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Toward Shabbat: Mishpatim

It’s been more than two years since I last entered the Katie Sanders and Lawrence Gardner Teen Lounge on the mezzanine in the Community House. While my body hasn’t been there in a long time, my heart and soul will always be imprinted with the life and legacy of Katie and Lawrence. Four years ago, Katie and Lawrence both died of cancer at too young an age, within a few short months of one another, leaving their young daughter, family, and community bereft.  

One of the most humbling aspects of the rabbinate is accompanying people through the literal or figurative valley of the shadow of death. In my almost 23 years as a rabbi, I have not only been deeply broken by the darkness and devastation that life brings forth, but I have also been inspired and strengthened by the resilience, faith, and vision amidst such heartbreak and tragedy.  

In his new book On Consolation, Canadian author, academic, and former politician Dr. Michael Ignatieff writes:

Both ancients and moderns accepted that there are some losses that are irremediable; some experiences from which we cannot fully recover; some scars that heal but do not fade. The challenge of consolation in our time is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.

Ignatieff acknowledges that in a success-driven culture like ours, there isn’t a lot of patience for failure and loss. No one wants the consolation prize. Yet in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, he says, he has been heartened and inspired by the awakening of the enterprise of consolation, providing meaning and a search for solace through forces of creativity. In the midst of a feeling of doom, the decay of democracy, and the melting of the planet, there has been a profound need to find hope.

And thus the book begins with the biblical character Job and the Book of Psalms, which in various ways articulate the search for meaning and justice amidst despair. They offer us the earliest expression of the desire for consolation, and we have continued to turn to them to seek their wisdom. We are not alone in feeling these are the worst of times: Throughout history, feelings of injustice, devastation, and plague have remained a central feature of living. And yet, there is an accumulated wisdom of how individuals and traditions have found a pathway forward in the darkness and asserted that there is a future of possibility.

I have only read a handful of chapters of On Consolation so far, yet I can already deeply understand how it relates to what I’ve experienced. I find myself reviewing the ways I have been touched and transformed by the wisdom lived by members of our community who found a way to put one foot in front of the other in the most trying of circumstances.

Katie and Lawrence were two such people. They have been very much on my mind these days, as their daughter is becoming a Bat Mitzvah in less than a month in Minnesota. Several years ago, when it was clear that Katie would not live to be at the Bat Mitzvah, she adamantly told me, “Make sure the Bat Mitzvah is filled with joy.” Amidst such sadness and loss, she encouraged love and joy and asserted that life should be filled with happiness even after devastation.   

Even with all the privileges some of us have, life does not provide guarantees or protection. For those of us who live with faith, we don’t have easy answers to the small private tragedies of our existence nor the grand global injustices that devastate us. However, throughout both the history of the world and our own personal story, there are models of wisdom, voices of imagination, and transformative melodies that help us sing through the pain. We must use those inspirations, combined with our own lived experiences of how we’ve endured through previous hard times, to learn what gave us strength and hope and to slowly move ourselves forward.

Though we walk through many shadow valleys, our cups can still run over. May we find the ways and the wisdom to drink from that well of sustenance.