Terror, Prayer and the Stories of the Heart has been sent

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 26, 2017 / 1 Sivan 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses what the horrific terror attack in England communicates, as well as the messages that prayer and the stories of the heart convey.

I hope to see you on Tuesday night for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot starting at 6:30 for a short ceremony as we dedicate our new peace pole, located in the traffic circle island. We have some wonderful classes lined up–7 in all plus a panel discussion. There will be some great learning happening. On Wednesday during services, our youngest folk will join us in services and also visit the peace pole and the many written blessings they prepared for the occasion.

The forms of human communication can seem limitless. We communicate through dance and song, painting and photography, sermonizing and sitcoms. Our ancestors decorated their yokes and plows, as though to inform themselves and others of the sanctify of labor itself.

This week, as we begin the book of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers, we encounter communication through structure. Bemidbar opens with a census of men who have reached fighting age–twenty and above. Within the formal structure of that census, we come to see how a role is assigned to each of the Israelite tribes. While we moderns are acutely aware of the absence of roles for women the Torah portrays there, we still can learn from this structure how an ideal society ought to ensure that every person has a purpose.

Yet this week, three particular forms of communication stand out. The first is violence, the second is prayer and the third are the stories of the heart.

The Language of Violence

The terrorist attack in Manchester, England after an Ariana Grande concert was particularly gruesome. Her fan base skews young, with a large segment between the ages of eight and eighteen. Some of those children have now lost their lives; all of them have felt the impact of terror’s violence. Their lives have encountered chaos’ trajectory. In its aftermath, it is still too early to learn whether they will be derailed or find a new direction and purpose for their days.

There are a lot of ways to view this latest suicide bombing. Some will call for escalated military action against Daesh (ISIS), who have claimed credit for the attack. Others will argue that we need to enhance opportunity for everyone, so that people will choose a productive life rather than resorting to such despicable acts. A quick scan of social media also produces the normal platitudes: we will not give in to fear! we will live a life of joy and freedom! terrorists don’t get to dictate our actions!

All of that is to be expected. Violence, after all, and terror in particular, is the ultimate rorschach test. It is primal scream material, all rage with no clear message. Are we to gather from the death of girls that the West is corrupt? That Islam is wicked and we are facing a clash or civilizations? That foreigners should be kept out or welcomed in and embraced?

That is the ultimate power of terror, more even than the fear it sows or the destruction it leaves in its wake. For chaos undermines civilization itself. Terror’s very incomprehensibility–or rather its rorschach capacity to generate mutually contradictory meanings, is the seed of its power. A society responds by throwing up all these answers simultaneously, and without clear consensus, fragments further. Our biases are confirmed. Terror and violence are thus extremely effective, even as most of us find them morally reprehensible.

The Language of Prayer

Yesterday morning, our State legislators held an ecumentical prayer breakfast. I had been invited to give the opening invocation, but more local obligations kept me from attending. In a conversation beforehand with Bob Mumford, he informed me how he hoped that turning to a higher power might help heal some of the seemingly insolvable rifts that prevent our elected officials from better working together. I was sufficiently touched by his motivation to compose a few words and a prayer poem, which was read in my absence. While the prayer is too long for this column, here are some introductory remarks which hopefully can provide some insight on what it is that prayer expresses.

To us moderns, prayer can sometimes seem like a hollow activity. After all, it is easy to get discouraged. Yet the work you do this morning matters.

For prayer is not only a cry sent skyward, but an expression of our fervent wishes and the values we wish to live by. We turn those wishes into prayer when they seem too far from our reach. Yet by daring to utter our hopes and by calling on help from above, we can galvanize ourselves into action. Many a hopeless person has been saved by a prayer made in simple sincerity.

The Stories of the Heart

Last night, a cross-section of individuals from Neveh Shalom and around the larger community gathered for our latest Israel360 program. Elad Vazana, our skillful facilitator, shared his own story of serving in the Israeli army. He grew up with a father prone to violence and angry outbursts, and wanted most of all not to replicate that behavior. Yet lurking within almost all people is the propensity to use violent means. War surfaces that deep-seated drive. Placed in impossible circumstances, which included an order to bind an eight year old boy, Elad was grateful when his service was over. Like many Israelis, he traveled abroad afterward in a rite of passage to “clear the head.”

In his case, that took him to Spain where he learned about the golden reign of Andalusia when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative harmony (some serious primary documents and archaeology do challenge and limit this claim btw). Regardless, it motivated him to return to Israel and forge connections between erstwhile enemies–the Palestinians and Israelis.

Using some of the techniques he learned in that work, Vazana led us in a moving exercise where pairs of us shared what we had each been taught about “the other.” Through a well-orchestrated evening, he was able to provide a valuable experience even to those people who don’t consider themselves “touchy-feely.” What spoke most clearly was that when we share our stories of the heart–those experiences that shape us for good or bad–with a compassionate listener, we each come out changed for the better.

Overcoming the language of violence may not be easy. It may sometimes seem like we are taking two steps backwards. Yet enemies can become friends. Practiced enough, we can make sure that those who commit senseless acts of terror remain a small minority. In a pre-messianic world, perhaps that is enough.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

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