue of numbness. Rabbinic lives involve a constant lurching from crisis to crisis, making it nearly impossible to hear every cry — whether human or divine — or to be completely present for any of them.

During one recent evening, I confronted the sudden deaths of a revered congregational elder and a young father in peak health. Complicating matters even more, I got the call about the young father at the precise moment when my wife and I were half way out the door to bring our son to the very same E.R. Thankfully, my son would be fine, but for four nightmarish hours I found myself shuttling from cubicle to cubicle, switching roles from rabbi to dad and back again. I couldn’t be there for just one — I had to be there for all. I had every excuse to ignore the congregant, who lay in a coma and whose family was in a state of utter shock. But I simply couldn’t do that. Nor could I give my own child short shrift.

The only way to survive such raw terror is to avert its direct gaze. I had to help everyone else get through while maintaining my own sanity.

Rabbis don’t need pills or alcohol to become numb. Religion is the Opiate of the Masses, according to Marx, the great numbing agent of civilization. But Marx got it wrong. While life can be unbearable, Judaism lives in the ability of rabbis to heighten awareness, not deaden it behind comforting cure-alls and pastoral balm. My role is indeed to be present and comfort people, but not to deaden their pain.

I went to the dentist a few weeks ago for a relatively simple procedure; but as soon as he entered the room, I could tell that this session would not be so routine. His troubled face startled me — I’m one of those squeamish types who see every visit to the dentist as a potential remake of “Marathon Man.” But my teeth were not the source of his concern.

As he shot me up with Novocain, he told me about a recent trip to Lithuania and his sadness to see how the great Jewish community of Vilnius, once teeming with 105 synagogues and six daily newspapers, had in an instant been reduced to almost nothing.

What saddened him most was how non-Jews spoke with such apathy about their neighbors’ fate, how they had simply taken what the Jews left behind: their silver, their homes, everything.

“Are you numb yet?” he asked me, seeking my reaction to his story.

“Mphhh mphhh...” I replied, which translated from numb-speak means, “Never Again,” or “That’s why we have Israel now.”

I expected him to echo those sentiments, to affirm how important it is to remain proudly Jewish in light of these tragic events, to support Israel and stand up to hatred everywhere. That’s the answer I was taught in rabbinical school, the one I’ve been spouting for decades.

But that’s not what he said.

Instead, he wondered openly, why, given these seemingly inevitable results, one should remain Jewish. Why do we need to condemn ourselves to this treatment, to always be laughed at and despised? And with Israel’s survival hardly a sure bet at this point, why bother? Why should he continue to subject his family to such risk, when it is so easy to opt out? If the Jewish presence could so easily be wiped away from the city that once was called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” couldn’t it happen here? What would the people in White Plains or Westport do if all the Jews were evicted?

Wouldn’t they just take our things and move into our homes?

Why do we always have to be on the losing team?

I replied as best I could with half a mouth:
“Mphhh mphhh...”

Next week, I’m taking my family to another country where Jews once flourished, another place once compared to Jerusalem, from which Jews were eventually forcibly evicted: Spain. I’m sure that as I walk the labyrinthine cobblestones of Cordoba and witness the medieval grandeur of Granada, I’ll lecture my kids about the miraculous, stubborn survival of the Jewish people. But will any of us truly feel the pain of those Marranos and the injustice of their loss?

I’ll also think about those Jews who have given up hope and remind myself that it is not my job to come up with glib answers to band-aid this wound. After 25 years in the rabbinate, I can’t allow myself to become oblivious either to the thunder of Sinai or the still, small cry of suffering. A rabbi’s job, I’ve learned, is not to numb the pain, but to heighten awareness of life’s tragic nature and the inherent beauty of survival.

“Life isn’t meant to be easy, it’s meant to be life,” wrote James Michener at the end of “The Source.”

“But take courage,” said George Bernard Shaw, describing life. “It can be delightful.”

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