December 14, 2012

December 14, 2012

I heard it on the radio. As the day wore on, more information, a lot of it false. The name of the brother of the shooter confused with the shooter, the numbers, etc. Something big and unthinkable but too soon to know, pushing time on the radio. By 2 PM, the numbers were close to finalized, the story, I stopped in a coffeehouse, called an end to my day, sat at a table and put my head down.

I remembered the words of a great rebbe of a previous generation, when asked about the unmentionable horror he himself experienced during the War, put his head down on the table and cried.

I know the first response to grief is pre-lingual, pre-conceptual, before words. No-words, not silence because silence implies some sort of peace-ful-ness; before words.

I tried to push everything out of my mind, and after a few hours I began to feel myself slipping into the drain of unspeakable sadness that Newtown, Connecticut, was coming to mean, sucked down into it, as if the whole country was tipped eastward and if we let ourselves we might slide on a river of tears down the drain of darkness to that little school that went up to the fourth grade in Newtown, Connecticut.

I didn’t want to think anything; I honored the dead and the living dead with silence and the pieces of my heart inclining eastward to that little town, a lot like my little town.

After a few hours, I allowed a collection of images, patiently waiting in a mind-queue, to occupy my thoughts. They were all buried deeper than I would have predicted and they all surprised me.

First there was a rabbinical principle about great hate and great love, both of them, overturning upsetting subverting the normal. Do something different when you get up to do something, I felt.

It was getting close to time to go to prayers for evening. I didn’t hold the prayers in the designated prayer space, I held them around a table lit only by the candles of both the Hanukkah menorah and the Shabbes licht, ten candles all together. I put on sunglasses for a moment, experimenting I suppose with the idea of business not as usual, subverting the normal, do something different. I played a kind of melancholy raga on one of my ancient instruments and began the singing low and stable allowing the melodies and the environment of tears to overtake the melodies and kick them up when it was time for them to accelerate. They accelerated and with that a kind of emotional vertigo where I felt the river of sadness threatening to break through the song.

We made the melodies the same but differently. Everything was the same but different.

The next image patiently waiting was a strange ritual from Deuteronomy 21, again something I hadn’t thought of in a long time and I was sure was residing somewhere deep in my subconscious.

Someone is found killed. They go to the nearest town and bring the priests and the elders from the town to a wild place. The elders of that town and the priests make a ritual sacrifice, they axe a calf called eglah arufah, they wash their hands and say about the crime: we didn’t do this. Rashi the poet asks: who would imagine they had anything to do with it? The point is everyone is implicated in such horrors. Who is not involved? It’s the culture it’s the culture. It’s all of us and it’s everything.

From there I thought of a quote from Rabbi Heschel, I think from The Prophets and the first prophet he deals with Amos. I feel still so raw and spontaneous that for the sake of this writing I’m not going to look it up; I remember it this way: some are guilty, all are responsible.

It was the seventh night of Hanukkah that evening and as with all the nights of Hanukkah the last several years I invited a new take every night of the question the Talmud poses: Mai Hannukah, what IS Hanukkah? As if there were a dozen versions, I had already written several dozen myself. Every night I opened myself to answer that question. I called it Raza de Hanukkah, the secret of it.

My teacher reminded me that Rashi the poet adds: it’s a miracle, but which one? He came down on the side of the oil and the light, and his grandson across the page in the Talmud came down on the side of the battles and the wars, the ascendance of the few over the many as depicted in the prayer we say Al HaNisim, About the Miracles.

I wrote this about that:
Rashi and His Grandson

On the seventh night there was a pause in festivities
From one side of the page Rashi lifted up the light
The miracle of the oil;

From the other side of the page his grandson lifted up the war
The few against the many
Finding redemption in the battle;

Then something terrible happened in our land
Something so broken;

And Rashi and his grandson
Called across the page —

How came we to be this way
How might we become something else;

We are all responsible
It’s all of us and it’s everything;

So we sat in our sadness
Resisting the simple

Until we found our silence
And mourned for those who lost.

I then thought about the argument of the Babylonians Rav and Shmuel, each head of an academy in what is today Iraq, responding to the question: what if there isn’t enough goodness to sustain a generation? What then?

Rav said, “all the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on transformation [teshuvah] and good deeds.”
But Shmuel said, “it is enough for the mourner to stand in his mourning.”
– Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

I heard the President say words that stung me more than all the other words he spoke, and I wrote this, echoing the voice of Rav; Rav’s version of the Unspeakable.

Raza de Hanukkah 7

“These children are all our children.” – President Obama, Dec. 14, 2012

All the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on transformation [teshuvah] and good deeds. Rav, BT Sanhedrin, 97b

On the seventh night there was a halt in festivities
And the question:

What is it?
Took on a new sense:

Something terrible happened in our land
Something so broken.

We considered how we came to be this way
How we could become something else;

To find a way
Out of our breakage;

We are all implicated
It’s all of us and it’s everything;

We had to sit in our sadness
Resist the simple and the fragmented —

To find our silence
And mourn for those who lost.

That night, I slept fitfully and waking for an hour or so between two and three AM I wrote this, thinking “these are not our children,” speaking now the version of Shmuel.

December 14, 2012

But Shmuel said, “it is enough for the mourner to stand in his mourning.”
– Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

They are not our children
If they were
The danger being drawn into the tehom
That Deep
Drawn down into it
To cry and never stop.

We are hanging on to the edge of Equanimity with our fingertips
A half a country away.

If they were our children
We would be drowning in that Deep
That silence
That Unformed and Empty Voicelessness before Tears;

Empty and unreplenished.

After the deep
And the spirit of G*d hovering
How long in that And.

And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep*/tehom;
And the spirit of G*d hovered over the face of the waters.
Gen. 1:2

I took all this to the prayer space with me the next morning and talked it; we ended with T who said, enough talk, I am feeling it and he broke off with tears and we all sat with our tears for a moment and we leaned eastward, planted ourselves and sat in our silence until it was time to go home.

jsg, usa