Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
It is amazing how we are able to draw together in our minds the disparate images of our daily experience in order to understand the truth. Consider what happened to me recently, at the beginning of the war in Iraq. One Sabbath evening, I taught my congregants about the concept of the Sabbath as a day that helps us to transcend the world and all of its imperfections. For twenty five hours each week, we put the world as it is on hold and live on an island in time, thus giving ourselves a taste of paradise, the world as it ought to be. The next morning, on Saturday, I woke up before everyone else, and the blessed stillness lent my house a feeling of Sabbath serenity. One of my children woke up after me, snuggled with me on our sofa, and asked me to read aloud with her Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal winner, Number The Stars. The book had been assigned by her English teacher as family reading in preparation for Holocaust Memorial Day on April 29. Using a fictionalized account of two friends, Annemarie and Ellen, it tells the true story of Danish resistance to the Nazis and how the Danes courageously saved their Jewish community from being murdered by the German army. Annemarie’s non-Jewish family takes in Ellen, a Jewish girl, and hides her to protect her from being deported to a concentration camp. My daughter and I began at chapter two. It opens with a scene of Annemarie and her little sister, Kirsten, lying in bed telling stories of good and noble people living happily ever after, until Kirsten drifts off to sleep, leaving Annemarie with her thoughts about her people, the war, and her late sister, Lise, who died while on a resistance mission. Imagining these two little girls cradling each other in bed as shelter against the brutality of war while holding my own daughter near me, I was unable to restrain the feelings of despair, fear, and deep sadness that we hopefully all feel for the children of a world at war, whatever our opinions about any specific war happen to be. The serenity of the Sabbath day was broken for me as I started to cry. I could barely finish the chapter, and my daughter asked me, “Dad, are you crying?” Yes, honey,” I replied. “Why?” she asked. “All I could say was, “Well, it’s a very sad book.” She burrowed her head into my sleeve a little deeper, perhaps trying to create her own protection against the evils of the world and the scary feelings brought on by her father’s tears.
The next morning on Sunday, prior to my leaving the house to lead morning services at the synagogue, I looked at the front page of the New York Times. The newspaper had printed a photo from the frontlines in Iraq of a U.S. marine medic sitting on the ground cradling a four year old Iraqi girl whose mother was killed by Iraqi crossfire near a place called Rifa. With his eyes shut and his mouth tightened into a grimace, he is frozen momentarily by the unspeakable suffering and grief that he holds gently in his arms. The girl appears eerily calm with her arms stretched upwards playfully towards the soldier, as if her now dead mother was just around the corner and the man was her babysitter. If pictures are worth a thousand words, this photo is a Tolstoy novel about good people in army fatigues and innocent babies whose lives are thrown together in the web of cruel fate and implacable powers, and whose shoulders are crushed by the weight of the world. Remembering my spontaneous outburst of sadness from yesterday, I quickly put the newspaper aside, frightened by my potential reaction to it at the beginning of a work day, yet promising myself to return to its haunting images of the man and the girl.
I got to morning services, and towards the end of the worship, a friend of mine who was praying with us picked up her baby to nurse. Cradling the child near her body, she lovingly pressed the baby near her chest, then draped her tallit –her prayer shawl- around herself as an act of modesty and propriety. Mother, child, and sacred garment came together in a simple, reflexive, and ancient act of compassionately sustaining life that is deeply imbedded in our consciousness and is a key to human survival.
Within the span of one day all three disparate experiences came and went, but as each etched itself in my memory all three became a unified theme for me. Despite being traumatized by the bloodiest carnage that we inflict upon ourselves, our voices barely audible over the sound and fury of war politics, we human beings instinctively cradle each other. It is as if we know at the most primitive level that compassion is our one shield against this terrifying inheritance of ours that we call aggressiveness. As we go about the business of war for purposes both noble and detestable, it is one of the few threads binding all of us together and preventing each of us from unwinding entirely into chaotic spools of personal misery and insanity. We have little or no control over the decisions of international leaders about war, and we know it. Yet we have what no firearms can snuff out, if we hold fast to it: the gentle sweep of our own arms cradling a crying, orphaned baby as we sing to it of the peace that is yet to come.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.