The last time I looked, the death count was up to 84 in the horrific attack in Nice, France.
Once again, I’m at camp during a horrific attack. I was at Camp Coleman last summer for the horrific massacre in Charleston. I was leaving for Coleman this summer when the horrific news broke of 50 people being murdered in the Pulse club in Orlando. And, I’m ensconced at Kutz now, getting dribs and drabs of horrific news about the dozens dead on a beautiful plaza in France. It’s so strange—camp is, by design, a bubble, cut off from most of the world. The Internet stinks up here, so it’s hard to get updates, but more than that—camp is its own world, and even when I’m absorbed in the news, the minute I step outside, camp-life seems to take over. I’m back to thinking about teaching Mindfulness, or laughing with a kid, or complaining about the food. Horrific as it is to say, it’s like it didn’t really happen.
But, I realize that it’s not just because I’m at camp. A young staff member here said something which resonated deeply with me, when we were processing this news last night. He said that he’s at the point where the news doesn’t even evoke an immediate emotional reaction. He has to search for it. 84 dead? Oh, that’s awful, I say to myself in an almost matter-of-fact way. I have to stop for a minute and really focus, really think about what it means for 84 people to be murdered at once. Maybe try to picture some bodies. Then I can start to feel appropriately horrified. But, these atrocities have become so commonplace that my normal, instinctive reaction has been numbed. One of the other faculty members here wondered if that’s what’s behind the need to actually see graphic photos and video of these kinds of attacks—the spare, objective text doesn’t get to us. We need something more visceral, more assaultive of our senses, to get us to the place where we know we’re supposed to be: horrified.
The thought that I could hear the news of 84 people being killed and, if I’m not attentive and careful, walk away as if nothing really happened is a deeply frightening thought. Disturbing as hell, to be honest.
I had the chance to teach some Heschel this week (to some truly amazing kids). I explained to them Heschel’s idea that religion was, in large part, a program for maladjustment to the world around us. That is, in the course of ordinary life, we tend to get numb to the world—acclimated. That means that we don’t see it in all of its depth. What was once so impactful on us becomes that which just is. Unremarkable. And so, we have to have systems and programs in place which will help us to become de-acclimated, so that we can again see things as if for the first time. Usually, Heschel is talking about the good stuff—about training ourselves to not take anything in this world for granted, from a beautiful sunset to a small morsel of food. But, it also goes for the bad stuff—we have to face each horrific tragedy as if it were the first horrific tragedy. We have to refuse to shrug our shoulders and world-wearily ask, “What is the world coming to?” as if that were a reasonable question to have to ask. We have to refuse to accept that this is what qualifies for normal, no matter how normal it actually becomes.
It’s painful, to see the world in all of its depth. But, the alternative seems even more painful, in a much deeper way.
It’s been reminding me of one of the poems which I learned through my time with The Institute for Jewish Spirituality:
Behaving Like a Jew Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems
When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
--I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
I’m not trying to imply (and, I’m assuming that the author wasn’t either) that this kind of constant openness to pain, and to caring, is unique to Jews. But, it is characteristic. At least, it’s supposed to be. That is, it’s not that only Jews care so much. But, if you are a Jew, and you don’t care, then what does that say about you, as a Jew? Or as a human being?
Today, I will not be numb. Today, I will behave like a Jew.