From what I understand, Nostradamus, the well-known prognosticator, was born on Dec. 14 in 1503. The fact that all these centuries later we still know his name is testimony to the lasting power of nahreshkeit (foolishness). There's nothing like an apocalypse to get the imagination racing.
I had planned to write about the end of the world. According to some Mayan calendar, the apocalypse will occur today (Dec. 21, 2012). A surprising number of folks from all over the world have embraced this notion and are busy doing what people do who believe in such a mind numbing fantasy. To say that I am a skeptic would be the grossest of understatements.
On Dec. 14, around noon, I began to hear about the horror in Newtown, Conn., and I wanted -- needed -- to somehow address this unspeakable crime. Not that words can change a thing. But at the very least I want to share my sorrow with you.
For those who lost a child or a loved one, Dec. 14 was and will be their apocalypse. The world that they knew, that they counted on, will be forever changed. Of course we pray that in time, the mourners will emerge from their grief, scarred but able to smile and to laugh and to love again. But we know how hard it will be. This sort of traumatic and savage loss attacks the soul like a stroke.
Some of the TV coverage seems so rude and intrusive, but we watch because we are desperate to know. We all feel somehow included. We begin to imagine the unimaginable. We replay the last words we shared with our kids when they left for school. We think about our grown children out in the world and when last we told them how much we loved them. We think of our partners, our friends, our relatives, off to their job sites, seemingly safe places immune to violence of any kind. And then we think, dear God, it all hangs by a slender thread. Take one letter from Newtown, and it is us.
We and everyone we know and love are vulnerable, to mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, to drunken drivers, to madmen with guns, to a falling brick, to a truly infinite number of hazards, large and tiny. This is the essential tragedy of life. But it is also a reminder that every day is precious. It's a reminder that how we love brings light into darkness.
Of course there is no magic, no power to bring back those who have been taken from us. We are left with memory, and that must be enough, as insufficient as it may be. Dannel Malloy, governor of Connecticut asked that we "remember all of the victims in our prayers." This we will do. And we will together work to arrive at some means by which such violence might be averted in the future. Anything less mocks the dead.
Tonight we light the Shabbat candles. And even with heavy hearts we celebrate, we embrace life and the time we have together. We truly don't know what will be. We don't know what will be tomorrow morning. All we know in this moment is that we have each other. And that is enough. Make it count.
Rabbi Keith Stern is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Mass. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California, and two MA degrees from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Hebrew Letters and in Jewish Communal Service. He demonstrates an energetic and passionate enthusiasm for Jewish living, worship, and learning, and is deeply committed to teaching at all levels. Rabbi Stern and his wife Liza (a respected rabbi as well) have five children. Both have New England roots: Keith grew up in Middletown, Connecticut, and Liza spent her childhood in Newton.