Unclean After Charleston, SC

Unclean After Charleston, SC

In this week’s parasha, Hukkat, it is still the second year after the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. They’re still at Mount Sinai receiving instruction from God through Moses. Eventually, the topic of instruction turns to death. As is true with all communities, Israel too must learn how to bury its dead and how to live with loss.

Biblical regulations in the Book of Numbers (chapter 19) stipulate that an Israelite who comes into contact with someone who has died assumes the status of “unclean,” not a physical or moral state-of-being but a ritual one. An “unclean” individual is ritually suspended from participating in Israelite cultic practice for a period of seven days. At week’s end, a specified ritual prepares the individual for reentry to the community. Listen to Numbers 19:17-19 …

Ashes from the fire of cleansing shall be added to fresh water in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle the mixture upon anyone who been touched by a person who has died. They shall do so on the third day and on the seventh day. And by the seventh day, the unclean person shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and by nightfall he shall be clean.

Our ancestors understood that death affects people deeply. “Business as usual” was not their response. “Bucking up” and “moving on” were not how they coped with loss. Instead, it was time, along with defined acts to move through that time, that was prescribed to assist those in mourning along their path to healing.

Shiva CandleToday, you and I can see the continuation of those age-old practices in our own rituals surrounding death. For the week of shiva, we remove ourselves from daily life. We stay at home and, during that time, we tear a ribbon, light a candle, recite Kaddish, and receive support from others. We may not be healed by week’s end. We may only have begun the process of reentry. But at least we’ve started it. And it’s a healthy process. Shiva brings us face-to-face with our loss, and helps us – through prescribed ritual practice – to reenter life and carry on despite the pain of our grief.

And so I’ve been wondering.

Ten days ago, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spent an hour studying bible with clergy and congregants, and then pulled out a gun and murdered nine men and women between the ages of 26 and 87. On Thursday, their funerals commenced and will continue through next Tuesday, until all nine are buried.

Nine families are mourning their beloved dead. It is likely that these families will, in time, quiet their grief and learn to live life with their loved ones’ memories held close as a perpetual treasure.

But America too is in mourning. We have also lost nine precious lives. We too must travel and, albeit in a different manner from the victims’ families, we must nonetheless navigate the desolate valley of the shadow of death.

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

We’ve been here before. Columbine High School. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood, Texas. Aurora, Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since 1982, there have been at least 70 mass shootings across the country. And their frequency is on the rise.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about. How do we process this? How do we grieve our fellow Americans’ deaths? How do we carry on?

Past experience tells us that the way we Americans mourn our dead is by spending a period of time sympathizing with the grieving families, expressing outrage that such killings are even possible, turning to our elected officials to do something that will prevent the next shooting from taking place, and then returning to our regular lives when, once again, nothing improves.

It’s not a terrible process, I suppose. As ritual goes. We repeat a number of helpful practices that link us with others who share in our sadness. We take some time to remove ourselves from everyday, unconcerned living. And after a while, we go back to the things we were doing before.

It’s “not a terrible process” because, in actuality, that’s what the period of mourning is all about. When a loved one dies, little changes except that someone we care about is now missing from our lives. We don’t necessarily change anything about the world, but the process helps us, in time, to resume reasonably contented living.

Apparently, that’s been enough for the American people, as well. America remains unchanged after each mass shooting, except for the loss of life and the ensuing grief.

Wouldn’t it be great though if the model of individual grief didn’t satisfy our national family? Wouldn’t it be great if our elected leaders decided that these killings can’t go on, and that something really needs to be done to prevent the next ones from happening? Wouldn’t it be great if Congress said, “We will convene this evening to find a solution to this epidemic, and we will not recess until a solution has been found, voted on and put into action”?

400x250xflyer.jpg.pagespeed.ic.S5DACJFKj4I understand that America is fairly split down the middle in terms of issues of governance. I “get it” that Democrats and Republicans see the world differently. But I happily reference today’s 6-3 Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s health care law. Sometimes we don’t have to be split down the middle. And assuming that nobody in America wants to see mass killers on the rampage, shouldn’t our leaders be able to work together, agreeing that a solution needs to be found, and then working on one until all sides can come to an agreement?

I don’t know. That was always the America I wanted to be part of. One where dissent of opinion is not only welcomed, but is valued because of the creative process it sparks on the path to solving dilemmas.

As the Charleston nine are laid to rest between now and next Tuesday, my grief will continue. Grief for them, for their bereft loved ones. And grief for a country that lacks the resolve to fix something which everyone agrees needs fixing.

You know, God never wanted a political structure to manage ancient Israel. God didn’t think that having a king was a very good idea. God felt that if we’d just follow the Torah, if we’d just practice the mitzvot, if we’d just be good to each other, everything would be fine. Rituals prescribed for individuals who had died would never have to be applied on a wholesale basis. Economies of scale would never be needed because hinei mah tov u’ma naim … we’d all behold how pleasant it is … shevet akhim gahm yakhad … that men and women are dwelling together … in peace!

Tonight, you and I are Emanuel AME Church. Tonight, their loss is our loss. We cry for them. We cry with them.

How about if, next week, we become America? And as America, we share the loss which took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and add this to our national ritual: remembering to do something about it. I beg of you, do more than what America usually does during its moments of national grief. Act. Do something to help things change. Do it with your voice. Do it with your wallet. Do it with your vote.

And then maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to participate in the insane national ritual of grieving like this … again … and again … and yet again.

Ken y’hee rah-tzone.



Closing Words
Last week, college student Melissa Wishner spoke about helping victims of the earthquake in Nepal. I opened that evening by quoting late-19th century American author, historian and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.”

Eloheynu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors,

Won’t you lend us some of that grace now? We’ll need it, if we hope to rise above that concern-unbolstered-by-action that accompanies so many of our national tragedies. We are grateful and encouraged by today’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide, but we are stymied by the fact that we can’t seem to figure out how to finally learn the way to live side-by-side without consideration of the color of one’s skin.

Show us the answers at the back of book, won’t You? Help us to discover the path to finding constructive responses and solutions. Remind us that none of us are exempt from doing, nor ought we feel helpless to do, something to help find those solutions.

Shabbat shalom.