The thing about tragedy is that, almost by definition, it completely takes us by surprise. Life has very few rules we all feel apply both personally and globally, but one of them is, or should be, that people outlive their parents. And live long enough to perhaps become parents themselves. Tragedy takes these basic assumptions, assumptions we need to make in order to thrive, and in one awful moment tells us: Don’t bet on it.
And although we all know (in theory) that life’s natural order is disrupted in catastrophic, seemingly random ways every day for someone, when the rules are broken right in front of us we are – aside from simply being bereft – also caught completely, brutally off-guard. Otherwise, were we to always anticipate tragedy, we could not live normally the rest of the time.
And really, who could have anticipated, in their most desolate nightmare, what happened to one of our families last week?
Last Wednesday morning, our close-knit community in Bet Shemesh woke up to collective wailing: We had just lost two sisters, two daughters, two friends. Racheli and Rikki Menora, 14 and 16, daughters to our friends and friends to our daughters, went on an adventure with their cousin, Sara, 17, and their grandfather, Moshe, which will never end for them, but which ended – so very suddenly – for the rest of us, when their light aircraft went down in Michigan.
I cannot tell you how many times last Wednesday and Thursday the Menoras’ friends and neighbors, trying to go about the day, stopped, grabbed their heads, and said: “What?!?!” It was news that refused, still refuses, to sink in, even for those of us who did not really know the kids.
Rikki and Racheli’s brother Yossi, who prior to his US vacation had a permanent socializing spot on the park bench on the corner of my street (which – note this, Yossi – is being saved for his return) not only survived the crash, but is a survivor, in the best and truest sense of the word. The kid seems to have started digitally corresponding with friends the minute he opened his eyes in the burn unit, so very far from home.
As I have found to be the case in these untenable situations, Yossi and his mother, Sima, an outdoorsy, athletic jewelry artist, really cool mom and friend, and unsinkable woman, have ended up bringing comfort to their community in almost equal measure to the comfort their community is providing them.
In the hospital with her son during her daughters’ double funeral, a situation still too impossible to imagine even though we were all there to witness it, Sima phoned in to say a few words about her beautiful girls, after their father, Shalom’s, heartbreaking eulogy.
She did not hide out in Ann Arbor, behind the Great Lakes of tears, somehow grateful for the shade provided by maternal duty and miles, like so many of us might have done. No. Sima attended. She sounded sad, but she sounded like Sima, and she was talking to us from her new reality, in a way we were able to understand.
Do not underestimate the stuff it takes to proceed in this manner, to feel communal responsibility – to be able to produce the defiant, hopeful light held in your very family name, Menora – in your own darkest hour.
Let it be said here that the response in Bet Shemesh has been, as is characteristic of this place, rapid, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring. Say what you want about smothering religious suburbia, but it’s where you want to be in a crisis. Within hours, the older Menora boys, Ben and Yehuda, combat soldiers in the IDF, were surrounded in their home by dozens upon dozens of their friends who showed up to sit with them during those awful in-between days, when there was nothing to do but wait and cry. And by streams of Sima’s friends, who wasted no time in trying to feed all of them.
The press also showed up, of course, and the still teenaged Yehuda dealt with their predictably inappropriate, quote- digging questions with a tremendous amount of patience and grace. And faith. Both he and Sima – and Shalom, and Shalom’s mother – when asked by interviewers over the last several days how their status as believers related to their personal devastation, responded by saying that we do not understand God’s ways or plans. Every one of them expressed this sentiment. I suspect that to a secular ear this sounds deluded, opium-of-the-masses-like.
What it sounds like to me is this: We might be of the West, but, as also espoused by the Eastern philosophy so beloved by secular society, at a certain point believers relinquish control to a Greater Power, and this is in turn empowering.
In the western world we are both handicapped by and enriched by our enduring love of life, and our proclivity to guard it; further it at any cost; fear for its loss; and mourn it. This applies to believers and non-believers both – - only believers seem, upon hitting bottom, to be comforted by their own ultimate powerlessness. From there, it is perhaps clearer to see what it is we are able to change about the world in the face of tragedy, instead of alternately escaping the pain or lingering on it too long.
So when the press persists in asking the bereaved: “Don’t you ask ‘Why?’,” I am reminded of Victor Frankl, who famously observed that this question was far less useful than this one: What now?
What now, in Bet Shemesh: Prayer meetings are still being held in several synagogues around the city daily for Yossi’s recovery; Rikki and Racheli’s friends have set up a Facebook memorial group, which already has thousands of members; The neighborhood got resources together to facilitate the trip of Sima’s closest friends to sit Shiva with her in the hospital in Michigan; Community leaders, rabbis, and mental health professionals have been organizing public meeting all week to help the bereft teen community and their parents somehow come to grips with the gaping hole in their social circle. To perhaps make some meaning of this tragedy.
Still. There are multiple problems for us limited human beings when the rules are broken. For those directly affected, the immediate problem is how to wake up in the morning to a destroyed personal world. How to relate to people who mean well, but have no clue. How to set boundaries on grief, hopefully channel pain into something more life affirming. How to flip fortune the finger and still give love to a world that has taken everything.
For those of us who are a bit more removed: How to provide comfort and support to the sufferers. And also: How to reconcile what has happened with belief in a Just God, or faith in an ordered Universe. Or perhaps: How to let one’s children out of the house and believe they will come back, despite pressing recent evidence to the contrary just up the street. What is a worried mother to do when the very worst has just happened to her friend?
For the rest, for those who glance at the headline and are momentarily unable to move their eyes from the page, the shiver is followed by questions of philosophy, on the suffering of innocents, on cruel randomness in a world where actions should determine outcome, but sadly do not.
My very smart friend Cheryl wrote a solid pop-philosophy book on suffering which sheds some light on the matter, in which she does a really effective riff on the Book of Job, and comes up with lots of questions, and fewer answers, like any good Jew and philosopher ought to.
And my friend Sherri wrote a memoir about this, too, after her son Koby, not yet 14, was viciously murdered, with his friend Yosef, by a terrorist in the Spring of 2001. They had ditched school for an impromptu picnic. I was on my way to meet Sherri that day for a lecture, and in the end met her later among weeping women in her bedroom, in the hours before her son’s funeral.
That was a day that was followed by a year which was followed by another year, and before long, Koby’s friends still showed up to his annual memorial service, only they were men. And Koby isn’t. The world is out of order.
But here’s what Koby is: A foundation, opened by Sherri and Seth Mandell, which has to date helped hundreds of children and parents cope with tragedy. Sherri and Seth are still bereaved, but they still laugh – in fact, a comedy tour is one of the organization’s main fundraisers. And Camp Koby is one of the most sought after counselor positions for teens in this country. This is the way people make sense of things, and this is the only way.
So goes the great dialectic reality we call the human condition: Live as if today is your last, while assuming you will be around to witness the ramifications of your actions for another 100 years. Love as if there’s no tomorrow, and as if you have forever. Treat tragedy as a challenge, and use it to build. Survive with style.
We see that other cultures do other things with tragedy, like stay angry forever and stew in violence, or throw all caution to the wind and party. Neither of these build the world or move us forward as a human race.
This Tisha B’Av, as if history hasn’t provided us with enough reasons to cry, and then to reflect, and then to triumph, the Menora family has our tears, in buckets, and also, our pledge to help them rebuild their lives and improve our collective world however they see fit, and whenever they are ready.
To paraphrase T.S. Elliot: This is the way the world goes on, this is the way the world goes on. Not with a whimper, but with a strut.
(This post also appears on the JPost website.)
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