An unbelievably short time ago, on Friday, April 12th, I and members of our Central Reform Temple family were completing our ten day pilgrimage and study mission in Israel.
On that day, we were in Jerusalem, as preparations for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath were unfolding. In a palpable sense of cessation and anticipation unique to that holy city, the arrival of Shabbat is viscerally felt. Beginning at noon, the usually bustling streets almost magically become quiet and deserted…the traffic on the highways disappears…storefronts are shuttered… and a quiet peace descends upon the city as the golden hues of the sun begin to fade, ushering in the sacred day of prayer and rest.
Our group of Bostonians had experienced a week of intense emotion and inspiration, mixed with clear, unvarnished confrontations with the complex challenges , the tensions and pressures, encompassed in this “City of Peace” that has seen so much conflict. And yet, in the midst of the renewed threats coming from rocket attacks from the Syrian border during our visit, we all felt safe and secure. We reached that final day of our stay filled with gratitude that the peace of the Sabbath had indeed embraced us throughout our week in Israel.
One week later…to the very hour… at noon this past Friday, April 19th, the exact same scene of deserted streets and shuttered stores was replicated here in Boston. But this was not a sign of the arrival of the Sabbath peace. It was the fearful and anxiety-filled unfolding of the final chapter of the tragedy that has engulfed all of us over the past few days. The dramatic irony was overwhelming for those of us who had just returned from 10 safe and peaceful days in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region – only to face terrorism here in our own city.
Even articulating these words, “terrorism in Boston”- seems surreal and unimaginable. At this moment, not even one week after the horror that changed all of our lives, it still seems impossible that all of this could have really happened…
And yet – it did happen – and the terrible reality is a gaping would in our minds and hearts. Once again, we have experienced a transforming “where were you when” moment in our lives – a day, a week that none of us will ever forget… and many of our neighbors will continue to painfully relive daily for the rest of their lives.
Coming together for a Service of Remembrance and Healing, in shared support and loving friendship, cannot but bring to mind the other times of national tragedy that we have endured together over the years. The emotions of the past few days have brought back so many echoes of Oklahoma City…of September 11th…of Newtown. And as with so many historic events of our rime, we all experienced the dramatic developments of this past week in real time – either at the very location of the tragedy, within a few short blocks of this very place… or glued to our television screens or computer monitors. It has been a week of powerful visual images that are seared into our consciousness. And it has also been an unending flow of words…the breathless updates of reporters… the commentary of pundits and experts… the truly inspiring and comforting messages of our local and national leaders.
We have heard the reflections of various religious representatives – some conventionally parochial and others genuinely moving, healing and prophetic, reaching out to embrace all of us…
And we have also been challenged and encouraged by the very powerful messages of our civic leaders- the dogged determination of Mayor Menino… the clear vision and strong leadership of Governor Patrick…and, once again, the rich imagery and soaring eloquence of President Obama. Their words of hope and confidence, their messages of compassion for the families of the dead and those who were injured, their praise for the courage of the first responders and for the generosity of spirit that poured forth from the people of Boston, were all enormously helpful and healing for all of us. So much so, that perhaps too many more words, beyond those of prayer and song, may indeed be excessive and presumptuous at this time.
Just being able to come together…just having been able to leave our homes and arrive here safely… just being able to be together- after a harrowing week of fear and isolation –this is enough of a message for this moment… as are the emotions that cannot be expressed by the further multiplication of words and attempts at wisdom. The human stories of courage and selflessness that will continue to emerge will be the most eloquent sermons. And so, I will not speak too many more words this morning. The wisdom has already been imparted… the stirring messages and challenges have already been spoken.
So let me share just a few impressions that remain in the forefront of my consciousness. I hope that they might reflect many of your own feelings and thoughts, and perhaps help you to process the deep emotions we have all been confronting over the past few days.
I am thinking of the tearful encounters with the Marathon runners I spoke with on Tuesday, right after the attack, when I and my fellow Back Bay clergy colleagues took to the streets to meet with and offer support for the throngs of shell-shocked visitors who were still out following the violent end of the race. I spoke with people from Minneapolis, Washington DC, and Utah. In the midst of their own trauma, each of them wanted to thank the people of this great and beautiful city. They vowed to return – both to visit and to run again. And I could not help but think that perhaps the conventional, clichéd images of Boston – perpetuated by lurid Southie mobster movies and Saturday Night Live skits might finally melt away… and once again we could reclaim our role as the “City on the Hill”… a place of learning and creativity… the cradle of liberty. Not only the home of the Red Socks, Celtics and Bruins, but the very essence of the ”Spirit of America.”
Another impression I come away with this week is of the countless messages that I- and I’m sure, each of you- received from so many friends and even distant acquaintances, from around the world. Emails, Facebook posts and phone calls, all expressing deep concern and sharing their sadness for what we were going through here in Boston. These genuine human connections were so helpful and encouraging for all of us- and I hope that such personal ties of sensitivity and support will remain one of the many positive things that may come out of this difficult time.
Another visual image that remains in my consciousness… as we were all sitting in front of our TV screens on Friday evening, breathlessly watching the drama of the capture in Watertown, I wonder if some of you may have also noticed something at once incongruous and yet so overwhelmingly powerful about the scene. In the midst of the wall of police vehicles and SWAT trucks, and the crowds of heavily armed troops converging on the street where the fugitive suspect was being apprehended, there stood- at the very center of the television camera’s view – the most beautiful azalea tree and budding forsythia bushes…
I hope that it does not sound trite that in the unbearable anxiety of those moments, when a final suicide explosion could well have detonated and taken more lives before our very eyes – I felt the need to focus my attention on those beautiful signs of life…of calm…of the eternal hope of rebirth and renewal of this season. There was something about the brilliant colors of the pink and yellow blossoms, in the midst of the blazing police lights and the fearful events being played out before us, that somehow gave me hope that this nightmare would end…
And one final impression… later that Sabbath Eve, when the drama had concluded, I reflected once again back on the previous week, in Jerusalem. I felt deeply that Boston had also emerged as a Holy City. Prevented by the emergency from gathering with our congregation in worship that night, I closed my eyes and sensed that God had indeed been with us throughout this painful week. The selfless courage, the boundless compassion, the determination and resilience, the shared prayers, were all signs of the Divine Presence in our midst. Many surely questioned where God was in the brutal deaths of a smiling gap-toothed little boy and two lovely young women, who had come to be part of a time of happy gathering of our community. And we know that indeed, God was with us… in the pain and sorrow, and in the nobility of our collective response to the pain and sorrow.
The Boston Globe columnist, Juliette Kayyem, in an insightful reflection a few days ago on the challenge we now face to carry on and move forward, began her essay with a surprising and obscure quote from- of all people- my old Seminary professor, Rabbi Stanley Chyet. I have no idea where she found this passage, which I had never heard. Having known him well- as both a Jewish historian and a gifted poet, I was so moved by this unexpected encounter with the memory of my old friend and teacher. These words offer us a fitting message as we resolve to begin the healing of our beloved city…
We ought not pray for what we have never known:
Unbroken peace…unmixed blessing…
Better to pray for the will to see and touch…
The power to do good…and to make new.
To which we say… Amen!
Rabbi Howard Berman A. Berman is Founding Rabbi of Central Reform Temple, two blocks from the bomb site. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. These words are adapted from a sermon delivered after the tragedy in Boston.