The Jewish traditions and rituals surrounding the greatest of our joys — birth, reaching adulthood, marriage — are in and of themselves transformative. They give us a structure around which we celebrate. While the parents of a newborn may be exhausted, extended family and friends gather to mark the miracle of a birth and the addition of a new member to our community.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah encourage and enliven us with the possibility that this former child is about to take his or her place in the adult worship community.
Marriage marks the time when a couple looks not only to each other, but out to the broader circle. We hoist the couple on chairs so they can laugh and rejoice. We smile with them and welcome them back from their relative isolation as a couple into the wide connection that wends through generations.
The Jewish traditions and rituals surrounding our pain transform us as well. Each one of us can recall the comfort that the visit to us brought when we were in the hospital, or the phone call after a divorce, or even the sincere “How are you?” e-mail sent at a time of pain or confusion.
The mi shebeirach prayer asking for God (and by extension the community) to keep an eye on us or those we love has its own power. The birkat hagomel prayer, recognizing our deliverance from a brush with death, asks the community to step up and inquire into our safety. The shiva visit after a death and the rituals attending to a burial have their own indelible power.
A yahrzeit, literally “year time,” marks the passage of time after a death. After the first year we return to normalcy on the outside. Jewish tradition has us return to life — albeit a scarred or altered life — for those who survive.
It has now been a year since the horrible tragedy that struck us last July. When the staff members of the Jewish Federation were attacked, we were all affected. The wisdom of the Talmudic writer is spot on: “kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh.” Although ordinarily translated as, “We are responsible for each other,” it also can be accurately translated as, “We are involved inextricably with each other.”
As a rabbi and active Jew in this community and a former employee of the Jewish Federation (having run the Community High School of Jewish Studies and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School), the reverberations of the shooting felt close to home.
I have learned several lessons in the past year as a direct result of this tragedy.
• Hate is dangerous, even lethal.
Sounds simple — and yet within this is much truth. The childhood rhyme about “sticks and stones” declares that “names will never hurt me.” There is, however, a cumulative effect to any “education” or indoctrination that objectifies others. The shooter who forced his way into the Federation office espoused hate. By demonizing Jews and Israel he took a terrible leap. Ultimately, those who preach hate bear responsibility as well for the consequences.
• We are not alone.
Many of us received phone calls and letters in the minutes, days, weeks and months following the shooting from friends and even from those who barely knew our names. Members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish community from around the globe rallied to be at our side.
Jewish Family Service has been noble, extending itself so that all who were stung by the shock were able to process and work toward healing.
The Seattle police force, as well as those in other parts of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, have been exemplary. Each in its own way has acted beyond the call of duty to protect our security. From the first moments of crisis to the present day, each one of us has known that we have partners in keeping the peace.
• Life is inexpressibly valuable — and vulnerable
Pam Waechter lived a life of blessing and her memory continues to bless us. Those of us who had the good fortune of living and working alongside her will always know that. The five shooting survivors and all of us who were tinged in the aftermath are forever altered. There is no turning the clock back. In moving forward we recognize that while America offers us a security little known in the history of the Jewish people, we are not invincible as individuals.
At this, the first yahrzeit, a piece of poetry by Yehuda Amichai rings true. Though there may be disagreement as to his theology, the ripple and lessons from July 28, 2006 are still felt.
The Diameter of the Bomb
The diameter of the bomb was thirty
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
a circle with no end and no God.