I woke up early last Sunday to pack for an overnight trip to rural Connecticut where I would be officiating at an old friend’s wedding. As I threw my stuff in a bag, I thought, “How lucky am I to be convening this ceremony for David? Still friends after 46 years?!” I reviewed some of the many stories of shared experiences – lots of laughter, benign hijinks, close calls, and gratitude: for friendship, for loyalty, for resilience in the face of time’s relentless push to the exits.
I drove off smiling, remembering the good old days. I approached the 128 toll on the Pike, my heart filled with nostalgia, and casually turned on the radio to NPR to get the first news of the morning. Which is when I first heard about Orlando.
The incongruity of heading off for a simcha, a joyful celebration, while this story of hate and blood and death unfolded, felt utterly overwhelming. How do I keep smiling as the death toll continues to rise? How do I choose what to say now? May I make the jokes I’d had in mind? Can I tell sweet stories about the bride and the groom in the face of the carnage? I know our tradition forbids us to do anything that would sadden the bride and the groom; but how do I honestly acknowledge reality?
Before the bride and groom were at the chuppah, I said the
following to the gathered guests and family members. “Like me, you may be feeling a kind of emotional whiplash; thrilled to be outside on a beautiful day to witness two adults daring to try marriage again – and bereft that so many innocent people were murdered early this morning in a twisted act of hatred and pure malice. How do we go on? Why do we go on?
“It behooves us to thank the bride and groom for their invitation that places us here together this afternoon. Were it not for them, it’s likely that our day today would’ve been spent indoors, in sorrow, watching TV reports repeat over and over and over the same stories told from the same angles. The bride and the groom remind us at just the right time that there is love in the world. They remind us that complete hopelessness is forbidden, that despair leads to dissolution. Their love ennobles us all.”
I don’t know if that made it ok for the guests to celebrate in the midst of the darkness. It soothed me, though. By pointing out the terrible paradox, by acknowledging the awful juxtaposition of such good and such evil, I somehow granted myself a cosmic pass to say “l’Hayyim!”, and mean it.
But I’m tired. I’m running out of words that cannot approach the depth of loss in Orlando – or Newtown and Charleston and Aurora and on and on… What word is after horrific? What word is after heartbreaking? I’ve run out of words to describe my outrage over a gun lobby that holds sway over feckless politicians. I’ve run out of words for the frustration I feel in my gut when even the president of the United States is powerless to stop the madness. I’m tired of vigils that start and end in tears and leave us with little more than wax on our hands. I am sick of the bloodshed. Sick of the anemic response to the slaughter. Sick of the regularity of these killing fields.
My favorite Hasidic master, Nachman of Bratslav, warned his followers against despair. Pirkei Avot enjoins us to avoid cynicism. Jews are not allowed to give up. Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, we can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers.”
In a quote that’s been all over the Internet, Tennessee Williams wrote, “The world is violent and mercurial – it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love – love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
God help me – help us all – to keep living with, and saving, love.