"And on the seventh day, He rested."
"And on the seventh year, the land lay fallow."
For the Sassoon family, it was all about seven this past Shabbat: the seventh day of the week-Shabbat- on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month of the calendar-Nissan-, on the seventh year of the seven year cycle-Shmita- a fire ripped through their Brooklyn home and, in minutes, their seven children died.
Throughout history, human beings have always tried to make sense of tragic events that cannot be rationalized or condensed into the human mind, trying to find meaning in either the time or place of the tragedy.
In Judaism, seven is a number that represents all things natural that need to come to a rest. In fact, in the Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides speaks about nature and its cyclical rhythm being a testament to G-d's never ending presence and power.
But there is nothing natural about seven children dying.
When I first heard the Sassoon story I felt a kind of paralysis.
Then I started thinking, God, the one who can intervene at any moment with nature-we state this in the second blessing of the amidah-why couldn't He intervene here? Save even one more child? It wasn't as if God would be meddling with another person's free will here. It was just a fire.
And then I remembered the numbers negotiation Abraham has with God (Genesis 18:22) after the three men visit him to inform him that he will merit a child, and be a father of a great nation.
None of the messages really made sense to Abraham: Now, finally at age 100, he will father a single child, from his 90 year old wife, and this will be the answer to the covenant promising greatness? But perhaps the messages the angels brought fostered a feeling within Abraham that he could negotiate with God. That, while God draws up his master blueprint, we can come in and ask for a little more leg room here, and some extra sunlight there.
But what Abraham's narrative teaches us is that we cannot negotiate with divine justice because we do not understand it, and it will always remain inaccessible to us. No matter how God communicates His plans to us, no matter how much is revealed to us-as is evident with Abraham- it will not make sense. This was one of the first and fundamental lessons in faith to the founder of monotheism. And, yet, millennia later it remains a natural human response to tragedy to ask, like Abraham, "Will you wipe out the wicked with the righteous?"
We are headed into Passover whose centerpiece is the asking of the four questions by our children. The heritage of our tradition is asking questions, believing there to be a dialectic between us and our children, and us and our ancestors. Yet, when faced with tragedy, shaking our heads, thrusting our fists in the air, we ask, we question, we demand, even though we know that with God, the dialectic is different. But when we ask these questions, the questions echo back to us-we can hear our own voices, carrying the voices of many Jews past, faced with God on the one hand, and tragedy on the other.
"Ma Ha'avoda hazot lachem," what is this faith-worship that you do, the fourth son asks on the seder night.
How do you have faith in a God, who is silent to your pain?
A person of faith knows that the silence is their own. Standing before an unfathomable event, it becomes clear that we do not exercise the control we believe to be exercising in our lives. We do many things that give us an illusion of control. The only control we get to exercise is that of choice. We can choose how to react. In the face of tragedy, when all rationality seems to have been suspended, we can choose how to react, how to anchor ourselves in this world.
At the core of our reaction to tragedy is not only shock and sadness for those who have suffered, but we are also reacting to our own mortality, because death has been magnified, getting hotter, hotter, closer and closer. Our sense of powerlessness in this vast universe gets triggered. For a moment, the twin side of life becomes revealed; and it is so final. Often, tragedy and death come in the most unexpected ways, in the most mundane moments. Facing our limited being in this vastness, we attempt to draw up explanations, precautions, relieved at not being the target of the randomness of it all. How many homes last Friday night did not having working fire alarms and hot plates turned on? We assuage ourselves with "Next time we will do this" or "we won't ever go there" or "we will make certain to buy this or vote for that", etc. Ultimately, none of this takes away our vulnerable selves that are momentarily revealed to us.
For the Sassoon family, no doubt, this seder will be different than all other nights. Their questions will not be proscribed, seven seats empty.
But from the long night I spent with Gayle 16 years ago, with her baby girl on her shoulder, I remember a woman with noticeable strength of spirit. It is with this spirit that she walked through a fire to attempt to save her children. And, I pray, with this spirit, and with our empathic support, her family finds the strength to live.
For the rest of us, thinking about endings, even tragic ones- does not have to only be sad. Thinking about death can also propel us to grasp at life with renewed vigor and strength. Whether that means renewing our own conversation with a Higher Power, or going at a dream or lifelong shelved project, reducing our demands on our children and spouses, and, instead, being in the moment with them.
It means taking our shock, grief, and even anger toward action, recognizing the limited time life offers us. We are here on loan. As we live, we discover the terms of this loan. Everything we own has really been loaned to us. Through this perspective we can become that much more grateful for whatever has been loaned to us, and be less disappointed in God for what we believe was rightfully owed to us. Through grief, our expectations change, and gratitude takes a larger role in our lives.
Yet, experiencing grief-as many of us have from the Sassoon tragedy- means understanding that there is something larger than our rational minds, understanding that God's sheet music looks entirely different than ours and whose 'building code' will never make sense to us as long as we are corporeal beings; and it means that we can live more fully if we can accept this.