To begin, you might notice from the picture above that I’ve already shaved off my beard. (For some reason, every time I say the word “beard,” my three year old son Avi hilariously gives me a sing-song shout-out by proclaiming “your beard!!!” and then he spontaneously cracks up. It’s funny and mysterious all at the same time).
I’ve had a beard pretty much permanently since….college? I typically shave the beard off only once a year: the day before Passover, as a way of connecting to the spiritual meaning of growth that I believe is implicit in the season of the Counting of the Omer.
In that sense, the first thing that is disorienting for me today is the fact that my beard is gone…two weeks early. I’ve lost something….a part of myself….and even though the loss was voluntary…and even though it is entirely cosmetic…and even though it will (God-willing) grow back…it is a loss nonetheless. On some level, simply by shaving my beard, I have entered into the world of grief and mourning.
There are other emotions and sensations that I am aware of.
Simply by shaving my beard, I am becoming re-acquainted with how my face feels. It’s a funny way of saying it – but a beard is something of a firewall against certain facial sensations. With the beard gone, I can feel again…the smoothness of my face, and in doing so: I feel…younger.
In this wonderfully liberating way (akin to when I put on a Phillies hat instead of a kippah), I feel less like a rabbi, and more like a regular person. That’s important to me right now….with 1 hr 35 minutes to go. Because even though, on the surface, this is about rabbis (Phyllis and Michael are my colleagues, and someone decided to call this group #36rabbis), being a rabbi has absolutely nothing to do with my reasoning to shave my head.
My colleagues and I are prone to tweet pithy status updates with the hashtag #whatrabbisdo. But, honestly, for me….a more honest description about my act might be #whatpeopledo. Or at the very least: #whatpeopleshoulddo.
We should care, I think, that in the year 2014, when we are privileged to live in moment of history in which it is possible to accurately measure the age of the universe, and when it is possible to send messages to one another from our phones from one side of the globe to the next….I think we should care that in this moment, that it is wrong…existentially speaking…that children should inexplicably die from incurable cancer.
And so, rather than complain about it from the sidelines, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’m going to shave my head (in 1 hr 21 minutes) to raise awareness (on the presumption that people will be asking me 1000 times over the next few weeks why I’ve shaved my head). And I’ve made (in brutal honesty, a relatively minimal) gift of tzedakah to do my part to work for a cure. (You can give too, via St. Baldrick’s.)
But there’s another reason that I’ve decided to go down this road.
We are supposed to say Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet when news reaches us of a loved one’s death, acknowledging that however painful the loss, that there must be a divine sense of justice/order in it. God has God’s reasoning, even if we are not privileged to know it.
I’m relatively far removed from Michael, Phyllis, and their family. I don’t think I ever had the honor of meeting their son Sam – I was going to write “may his memory live on to be for a blessing” but the absolutely extraordinary thing is that, from my vantage point, it already has – anyway…I never had the honor of meeting Sam (again I think of my son, Avi, and their shared identification with Superman), and yet…for me: Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet was not something I could say when I learned of Sam’s passing.
I knew it was coming. I had been following all of the Tweets, and the Facebook messages, and had heard through the grapevine.
And yet in the moment of hearing the news, I would not and could not say the words. There was/is to me an absurdity associated, this year, and on this day, with the notion of believing in a God that would want Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet to be recited on the loss of a child. I have still not been able to make sense of that, theologically. As a rabbi: sure…I would be happy to refer you to Kushner, or if we’re feeling more bold, maybe Rubenstein.
But I’m not a rabbi right now. I’m a person.
I’m a person that – during this entire journey that Phyllis and Michael have been on – I’m a person that only succeeded in picking up the phone once (went to voicemail) to offer my support. Three times I sat down with pen and paper to write a real, live letter to them – and all of those wound up in the trash, along with countless draft emails. Mostly because, as a person, I could not summon the necessary empathy…could not begin to imagine whatever it was that they have been feeling.
Yes, I’m a father. But the fact that I’m a father I think has actually made it harder for me to empathize in this case. Because even though the Sommers’ loss has spurred me to new heights of gratitude, in terms of appreciating the miraculous and blessed existence of Siona and Avi (I feel selfish in this moment admitting that)…nonetheless: how could that possibly enable me to connect (on some human level) to the way that their family has changed?
It is no doubt utterly selfish (yikes, there’s that word again) of me. But I am shaving my head – not just out of a sense of solidarity with Phyllis and Michael, and all of the other friends and colleagues that are gathered at this very moment in Chicago, while I remain here in New York…but also out of the misguided hope that shaving my head will spark .00001% more empathy for me, that I might have a tiny additional sense of what it means to be a human being (and to connect to others human beings) in this world.
To put it another way: I hope and pray that this act of ‘othering myself’ in 1 hr 2 minutes will actually have the opposite effect: that I will grow into a deeper sense of awareness, and maybe even peacefulness. Not with God…for the time being, that ship has sailed. I cannot claim to understand the logic of God in all of this. But maybe a deeper sense of awareness and peacefulness with the rest of humanity….of what it means to be alive, and grateful for that gift of life…and of what it means to love, and to lose.
…הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזֻמָּן
I am hereby ready and prepared: to try harder at fulfilling the mitzvah of being present for friends and colleagues; to try harder at fulfilling the mitzvah of tikkun olam by addressing all of brokenness that pervades our world; and most importantly: I am ready and prepared, to shave my head, and to perhaps attain a fuller sense of what it means to be human in the process.
Sending my hugs, and all of my love…or at least as much as the Internet can carry…to Phyllis and Michael, and to every one of my friends and colleagues in Chicago.
48 minutes to go. SuperCuts: here I come.