Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Back to Normal": The Extraordinary Moments in our Ordinary Lives

Now that the terror has subsided and the sense of emergency has worn off, the second-guessing can begin. Reflection is healthy. Learning from our failures and mistakes is an essential part of life. I suggest that we look back on last week with compassion and respect for those who had to make decisions in the midst of confusion and mystery.

One conversation I’ve had a few times in the last few days revolves around the “Boston Strong” spirit that was vaunted by so many (myself included). A recent column in the Boston Globe asked the classic question, “Why does it take a disaster to bring out the best in us?” The implication is that once life gets “back to normal” we will forget to reach out, to be kind, and to care about people who are in need.

It’s true that we won’t continue to see headlines about brave volunteers and first-responders. The sense of community spirit that united us in the face of disaster will dissipate. But I would argue that it’s not that we only become better in challenging times. In fact, we are able to be good at these times because we practice it every day.

First responders were not doing this for the first time. The medical personnel who had trained for such a disaster were better because of that training. Those who had dealt with trauma victims in the past were better prepared to assist. Just as the marathon runners had trained to run 26.2 miles, practice made everyone better.

The volunteers who ran toward the explosion were people who had, in many cases, been tested before. The ordinary people who offered food, shelter, and warm clothes to runners were the same people who offered oranges, drinks of water and cheers along the marathon route. These were not random acts of kindness. They were routine acts of kindness. These were extraordinary moments, and they were identical to the ordinary moments we experienced before the marathon and will continue to experience in the future.

At Temple Ohabei Shalom, which is located on Beacon Street in Brookline right on the marathon route, runners were invited to come in for food and shelter after the race was stopped. The temple was able to feed the two hundred people who came through their doors with the cereal from the food pantry there. In other words, their everyday practice made it possible for them to open their hands in this emergency.

Our chants of “Boston Strong” might strike some as self-congratulatory and perhaps overblown. It’s true that we have much more to do to make our city a better place. It’s true that many people are still suffering from the trauma that ensued from the attack and will continue to suffer as the healing process takes its time.  It’s also true that the gun violence that plagues our neighborhoods year-round deserves more attention from our city’s protectors.

But I don’t experience “Boston Strong” as a self-serving message. It’s a statement of gratitude.  In times of disaster, we become grateful for the most basic gift: our lives. When people fear for their lives, they tend to rethink their priorities. Basic values and principles rise to the surface. Gratitude – for our lives and for those in our community who serve, protect, respond, heal, care and support --  is part of the healing message that we need to hear and to repeat and to continue to live by.

What everyone seems to be worried about is that these noble sentiments will fade over time. But if we take time to reflect on the practices that sustained us during these harrowing days, perhaps we will realize that we are better than that. Our caring and compassion need not fade. They just won’t make the front page of the paper.

Let’s rise to the challenge. Let’s hold on to kindness and compassion in the days to come. Let’s keep our wallets open and share with those in need. Let’s practice open-heartedness, even as new information about the suspect comes to light, pushing us to judge harshly. 
Let us be slow to anger and full of compassion.

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, son-in-law and student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, offers us words to live by, in troubled times and in the routine of everyday life:

"We are engaged in a process of determining what makes life worthwhile. [If you ask me] 'What is the meaning of life?' I don't know. Nobody knows. Especially not with a capital M, capital L. But if you ask me--How can I lead a meaningful life?--then I have a lot to say."  

I know he’s not alone. Following the Marathon bombing, we all have a lot to say. More importantly, we have demonstrated in our simple daily practices how to lead a meaningful life. May we continue to bring gratitude, compassion and generosity to the ordinary and extraordinary moments alike.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Boston, You're My Home

Today was a proud day to be a Bostonian.
At the Interfaith Service for Healing our City, Bostonians of all backgrounds united in our unique diversity to respond to Monday’s tragic marathon bombing. I was privileged to be in the congregation and inspired by every speaker. The musical selections and glorious sacred setting contributed to the heart-warming ceremony.

But what really struck me was the crowd.

Inside, there were state legislators in suits and police officers in uniforms. Men in Red Sox caps and women in head scarves. A man in a Tom Brady jersey, another in a USO sweatshirt. Young children on school vacation, holding tight to parents’ loving hands.  A Chinese family who apparently spoke no English. A tall, bearded Sikh in his dark turban. Runners in Boston Marathon blue-and-gold jackets. City Councilors and clergy, and plenty of everyday people seeking community and comfort.

Outside, mobs of people lined both sides of Washington Street, trying to catch a glimpse of the presidential limo as it left the cathedral. Senator Elizabeth Warren greeted them as she walked down the traffic-less street, as well as Rep. Joe Kennedy, Rep. Ed Markey and others.

Every speaker touched a different part of the soul. They spoke of loss and life-changing injury, of courage and risk, of resilience and grit, of kindness and compassion. Looking at the dais, I felt inspired by the exquisite balance of faith traditions (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ) and ethnic backgrounds. There was not one woman minister, but two, including Liz Walker who eloquently opened the ceremony and Nancy Taylor, who has been ministering to marathon runners at Old South Church every year.


The clergy were inspiring, but so were the political leaders, Mayor Menino, arriving in his wheelchair, Governor Patrick as eloquent as ever, and Comforter-in-Chief President Obama. Each had demonstrated the best qualities of leadership over the past three days, and their words all described what we have been feeling. All of them spoke of the values and character of the residents of Boston. Above all, they spoke of the love and community spirit that has brought us together in response to this senseless act of brutality. We have lived up to our ideals by responding to violence with caring, to evil with grace, and to hatred with love.

As President Obama said, “You showed us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what's good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We'll choose friendship. We'll choose love. Because Scripture teaches us God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

The President’s speech indicated that he really “gets” Boston. He understood the importance of the marathon as a day of “friendship and fellowship and healthy competition.”


I urge everyone to watch or listen to the 90-minute service, if you have not already done so.
You can read the transcript of the President’s words at

By the final standing ovation for the president, the crowd was feeling proud and defiant and strong, even as we all feel sorrow, pain and loss. Somehow, here in Boston, it is possible to hold both together. That, too, is part of our great city’s character.

I have had many moments when I’ve been proud to be part of this great, historic city, where, as Governor Patrick said, “Massachusetts invented America.” I was proud at the founding rally of GBIO and at when the Red Sox won the World Series. On Monday afternoon, when Brian and I sat in the right field seats at Fenway Park enjoying an exciting Red Sox game, I turned to him and said, “I’m so glad we live in Boston.”

But I have never felt such pride as today, seeing so many different people coming together and hearing our president describe the many accomplishments of our city, its rich medical and intellectual and artistic resources, and the indomitable yet compassionate spirit of the residents. Indeed, I will always “love that dirty water,” and proudly sing “Boston, you’re my home.”


Monday, April 15, 2013

Holding on to Sorrow and Hope

The Diameter of the Bomb
by Yehuda Amichai

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters

and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,

with four dead and eleven wounded.

And around these in a larger circle

of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered

and one graveyard. But the young woman

who was buried in the city she came from,

at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,

enlarges the circle considerably,

and the solitary man mourning her death

at the distant shores of a country far across the sea

includes the entire world in the circle.

And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans

that reaches up to the throne of God and

beyond, making

a circle with no end and no God.

I was preparing to celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence, tonight, April 15. The day had started off beautifully. The 50-degree temperature and overcast skies would be perfect for the runners. Brian and I had tickets to the Red Sox game, an 11 a.m. Boston tradition on Patriot’s Day. The game was exciting and close and ended with a walk-off double after the Tampa Bay Rays had tied the score, 2-2, in the top of the ninth. After staying to hear “Dirty Water” and “Tessie,” our Red Sox anthems, we left Fenway Park for lunch and a leisurely stroll down Brookline Ave. to our parked car.

On the way, ambulance sirens broke the air. It seemed strange to have so many, one after another. We began to notice how many different kinds of ambulances, coming from different directions. It wasn’t until we reached the car that we learned the horrifying news of two bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

At home for the rest of the afternoon, we sat before the tv, seeking information. In the meantime, the phone rang, the emails arrived and Facebook filled up with notices: we’re home, we’re safe, or, we’re praying for you in Boston.

What is remarkable about being human is that we have the capacity to hold many things in our minds at once. We can love more than one person at the same time, as parents learn to expand their hearts to add yet another.. We can think rationally and yet feel contradictory emotions at the same time. We can feel sorrow yet enjoy the beauty of the spring blossoms. We can focus on our personal life and care about the world at the same time. Even more remarkable, is that we are capable of holding paradox, feeling sadness in one realm and joy in another at one and the same time.

Our religious tradition acknowledges this complexity. In the Jewish wedding ceremony, at the height of the joy we break a glass. That shattered glass reminds us of the sorrow in the world. It is an affirmation that we can, indeed, hold sorrow and joy simultaneously.

Our hearts are torn apart by the senseless act of hate and cruelty that took place at the finish line of the Boston Marathon today. No matter who did this, I have no other words to describe what took place, other than “senseless,” “hate” and “cruelty.”

And, somehow we also commemorate the existence of the state of Israel, and the contributions it has made to the Jewish people and to the world. Whatever criticism I might have on any other day, on this day, I focus on my gratitude for this 65-years young nation, where my people have come home.

Tonight, we gathered in our congregation to feel the rising emotions of this tragic day for Boston. Fear and sorrow, shock and horror, anxiety and helplessness filled the room. We read Amichai’s poem, which connects our own tragic attack on ordinary people with that of the Israeli poet and his community’s suffering. And we also ended by singing Hatikvah, Israel’s anthem, a statement of hope for the future.

Who knows what we will learn tomorrow, whose names will appear among the dead and injured, what sacrifices were made by first responders, what acts of kindness strangers offered. Who knows how this noble tradition of the Boston Marathon will be changed, and how Patriot’s Day will forever carry the awful memory of death and devastation. And despite the blood spilled, the spring flowers will brighten our path and the trees will continue to bud and flower. For now, we join together in prayer for healing, for comfort, for justice, and above all, for love and hope to carry us through.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:

I would say, let the young people remember

That there is a meaning beyond absurdity.

Let them be sure that every little deed counts,

That every word has power,

And that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world

In spite of all the absurdities and all of the frustrations and


And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build

A life as if it were a work of art.

You’re not a machine, and you are young.

Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

[For those seeking advice on how to talk about this tragedy with young children, I recommend this link from Boston Children’s Hospital: