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United in Tragedy

United in Tragedy

It shouldn’t take the death of a 12-year-old girl or an act of terror to bring us all together.


The moment Shoshie Stern’s extended family heard about her tragic passing, they dropped whatever they were doing and made their way to South Florida to be here with their family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all descended upon the Stern home to shed a tear and lend a shoulder.

Shoshie’s recent 12th birthday was certainly celebrated and marked by her immediate family, however a Bat Mitzvah party in her honor had not yet been planned. Coordinating everyone’s schedule proved a formidable challenge. When this grandparent could come, the other couldn’t be there. When this aunt and uncle where free, others already had commitments.

The other night, Shoshie’s mom, Denise, looked around the room filled with family and friends and remarked to Yocheved, “It’s such a shame, in the end everyone found a way to all be here together. I only wish it was for a simcha.”

Whenever I am asked for advice about traveling to attend a family simcha (celebration) when it is inconvenient, ill-timed, or expensive, I always say the same thing. If it were a funeral would you find a way to go? If we would drop what we are doing and make extraordinary efforts to be there for a tragedy, why not take those same measures to be there to celebrate a simcha? Life is way too short, the future is too unknown. Take advantage of every single opportunity to be with family in moments of joy before needing to be there for moments of grief and sadness.

The truth is that often it takes tragedy to draw out of us latent potential that should have been realized way before. Shoshie’s passing brought together our entire community with a sense of unity, the likes of which I have never felt. Rabbi Rabovsky, Rabbi Gibber, and I worked incredibly closely and intensely to plan, coordinate and organize all that needed to be done. The over-1,000 people in attendance came from all three Shuls. The students who came that day attend a variety of different schools. Yet for those few hours we stood together, members of an integrated and united community, undivided as one.

Surely it shouldn’t take the death of a 12-year-old girl to bring us all together. Surely there are events, programs, commemorations, or speakers for which we can gather even more people with a sense of unity and cohesiveness. Why must it take tragedy to make us feel as one?

Earlier this week, the bombing at the Boston Marathon shook our entire nation. As we watched fellow Americans mourn and grieve, we all felt their pain, identified with their fear, and associated with their anger. All over social media people simply said, “Today, we are all Bostonians.” Indeed, even the Red Sox arch rivals, the Yankees, hung a sign outside their stadium with the team logos side by side and the words “United We Stand.”

Why should it take three deaths and hundreds of injuries for us to feel a sense of patriotism, wherever we may live? Why should it take a city under siege for every American to feel a sense of kinship and affiliation with one another? Why should it take graphic images of death and injury to feel a sense of empathy and concern for other human beings?

When the bombs went off at the finish line, remarkably, there were people who ran towards the smoke instead of away from it in order to see how they could help. In doing so they risked their lives not knowing if there would be any further explosions. They did so instinctively and intuitively out of an incredible sense of wanting to help. In another display of resolve and determination, there were individuals who, after completing the 26.2-mile marathon, ran another 2 miles to the hospital to donate blood.

The Ramban writes that the purpose of a challenge in life is to help bring our latent potential into reality. When backed into a corner, pressed against the wall or in a terrible bind, we find capacity that we had never fully realized before and may not have even known we have. Just last week in Oregon, two teenage girls saved their father’s life when they lifted a 3,000-pound tractor off their father’s chest. If asked to lift a tenth of that, they likely would say it’s impossible. However, when faced with no other option, they discovered strength they never knew they had.

Let’s not wait for another tragedy to find abilities we could employ now. Let’s not wait for a family funeral to travel, when we could see our family at the next simcha, even if it means extending ourselves. Let’s commit to come together as a greater community with a sense of unity, for no other reason than simply because we should. Let’s not wait to be tested in order to realize the strengths that we have all along.

April 20, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, April 24, 2013 12:36 AM

Does anyone know where I can find the Ramban's writing about the purpose of challenges. I'm writing a paper for school and this would be helpful.

(4) Anonymous, April 23, 2013 5:37 PM

true friends show up for a simcha

My mother a'h always said that you know who your friends are by who comes to your simcha. Everyone comes for a funeral/shiva but no matter how inconvenient, your friends make the effort to come to your simcha. As a result, I will travel many hours just to show my face even for a few minutes at family and friends smachot, and it is always appreciated.

(3) Judy, April 22, 2013 6:23 PM

show up for the simcha

Almost 30 years ago, one of my mother's sisters was struck by a car, and she passed away a short time later. Family members came from all over, even those who hadn't traveled there in years. I organized a family reunion in the weeks after using the same reasoning as in the article. I felt that we should gather for simcha as well as tsuris. It was a grand success. Cousins from far and near came as we all got to know each other again. It wasn't until my mother's 85th birthday 24 years later that we were all once more together. We need to make the effort to be there for each other as much as we can.

(2) Anonymous, April 21, 2013 4:57 PM

Tragedy is Different & Do We Really Feel their Pain?

I agree with Rabbi Goldberg and I get the point: we should make the extra effort to attend family celebrations, life is short, let's be united, etc. etc. What he obviously doesn't get or ignores for the sake of this piece is that tragedy, one as devastating as the loss of a child is - for the parents and to a lesser extent for the family - an earth shattering, life altering experience (which, by the way, cannot be "felt" by anyone who has not experienced it.) Thank G-d tragedies occur with far lesser frequency than do vorts, bat-mitzvas and up-sherin parties. Many of us with children at home feel that it's wrong to trade precious time spent at home for attendance at every l'chaim, bar-mitzva or sholom zochor. To cavalierly compare celebratory events to the death of a young innocent child in order to make the point that one should feel an obligation to attend these simchos shows a profound lack of empathy. It was this terrible, inexplicable, painful event that compelled so many to drop everything and join the grief-stricken family and not a desire to "come together".

Phrases like "bringing us all together", "a sense of patriotism" and my personal favorite: "we feel their pain" are not only trite, they are lip service (at best) or outright falsehoods (at worst).
We may feel sympathy for the victims of the bombings but, try as might, we hardly "feel the pain" of those with shattered or lost limbs, lost futures and we can never - nor should we ever - know the pain of losing a child.

(1) Mary Jane Heppe, April 21, 2013 4:05 PM

Tragedy Sparks Mindfulness

This was masterpiece by Rabbi Goldberg. Simchas would be better to unite us, yes. However, tragedies jolt us into realizing how truly interconnected we are. Hopefully, these tragedies will enhance our mindfulness~and as a result, we may become more deeply grateful for the simchas in our lives. Thank you, Rabbi Goldberg.

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