While Standing (Six Feet Apart) On One Foot
We have all been touched by death in past couple of months. One way or the other it has penetrated our homes and our consciousness. We are subject to daily death counts and the polls of those who are sick. And even though the curve may be flattening and going in the right direction, still we watch the 24/7 coverage and weep for the dead and their families. Unlike the notices that were posted in public places during World War 1 with the names of the dead where, at least, someone could know a name, in America there are close to 60,000 names. They will never all be known.
There are military cemeteries around the world that contain the bodies of unknown soldiers. Upon more than 212.000 graves of WW I and WW II soldiers is engraved the Rudyard Kipling phrase, ‘Known Unto God.’ If you have ever stood at the foot of a such a grave, there is a profound and palpable feeling of loneliness that overcomes you.
But even though the soldier beneath is ‘known unto God’ he is known unto God only because he could not be identified. Without doubt, he came from someplace where he was known. He lived a life, had a job, probably went to school, had friends and people who loved him. I think our loneliness standing at the grave of such a soldier comes from knowing that, for the last mitzvah, he was alone and that, in and of itself, is reason to pay the respect of memory that could not come at death. At that moment of respect, it is we who become the mourners, if for the briefest of moments.
The pandemic, like all mass deaths, threatens to make us impervious to the pain of mourning these deaths. We simply can’t internalize the number. It is just too big. At each 9/11 memorial in NYC, the names of the dead are read aloud. We can mourn and say Kaddish for all of them. What will we do when COVID is under control? Will we recite the more than 100,000 names that will appear on the list?
Of course not. But we need to say Kaddish for them. And we need to say Kaddish for them because kaddish honors their memory as valued and loved fellow human beings. They were victims of biology, apathy, irresponsibility, and the forces of Mother Nature where we, despite our self-delusion that we can control the world, have just been shown that, for the most part, we are powerless in the face of the smallest organism. We say kaddish because it is our liturgical reminder that there are things so much bigger than we are.
There have been people in our congregation who have gotten sick. And there are people in the congregation who have had loved ones die from it. Like the little villages in England which had to publicize the names of the dead in the town square during the Great War, our community town square is our own network of friends and neighbours. We have become that little village and each day brings the reality closer to home.
I won’t say ‘God willing it won’t come here.’ Nor will I say ‘Thank God no-one I knew died of it.’ Frankly, that would be callous. For me to say ‘Thank God no one I knew died of it’ implies that it is the same God who brought the illness upon another. I cannot tolerate that idea. God has nothing to do with this virus.
God does have something to do with the way we respond to it. Honi the Circle Maker literally is said to have drawn a line in the sand. The story is describe in the Talmud. He is called the Circle Maker because of an incident in which his prayer for rain was miraculously answered. On one occasion, when God did not send rain well into the winter (in Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), Honi drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and told God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain. Frankly, I wish God really did work that way or even that someone among us had the same power as Honi.
But the story is legend. It is not to be understood literally. But it does show a unique Jewish trait – chutzpah clapei hashamayim – ‘ Chutzpah in the face of Heaven.’ Honi stood in front of the horror and said, even in the face of this horror, I will demand of You righteousness.
We ought to be a little more Chutzpadik in the face of Heaven. Though we can draw circles and demand God put an end to this pandemic but it won’t work. What will work is not losing the ability to mourn with those who mourn. Of still saying Kaddish in the midst of this virus. Of making sure we can still feel the profound loneliness of a death that never directly affected us. Truly, in the face of an amoral microscopic dot of biology, we can remember that we can be so much more than that, and in the face of the horror, still rise and, like Job, say ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’ Being imitators of God will get us through this crisis with our values intact. If this is some kind of test, I want to make sure we pass, if for no other reason that to prove to ourselves that we can still feel – because feeling that pain is one of the only things that makes us truly human.