We were just a couple of songs into the Shabbat service on Saturday when a congregant sobs cracked across the crowded room. Those sobs soon turned into downright wails. The rabbi paused, looked, then offered words of comfort to the rest of us. Other congregants rushed toward the young woman, offering her solace. They ushered her into a hallway, then outside. Her cries, completely understandable, were still disquieting. Through one of her sobs, she mentioned the victims of Pittsburgh, how she couldn’t help weeping for them.
Dozens of people, non-Jews like me, were attending our first Shabbat service. The rabbi had not expected so many to turn out. The Jewish community ran out of songbooks and yamakas, but not chairs, which they kept setting up. There was a tension as he sought to balance his responsibilities as a rabbi leading Shabbat, and his desire to comfort the young woman, and his hope that her cries would not compel an entire congregation to burst into tears.
Honestly, I can think of no other behavior more appropriate than for all of us grieved by the slaughter that took place in Pittsburgh than to collectively wail, to cry out to Creator God.
I have always loved the Jewish tradition of a wailing wall. I have long considered the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. a version of a wailing wall. It is the place to collectively grieve. We have so few places like that in our culture. Our first inclination whenever anyone grieves publically is to seek to hush them – not so much for their benefit as much as for ours. We don’t grieve well in this culture. We write checks. We urge people to return to work, to go shopping again (Thank you GWB). In essence, our way of dealing with any grief is to urge the grieving to “get over it.”
A popular Christian author once chided me publically as the “grief police”. He meant the remark to demean me because he had written a piece critical of a husband’s grief in the wake of his wife’s murder, and I had called him out on his misguided assessment of the grieving husband, a pastor. These are the things that happen when you are a woman writing about the hard things of life. This mansplaining.
There are those in the writing world who think I write too much about grief. They yawn whenever I mention how difficult it was to grow up the daughter of a soldier killed in action in Vietnam. They think I should get over it. And I think they should get over it because I’m never going to get over it. Never.
I’m not Jewish, but I’ve always loved the idea of putting on sackcloth and ashes. After Sandy Hook, I thought our entire nation should don sackcloths and ashes and mourn for those poor babies murdered in the classrooms among stacks of Elmer’s glue and construction paper.
If I won the lottery, I’d build a wall where everyone who has lost a loved one to gun violence could come and grieve collectively.
Death is an isolating affair for the living. Time stops. Life takes on an emptiness. Loved ones walk around in a stupor for months, years to come. My mama died the day after Christmas, six years ago, and I still have not recovered, will never recover from that loss. I have only recently begun to grieve her. I don’t talk about her much. My grandsons have started asking me: Is your mother living? How did she die? Is she in heaven? Can you see her? Who is the boss of you if your mother is dead?
There is a healing that can only be granted through community. It is when I visit with my kin in Tennessee that I find that kind of healing. They understand the loss. They grieve it, too. Having that shared experience binds us. And the stories left behind, those bind us as well. On a recent trip south, my cousin and I sat up late into the night telling stories of our parents, siblings who loved each other deeply. That was a healing time for us both.
I had learned over the years that it wasn’t just the death of my father that was so tragic; it was the silence that followed that continued to be source of deep pain. It was the forgetting. The reluctance of people to speak his name, to tell his stories. The silence seemed to be for me a second death. An erasure of the life he had lived.
I longed for a gathering place where I could go and tell the stories of my father, where I could hear the stories of my father. For me, the Vietnam Memorial Wall became that place. A healing place. I have been there when dignitaries like Colin Powell and Barack Obama have spoken. And when filmmakers like Ken Burns and Gold Star fathers like Allen Hoe have spoken. But is the stories of the soldiers and nurses who were boots-on-the-ground that have provided me with the most healing. Only someone who has lived through it understands that there is never any getting over it.
I did not know the young woman who had become so distraught during the Shabbat service, but I recognized her sobs, her crying out for the fallen, her wailing for the senseless killing. Those wails are familiar to me. That sense of wrongness is familiar. That imploring God: Why? Why? that I understand.
I did not want the young woman to “regain her composure” as we so often insist the grieving do. I wanted to rise up and wail alongside her.
I do not want to be at peace with such wrongs. Ever. I don’t want to be composed in the face of such evil. I don’t want to sing about the faithfulness of God as armed men march into our places of worship and gun us down. I don’t want to think of how blessed I am while the family of Rose Mallinger tries to understand how their mother and grandmother could be gunned down at age 97, here in America, where we claim freedom of religion for all.
During a time of sharing, a 13-year-old Jewish boy told of friends of his family who were late to service at Tree of Life last week. Because they were late, they were not shot. They were not killed.
It is a terrible but necessary admission to acknowledge that any day you are not shot in America is, indeed, a day to give thanks.
Of course, God would undoubtedly point out that protecting people from gunfire was never part of the covenant.
That’s on us: The deaths at Sandy Hook. The deaths at Tree of Life. The deaths at Tallahassee Hot Yoga.
And on the politicians who continue to arm those who seek to do others harm.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author CHRISTIAN BEND (a novel). Mercer University Press.
When I feel tainted, God, remind me that I am holy.
When I feel weak, teach me that I am strong.
When I am shattered, assure me that I can heal.
When I am weary, renew my spirit.
When I am lost, show me that you are near.
May God heal you, body and soul.
May your pain cease,
May your strength increase,
May your fears be released,
May blessings, love and joy surround you.
-Rabbi Naomi Levy