There was a time in my career as a rabbi, when I would wonder what I could say following terrible events. I don’t wonder anymore. I have far too many sermons and prayers for vigils full of words that I’ve said.
I don’t wonder how I’ll react or what I’ll do anymore. I’ll speak to community religious leaders. We’ll schedule a vigil and I’ll speak again, because something awful happened… again.
After the mosque attack in New Zealand, I reached out to Muslim friends. I offered condolences and prayers. I could have offered thoughts too, but rather than try to do that, hugs are better. I sent along hugs.
I communicated by text and later by phone with my friends, Imams Spahic and Valjevcic of the Bosnian community, with whom I regularly interact, offering any help that I or we might offer to their communities. A little bit after I spoke with Imam Valjevcic, I received a text from him, “Thank you David. Thank you for being with us in these tough moments.” It’s pretty much how I felt after the Pittsburgh evil.
Being. I speak about the blessing of presence quite often when I talk about the Priestly Benediction. May God bless you and keep you. I note that “In the Jewish tradition, Blessing is presence.”
“Don’t just stand there–do something!” is how we most often react to challenging situations. Often, there isn’t much we can do. But there is one thing for certain. Dr. David Spiegel, chief of the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University Hospital, reformulated that maxim, “Don’t just do something… STAND THERE!”
Be there. Sometimes that helps more than anything we can DO.
Yesterday, I found myself humming and mouthing the words to Lean on Me:
You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
I thought about Charlottesville, Sutherland Springs, Pittsburgh, and Christchurch.
“It WON’T be long, ‘till we’re all gonna need somebody to lean on.”
As I said to our Muslim friends at the vigil:
I know what the pain is like, even if I can’t feel it the way you do at times, nor you the way I do at times. It’s a different pain for me than you. It’s a different pain for our community than yours.
But again, it’s the same pain too. It’s the pain of unacceptance. It’s the pain of not feeling loved and welcomed. It’s the pain of peace and well-being shattered. It’s the pain of sacredness defiled. It’s the pain of losses that cannot be measured or even fairly described.
It’s the pain of having fled a place of persecution, finally achieving some sense of security, and having persecution find you again.
We’ve been there too and we’re here for you.
“Just call on me brother.”
Yes, I get that the lingo in 1972, when Bill Withers wrote the song, was particularly about Brothers and Sisters in the African American community. The reason that song came to my mind wasn’t that. It was realizing that, having no siblings of my own, the only people in my life who call me “brother,” beyond the few fraternity brothers who sometimes reach out, are my friends from immigrant communities and the Muslim community in particular.
Sometimes my Sudanese and South Sudanese friends struggle to figure out how to include it, “Brother Rabbi David,” “Rabbi Brother David.” I remember at one Sudanese community event, I was introduced as “Brother Rabbi. Brother David.” One of my South Sudanese friends sometimes puts a pause between Rabbi and Brother. “Brother… Rabbi David.” It’s a term of affection that people in immigrant communities often cannot leave out and go out of their way to include.
You are here. You are with me. You are my brother.
When you walk into a gathering, you are often greeted, “Welcome, Brother. Welcome, Sister.”
The best of us greet everyone with that intent. It tells us, “I want you to feel at home.”
And so, I am told, for I have not seen the video and will not watch it, was similar words said in Christchurch. The first person to interact with the evil doer and the one who was the first person killed, greeted the man, “Hello, Brother.”
Love was met with hate.
We cannot always overcome hate. Sometimes, we never get a chance. But at times like these, we can stand together with our brothers and our sisters and we can lean on each other and we can be.
Don’t just do something, stand there.
We need to lean on each other.
We need to support each other.
It’s time to be present for one another, our brothers and sisters.
Shalom Aleichem. Assalam Aleikum. Peace be upon us all.
Rabbi David Kaufman