I was in a car accident yesterday. An hour before we were supposed to drive up to Ramah, a block away from our destination, I caused the accident. Thank God, no one was injured!
Yes, I should have got a few more hours of sleep the night before. Yes I should have drank more water after being in the sun all day. Yes, I should have…but I didn’t.
It could have been so much worse. I could have hit someone else. I could have harmed my two year old daughter who was in the back seat. I could have fallen asleep a mile earlier when going around the bend of the hills. I could have…but I didn’t. And I had no one to blame but myself.
The guilt weighs heavily on me. The gratitude also weighs heavily on me.
After the car was towed away, my wife rented another car and we drove up to camp that night, Tuesday night, last night as I am writing this.
Being at camp today has been restorative: immersing into this familiar dynamic environment; teaching kids of all ages sitting on the grassy hill; being surrounded by loving people, meeting new people, and reconnecting with old friends, colleagues and mentors; and, reaching out to the Director of Camper Care for personal support.
This week’s Torah portion, Korah, addresses different responses – effective and destructive ones -- to tragedy. In the wake of the failed rebellion by Korah and his Edah (group of followers), Israel compounded the tragedy by lashing out and blaming Moshe and Aaron for “killing the people of God” (Numbers 17:6). This response of misplaced blame occurs right after God commands Moshe to instruct Aaron’s son Elazar to take the fire pans of the rebels who were consumed by fire and mount them on the altar so they can serve as a sign for the children of Israel to remember the harsh consequences for rebelling.
Perhaps this reminder was too painful for the people. They may have still been trying to come to terms with the great loss that they felt about the public punishment of the earth swallowing up and consuming the rebels. I imagine that they felt a mix of sympathy toward the rebels who were killed and fear for their own lives after witnessing such an intense punishment. This grief was exacerbated when Elazar put the burned fire pans of the rebels onto the altar, at the command of God, in front of the people as a reminder of what happens to those who rebel. This kind of intense emotional grief may have caused the people to assess the events irrationally and cry out against the authority of the legitimate leaders, thereby extending the rebellion unwittingly and, ultimately, rebel against God. Which led to more destruction.
Similarly, I question if the car accident was a direct result of my actions while I am desperately trying to come to terms with a range of conflicting feelings of fear, sadness, and gratitude. The emotions are so strong at times when I speak about the accident with someone I get choked up with tears. Is this the right time to make theological or personal assessments? How can I not try to come to terms and learn from what happened? I am grateful to be within the supportive Jewish community of Camp Ramah as I struggle with these questions. The communal environment calls on me not to retreat into isolation. The Jewish structure compassionately pushes me to wrestle with the big questions.
We also need to be reflective about how we respond to tragedy on a communal level as a Jewish people? Here too there are mixed emotions and different responses to the losses we have faced. Anger and compassion may very well exist within the same person or one emotion may be stronger for one or another. One can see these emotions raging in the robust conversations today about how we use the memory of the Holocaust when confronting the immigration crisis we face in our country today. These intense emotional controversies must take place in a context of respect and solidarity, guided by the rabbinic value of an “argument for the sake of heaven,” in which we build ourselves and each other up through the disagreements instead of tearing each other down.
Today is Rosh Hodesh Tammuz. On the 17th of the month we begin the three weeks to prepare for Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year in which we commemorate destructions that we have suffered throughout our history. We deal directly with destruction instead of erasing it. Also, we don’t get stuck in it. After Tisha B’Av, we mark seven weeks of consolation and comfort during which we begin the process of rebuilding and renewing ourselves culminating in Rosh Hashanah. This process provides us with the opportunity for reflection and constructive conversation on this vital question of how we can translate our people’s pain into a force for good in the world and amongst ourselves.
Coming close to death reminds me of how fragile life is. I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect upon it here through the lens of Torah. Even though I am not mentioning it explicitly in my teachings throughout camp this week, I hope that the campers and staff sense my positive passion to communicate life’s preciousness through teaching Torah.