After Another Tragedy, Remembering Dawn and Mary

Once again we find ourselves silenced by the horrified recognition that once again this has happened, as we all knew that it would happen, again. We who are alive today, who so recently chanted the words “who by fire, who by water,” we once again see that the world we live in is punctuated by random and lethal violence.

Here is a reading that I could not find room for when we gathered together on Yom Kippur. Now I know why: it was meant for you and me to read today.

Especially today, let’s be there for each other. Take a moment to breathe away from the news and the computer, and go hug someone you love. Feel love. Feel alive. Then let’s get back to it. We need you, and we need to be together – kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, “all Jews are reliable, each for each other.”

May we never forget them, and all like them – and may we soon see a day when their heroism is a thing of an incredible, unbelievable, faraway past.


Dawn And Mary

Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway. (We heard pop-pop-pop, said one of the staffers later.)

Most of them dove under the table. That is the reasonable thing to do, what they were trained to do, and that is what they did.

But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets. Which word you use depends on which news account of that morning you read, but the words all point in the same direction — toward the bullets.

One of the staffers was the principal. Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. Her husband had proposed to her five times before she’d finally said yes, and they had been married for ten years. They had a vacation house on a lake. She liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.

The other staffer was a school psychologist named Mary. She had two daughters. She was a football fan. She had been married for more than thirty years. She and her husband had a cabin on a lake. She loved to go to the theater. She was due to retire in one year. She liked to get down on her knees to work in her garden.

Dawn the principal told the teachers and the staffers to lock the door behind them, and the teachers and the staffers did so after Dawn and Mary ran out into the hall.

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies — bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger — must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day. That’s how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake.

But they leapt for the door, and Dawn said, Lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle.

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings.

They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and

if we ever forget their names,

if we ever forget the wind in that hallway,

if we ever forget what they did,

if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children,

if we ever forget that all children are our children,

then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too,

and what good are we then?

What good are we then?


Shabbat VaYetze: Backyard Mitzvot Will Change the World

This is the parashah of the “baby wars”. Leah and Rakhel, sisters and also wives of Yakov, strive against each other to bear more children. In the triennial system in which we are reading Year Two, Rakhel’s dramatic declaration and Yakov’s reply reveal the intensity:

וַתֵּרֶא רָחֵל כִּי לֹא יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב הָבָה-לִּי בָנִים וְאִם-אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.

And when Rakhel saw that she bore Yakov no children, Rakhel envied her sister; and she said unto Yakov: ‘Give me children, or else I die.’

וַיִּחַר-אַף יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר-מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי-בָטֶן.

Yakov’s anger was kindled against Rakhel; and he said: ‘Am I in God’s stead, who has blocked you from fruit of the womb?’ (Bereshit 30.1-2)

Rakhel brings her servant companion into the battle on her side, so that any children she bears will be counted as Rakhel’s; Leah then does the same. The four women live in a system in which they are judged by their ability to bring children into the world – most specifically male children.

They are caught in this contest, in which they are judged by their ability to have a child. Rather than make common cause against it, asserting many other ways in which a human being who happens to be a woman is precious, necessary and valuable, they let the system define them. They turn against each other rather than work together to change what they can, and refuse to give in where they cannot effect change.

Their challenge is also ours. Human nature has not changed all that much in the several thousand years since this story was first told. It is striking and significant that our ancestors, telling a patriarchal story, devoted so many of the sacred words of the Torah to the struggles of Leah and Rakhel to live meaningful lives. As in much of the Torah, we are not told the right answer to the story; we are given this human story, with all its familiar human emotional difficulties, so that we can work out the right answer.

Their challenge is also ours and it belongs to those who function as men in our society as well as to those who are women, in terms of our roles and how they are valued. Can we in our day do better than these two, who were siblings before they were Yakov’s wives? Can we, of whatever and all genders, look beyond the way in which we are currently valued as a result of our gender (and of course other factors)? Can we see the ways in which the way we value ourselves leads us to compete with each other to our own detriment?

The women of the Torah are not powerless. The story of Tamar, or of Rivkah, or Naomi and Ruth, clearly indicate that. The difficulty is in reaching beyond the strong walls of assumptions, of learned mistrust, of personal vulnerability underneath it all.

In these days of fear for our own safety, may we learn from this story not to let our society assign our value – and not to trust it to assign any one else’s. You and I must accept the results of this election, but we must never ever accept injustice, inequality, or indecency. 

Can you see the larger forces that push us away from each other? Can you see our power if we refuse to be pushed?

As we seek to find our path through this present wilderness, don’t worry about challenging these great forces head on. Ancient Jewish wisdom bids us begin in our own backyards, for this is the only way that the great forces of society will ever change.

Here is a list of ten Backyard Mitzvot for you to consider for this week:

1. Write or call your representative in Congress and express your opposition to any attempt to roll back equal rights for LGBTQ people, to create a registry for Muslim Americans, to cutting 22 million Americans off health insurance, to reduce access to contraception and cancer screenings, and to nominations of people who are unqualified or bigoted.

2. Make Shabbat intential downtime for you. Set your kavanah (intention) to commemorate this upcoming fourth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. After Shabbat, look up Moms Demand Action to see what you can do to help.

3. If you’re in Portland Oregon, come on Sunday December 11 to the Japanese American HIstorical Plaza at 4pm for Vision & Vigilance Candlelight Vigil: Protesting Muslim Registry.

4. Put your money where your mouth is. Contribute regularly to groups that promote equal rights, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and our Portland chapter of SURJ (Show Up for Racial Justice).

5. Don’t let it slide when a friend makes degrading comments about anyone. Kindly but firmly ask them not to make those kinds of remarks around you.

6. Consider joining the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. 

7. Volunteer as an escort for patients at our local Planned Parenthood who must endure the verbal assaults of protesters in order to receive medical services.

8. Donate canned goods or send a check or bring clothes – to the Arc, to the Oregon Food Bank, to the North East Emergency Food Pantry.

9. Give books to the Books Through Bars program, which provides reading materials to incarcerated people.

10. Mark your calendar now to join us in marching in the Gay Pride parade next June.

Yours is not to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot