Torah in the Face of Tragedy

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 9, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

The month of Adar has hardly been a herald of joy for our people this year, as it traditionally is. At best we can observe Purim in a minor key. Past salvation offers little comfort in the midst of fresh tragedy and inconsolable grief. A brazen, in-your-face second (and now a third) suicide bombing threatens to bury the will for peace beneath the fury of our frustration.

The deaths of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker devastated the Seminary community beyond description. So much virtue and promise for naught. Death is an infrequent visitor in a community as young as ours. Many a daily minyan ends without a mourner’s kaddish. And yet our students, stricken with grief, found refuge in the ancient prescriptions of Judaism. On the edge of the abyss, it is not theology that steadies us, but ritual and community. Reaching for perspective comes only after the numbness wears off.

Sunday evening, the day the news hit the Seminary, some 350 students, faculty and parents gathered in our Women’s League Synagogue for a maariv service. In muted voices we davened, recited psalms, sang a few mournful tunes and just huddled together. No one left when it ended. The warmth of community and the sanctity of the words that had comforted so many others before us generated solace, if not meaning.

During the next few days till the burial, our services were filled to overflowing, and our students took turns reciting psalms around the clock, as if guarding the bodies of their deceased friends, which they actually did when the bodies arrived from Israel. We canceled classes on the day Matt and Sara were interred in Hartford, because the study of Torah is a source of joy incongruous with mourning. On fast days, Jews refrain from Torah study. We rented four buses to take students to the funeral, where they served as pall bearers and filled the graves with dirt. Jewish ritual gives a semblance of structure to chaos and a vehicle for expressing anguish. What more can we ask for in an imperfect world? We affirm our age-old faith, because to live without it is worse.

Matt and Sara embodied the noblest ideals of Conservative Judaism. Matt’s friend and roommate, Shai Held, portrayed him at his funeral as having lived in accord with the principles of Simon the Righteous: Torah, the service of God, deeds of love. When he finished, there was not a dry eye in the synagogue.

One telling example. Sara and Matt, and a few other students, adopted a homeless woman near the Seminary. They discovered she could knit. They bought her some needles and yarn and taught her how to crochet kippot. Their charity gave her a modest income and a large measure of self-respect. When Newt Gingrich spoke at the Seminary’s Louis Marshall Dinner this past December, he met with a delegation of our students prior to his speech. At the end of the dialogue, the students presented the Speaker with a kippa made by the homeless friend of Sara and Matt, which he wore during his address. Little did Mr. Gingrich or his assembled guests or I realize that that kippa was a token of his welfare reform.

Last week’s parasha spoke of the oil to be used in the kindling of the lamps in the Tabernacle. It was to come from the finest oil that human hands could make: “Clear oil of beaten olives.” That is what Matt and Sara were. In a society in which it is so easy to exit from Judaism, they did not allow themselves to be defined by default. They were Jewish at home and in the street without repudiating the world around them. For them, Judaism was the ballast of their intertwining lives; a source of pride, a moral compass, an intellectual challenge and medium of joy. Their tragic death in Israel attests to the unbroken solidarity of Jewish life, to the centrality of Israel for Conservative Jews, to the role of Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people. Had they lived, their flames would have illumined the holy and warmed the cold for many, many years. They had so much to give and so little time in which to give it.

The rich content of their memory will only be a blessing if we devote ourselves to perpetuating it. Toward that end, we are creating a fellowship fund in the names of Matt and Sara that will make it easier for other students to afford the escalating costs of their rabbinic education, especially the expense of a full year of study in Israel. I hope you will be moved to join us in this effort.

As so often, our weekly parasha offers a relevant word of wisdom. Meaning is always a fragile achievement. Tragedy erodes our confidence in the road taken. In this week’s Torah portion, we return briefly and searingly to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. How quickly their faith in Moses evaporates! His prolonged absence atop the mountain unsettles them. Forgotten are his heroic deeds and lofty teachings. The people prevail on Aaron to make for them a more durable intermediary, a more tangible symbol of God’s presence in the camp.

When Moses descends, the sight of the Golden Calf and the lewd levity of the masses prompts him to smash the tablets in fury and have some 3000 of the revelers killed by the Levites. But it is not the episode on which I want to focus, but its aftermath.

Moses is severely shaken by the popular betrayal. What does it take to elevate disorderly and childlike slaves into a free and disciplined nation with a mature faith? Moses asks for a deeper understanding of God: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence (Exodus 33:18)!” God grants his request but only partially: “You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live (Exodus 33:20).” In one of the most vivid of all biblical images, God places Moses “in a cleft of the rock” as the back of God passes by him.

Our knowledge of God, of existence, of truth will always be incomplete. What we see, at best, is only God’s back, and that from the obstructed view afforded by a cleft in the rock. It is the same answer that God will give to Job: our presumption exceeds our grasp. The vista from the cleft is awe-inspiring, but only a glimpse of the mystery that surrounds it. While Judaism enables us to enlarge our vision, it also reminds us of our limitations.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld