on Tuesday, 04 November 2014.
The daily headlines have brought discouraging news, at home and abroad. Ebola continues to ravage African countries, and the threat of a pandemic becomes more and more real as each case in Europe and North America emerges. At home, Canadians have grappled with the senseless violence directed against members of the Canadian Armed Forces, killing two soldiers for no reason but that they could be identified by their uniforms. Mental illness and radical anti-government hatred claimed lives in a manner largely unfamiliar within Canadian borders, at least since the radical factions of the Quebec separatist movement of the latter 20th century.
As an American citizen and resident up until 2010, my adult life was replete with memories of this kind of violence directed against innocents. My first such memory was San Ysidro McDonald's massacre (1984), but sadly Columbine (1999), Virginia Tech (2007), Sandy Hook Elementary and the Aurora Colorado theater shootings (both 2012) continued this murderous pattern. Anti-government or anti-American sentiment was a factor in the first World Trade Centre bombing (1991), Waco (1993), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), the Fort Hood shooting (2009), and the Boston Marathon bombing (2013). Of course, just as my parents remember exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot, I will remember every brutal hour of September 11, 2001, as I watched the Pentagon burn, the World Trade Centre disintegrate into pillars of smoke and rubble, and my world forever changed.
As one viewer tweeted to CBC after the Ottawa shooting of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, just days after Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was killed in Quebec, "This is just not Canadian."
In the wake of these tragedies, and the looming threat of Ebola, there is much call for action. But how are we to respond to such overwhelming events, and their implication for safety in their wake? As I followed the public debate, I found one news commentary most apropos.
In response to profound and terrifying events, we must distinguish between crisis and tragedy.
Our Bible captures our natural impetus to engage after a senseless killing, “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa--do not stand idly by the shedding of your neighbour’s blood.” It is human nature to want to act. When the unimaginable happens, we feel a very real need to do something. However, once legitimate safety measures are calibrated to new threats,
the urge to do more often remains. One of the great challenges in modern society is accepting that there are some things largely out of our control.
What does Judaism say about crisis and tragedy?
A single Jewish maxim comes to mind as my response to both, “b’makom sh’eino anashim, histadel lihiot ish--In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” Yes, we must respond to rapidly developing world crises such as Ebola; we need to minimize the ongoing threat as we provide care and relief to those most ravaged by the outbreak. This is the essence of compassion, and it informs our civic obligation in every setting. But in the wake of tragedy, sometimes action merely provides a false sense of control over that which is ultimately beyond it.
Our single best antidote to devastating world events is our humanity. Our heads will grapple with solutions when chaos overwhelms us. But may we always keep our hearts engaged in response to the suffering of others; this is our sacred duty.
Rabbi Debra Dressler