04/17/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Netzach and Tragedy

Today we began the fourth week of the Omer. In mystical terms, the fourth week corresponds to the Week of Netzach. (Each week of the Omer, according to kabbalistic lore, is connected to one of the seven lower sfirot, which are understood roughly as mystical character traits.) Often translated as eternity, netzach might be the most elusive of the seven sfirot to understand. You think you understand it and then it's gone.

Not surprisingly, the biblical character of Moses is linked to this sfira. The defining "netzach moment" in the Torah is when Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets and his head is surrounded by light. It is so bright that no one can look directly at him. The Talmud says: "The face of Moses is like the face of the sun" (Baba Batra 75a). That is the experience of holding onto netzach; it is too bright that we can barely look at it, much less hold onto it. Which is also indicative of the human relationship to "eternity." We may strive to grab it and hang on to it for dear life, but each time it slips through our fingers. Netzach is G-d's way of reminding us that forever is none of our business. And yet, as a people endowed with what Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach calls "Holy Chutzpah," we somehow persist and keep reaching for it.

Netzach has a way of making us reach for the impossible even as we know it is an exercise in futility. This hopeful act of hopelessness relates to another definition of netzach: endurance. Connecting to netzach is an acknowledgement of staying in for the long haul and becoming painfully aware how impossible the task ahead truly is -- and still going forward. Netzach both cripples us with reality and entices us with challenge because it awakens a deep desire to persist against all odds. Netzach is usually a great story. Unfortunately, not this week.

The story of endurance and eternity is heartbreaking in the wake of the Boston Marathon. There are no satisfiable answers to why these things happen. Just a raging desire to find comfort, any kind of comfort, in the face of a ghastly tragedy. I am grateful to Rabbi Shai Held for making a great effort to do this with his article in Tablet Magazine, "Why First Responders are Jewish Heroes." Cutting through the inherent theodicies in such senseless violence, Rabbi Held step up and gives his Jewish readers a morsel of faith to hold onto in the midst of a deeply troubling moment for our country. Whether or not you agree in the Jewishness of it, most of us should agree that first responders do deserve more recognition for unmatched bravery and selflessness. I am often skeptical of meaning making at such moments, but Rabbi Held's words are bold and comforting.

So we can glean comfort from the caregivers. And many of us will use prayer to comfort those in our community and ourselves in the days ahead. And in the process many will continue to count the Omer. Counting up toward Shavuot, and toward receiving revelation somehow with the belief that receiving Torah can rejuvenate our community. This year, however, revelation feels very distant. I am not sure anything we learn or receive on Shavuot will fill in the void created this week in Boston and the other countless man-made tragedies that fill our headlines. So why count the Omer davka now? I am not sure. In my unknowing I do what I know how to do: offer a prayer.

Dear G-d,

As we begin the week of netzach we are reminded of our never-ending struggle to know you and your plans for us. There is a certain cruelty in having our destiny constantly concealed from us. We see but we are really in the dark. While there is that vague future promise of a time when things will be better, it is not clear how or when or what we will need to do to get ourselves there. And despite your promise to Noah, there are many reasons to believe that we are not going to make it as a species. The case for a bright future is painfully weak today. The evidence that human beings will bring about our own demise is mounting. So I ask you today, especially during the week of netzach, for more endurance. Give us endurance to withstand the urge to succumb to despair. Give us stamina to hang on to the belief in the best of human potential. Give us endurance to remember our fallen loved ones not only today, but heading forward. Let the memories of those whose deaths we cannot easily accept be mourned adequately. And when the time is right, give us strength to reframe our collective sadness into motivation to build. And when the time is right, please do not give victory to the urge to let tragedy pull us down in fear, but help it lift us up toward building the kind of world that our best selves envision. Give us endurance to believe in our best selves, no matter the odds.


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