Category Archives: response to tragedy

On grief and moving forward

Dear all,

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of our congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday’s outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one’s house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as “Go forth,” but they can also be understood to mean “Go into yourself.” Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds — of race and creed and sexual orientation — are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don’t know how we will do that. I don’t know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.


Joy amidst mourning

All week I’ve been thinking about what I might say here in shul this morning. Mere commentary on this week’s Torah portion feels insufficient. How can I talk about the rituals of the nazir, one who makes promises to God — or the ritual of the sotah, designed to banish a husband’s jealousy — or even the priestly blessing that we just read together — when LGBTQ members of our community are grieving so deeply? And yet faced with the enormity of the tragedy at Pulse last weekend, my words fail me.

Into this moment of grief comes an expression of great joy. Just moments ago we welcomed a beautiful little girl into the covenant and into our community. What words of meaning can I offer to her two mothers now?

I can say: you belong here. In this community those of us who are straight aspire to be thoughtful and sensitive allies, so that those of us who are queer can feel safe expressing all of who we are.

I can say: tell us what you need. Tell us where we are falling down on the job of making this a safe and celebratory and welcoming home for you, and we will try to do better. I can say: your child will always have a home here, no matter how her gender expression manifests or who she loves.

And I can say: all of us here commit ourselves to building a world in which hate crimes are unimaginable. A world in which no one could feel hatred toward another human being because of that person’s race or gender expression or sexual orientation or religion. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that world?

Can you imagine a world in which the tools of massacre no longer exist? In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them back into plowshares first.”

Our tradition has a name for this imagined world in which hatred has vanished like a wisp of smoke: moshiachtzeit, a world redeemed. I don’t know whether we will ever get there. But I know that we can’t stop trying.

And there is a very old Jewish teaching that each new baby contains all the promise of moshiachtzeit, all the promise of a world redeemed. Maybe this baby will help to bring about the healing of the world for which we so deeply yearn.

May we rise to the occasion of being her community. May we support her and her mothers. May we take action to lift them up and to keep them safe. And may we work toward a world redeemed in which all of our differences are celebrated and sanctified as reflections of the Holy One.

And let us say, together: amen.


These are the words Rabbi Rachel spoke from the bimah yesterday morning at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Grieving the shooting in Orlando

Dear CBI Members and Friends,

On Sunday morning, as we were celebrating the festival of Shavuot — when we commemorate and re-experience the revelation of Torah after 49 days of eager counting — unthinkable violence was taking place at a nightclub called Pulse in Orlando, Florida. Even as those of us who had stayed up into the wee hours studying Torah were reveling in the pleasure of communal learning, 49 members of the GLBTQ community who had gone that night to Pulse were losing their lives.

Our tradition teaches that we must rejoice in our festivals. But what can it mean to rejoice in our festivals when we are filled with grief? I found myself on Shavuot morning thinking about the glass we shatter at every Jewish wedding, the reminder that even in our times of greatest joy there is brokenness and sorrow. Our challenge is figuring out how to celebrate life even as we grieve — and how to be fueled by our grief to work for a more just world, a world of wholeness and peace. May it be so, speedily and soon.

I enclose below a few words from my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and myself, and also a liturgical poem written by Rabbi David (both originally posted at Kol ALEPH). May all who mourn be comforted.

In grief —

Rabbi Rachel

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal expresses horror, shock and grief for the victims of Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We stand with all – LGBTQA or straight, those who identify with any faith or with none at all – whose hearts break for the victims, for their loved ones, for a community’s peace shattered, for hope and safety shaken, for rights and dignity trampled, and for political rhetoric arousing religious hatred in its wake. We fervently pray to heal the injured, and we re-dedicate our hearts and hands to building a world in which the twin scourges of violence and hatred end.

In grief and solidarity, we offer this liturgical poem by Rabbi David Evan Markus for use in vigils and prayer services. May the Source of Peace bring comfort to all who mourn, and inspire all to build an ever more just world, speedily and soon.

– Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus
Co-Chairs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal

The Pulse of Revelation

For Orlando, America and people of courage everywhere

This is not the revelation we awaited
After weeks of step by sand-blind step
To that mountain owned by no one,
Senses scrambled, seeing thunder.

What was to be a loving night for
Thunder’s pulse and wisdom’s echo
Became at Pulse a staccato of shots
Because they loved who they loved.

What was to be the culmination of
Fifty days of courtship after bondage
Became blood-streaked caged hunt
Expelling fifty souls from earthly bond.

What was to be a party of plenty
Lifting the omer of bounty to heaven
Became the hellfire of one Omar
Inflicted on a war-weary world.

What was to be of these holy names –
Edward, Stanley, Amanda, Enrique,
Brenda, Jean, Kim and Angel –
Magnified and sanctified in memory?

What is to be of these holy names –
Omar, Ahmed, Amir and Mohammed,
Loyal citizens of this land of the free –
Bracing for wrongful blame or worse?

What is to be of this nation, this moment,
This generation beaten and bloodied into
Protest by tweet while guns blaze and
Medics race hope herself into surgery?

What is to be of this world, slammed by
Sloshing storm tides of hateful mistrust,
Carrying the words of a politics of rage
Hot enough to boil the sea and all of us?

This is not the revelation we awaited.
It comes not in frantic texts, gunfire or death.
It comes not in body bags and funerals.
It comes not in talk show recrimination.

Let Revelation hallow the ground of Pulse.
Let its wisdom resound forever, booming as
Thunder we will see in vigils and legislatures,
Scrambling us all back to our senses

So that finally we hasten the day when
God will bless us and keep us.
God will illuminate us and give us grace.
God will turn with us and give us, all, peace.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus
The revelation we awaited – The massacre at Pulse occurred on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, commemorating the revelation of Torah at Sinai. Owned by no one – Torah came in wilderness to signify that just as wilderness is ownerless and open, so must we be ownerless and open to receive wisdom anew (Numbers Rabbah 1:7). Seeing thunder – The scene at Sinai was so awesome that it scrambled human senses into synesthesia (Rashi Ex.20:18). A loving night – In Jewish tradition, Shavuot is the spiritual wedding of God and the people, Sinai the chuppah (wedding canopy) and Torah the ketubah (wedding contract).Party of plenty – In agricultural days, Shavuot was festival of first fruits for joy (Deut. 16:11). Lifting the omer – At Shavuot, the omer (grain measure) was lifted to God in gratitude (Lev. 23:15). The hellfire of one Omar – The lone gunman Omar Mateen. Magnified and sanctified – The opening words of Mourners Kaddish. Fifty days of courtship after bondage – Tradition calls for counting the fifty days (Lev. 23:16) from Passover’s release from Egyptian bondage. God bless us – From the Priestly (Threefold, Kohenic) Blessing of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso (Num. 6:24-26).

A Shabbat of solidarity and celebration

Screen-shot-2012-08-13-at-5.43.04-PM-325x167Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Today the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. The right to marry is now granted to all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, in every state of the Union.

When Massachusetts first took the bold step of making gay marriage legal in 2004, I called a florist in Cambridge and ordered bouquets of flowers to be delivered to same-sex couples who were standing in line outside of city hall. I could not have imagined then that we would see this equality spread from our small state throughout the contours of our nation by 2015.

At tomorrow morning’s Shabbat service we will sing a shehecheyanu, the blessing which sanctifies time, and recite a special marriage equality blessing (from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav) in celebration of this historic moment.

Across the Jewish denominations this Shabbat had already been declared to be a Shabbat Of Solidarity With African Americans. Tomorrow morning we will also encounter a powerful poem by Rabbi James Stone Goodman written in the wake of the tragic shooting at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

We are also mindful of the three terrorist attacks which took place today across the globe — in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait. We grieve with those who lost loved ones in those places, and in Charleston, and everywhere else marred by violence… even as we celebrate today’s historic marriage equality victory.

At every Jewish wedding, we break a glass. Explanations for this custom abound, but the one which resonates most with me is that even in our moments of greatest celebration, we remember that there is brokenness in our world. May this Shabbat soothe the brokenness and lift up the celebration in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom —

Rabbi Rachel

Shabbat in the wake of tragedy

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shabbat is coming: that time of sweetness, that “taste of the world to come,” when tradition teaches each of us is enlivened by an extra Shabbat soul.

During the week now ending, the sanctity and safety of a historic African American church in Charleston, SC was shattered by an act of hatred. A white gunman took advantage of their hospitality and welcome, spent an hour purporting to join them in prayer, and then killed nine members of that church, leaving the tenth alive to tell the tale.

Our world desperately needs Shabbat peace this week.

Our hearts are with the community of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. We grieve their losses. May the One Who makes peace in the highest heavens bring balm and comfort to their hearts.

The name of their church, Emmanuel, means in Hebrew “God With Us.” May God be with them in their grief. And may God be with us as we drink deeply of the well of Shabbat replenishment and renewal, and then enter the new week rededicated to the task of building a world redeemed.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Join us tomorrow morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning worship led by Rabbi Pam Wax (we are trying hard to make a minyan for the Bashevkins; please join us if you can) and tomorrow afternoon at 5pm for mincha / maariv / havdalah services and our celebration of Rose Gotlieb becoming bat mitzvah.

D’var Torah for Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shootings

Here’s the brief d’var Torah which Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

raging-bull-attacking-charging-woodcut-illustration-angry-facing-front-snorting-done-retro-style-32193042In this week’s Torah portion we receive a wealth of ethical commandments.

For instance: When an ox gores someone to death, kill the ox, but don’t punish its owner. But, if the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner knows that but fails to guard it, and it gores someone to death — then punish its owner, because the person who had responsibility failed to act.

I’ve read this verse many times before. But this year I couldn’t help reading it through the lens of the news story I’ve been following this week.

This week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man entered the apartment of two neighbors and shot the couple and the woman’s younger sister in the head, execution-style. He later turned himself in and claimed that he killed them over a parking dispute.

The three young people who were murdered were Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, aged 23, 21, and 19.Deah and Yusor were newlyweds, married in December. They were dentistry students who donated their dental expertise to the local homeless community, taught kids about dental hygiene at the local library in their spare time, and raised money and dental supplies to take to Turkey so they could help Syrian regufees. Razan was a college kid, a student of architecture and environmental design. All three of them were pillars of their community. Deah, Yusor, and Razan  were Muslim.

This act would be atrocious no matter who the victims were. But it is extra-heartbreaking to me because they were so young, and so idealistic, and so full of life.

The man who killed them was a known anti-theist — not merely an atheist, but someone who loathed religion. He had posted nasty anti-Muslim language on Facebook. He had harassed these victims before. The young married woman had told her father, “He hates us because of who we are.”

What he did was beastly. And when I read the verses about the ox who gores someone to death, I think of this man who killed three innocent souls for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

And then I wonder: who is responsible for the behavior of the ox? In the Torah, the answer is clear: its owner, if that owner had any suspicion that the ox would behave in such a way.

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Mourning the three Israeli teenagers

The CBI community joins the rest of the Jewish world, and those of all faiths who honor the image of God in every human being, in mourning the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. We hold their grieving families in our hearts. We know that we can barely begin to imagine what they are going through. May they be upheld by the loving support of their community at this terrible time.

A memorial service is being planned for Wednesday evening at 7:30pm at Congregation Ahavath Sholom, 15 North Street, Great Barrington.

May the Source of Peace bring comfort to their families, and to all who mourn. Baruch dayan ha-emet.