Author Archives: rabbirbo

Sandy Hook, One Year Later

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

 “When deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?

“The damage I have done to myself…”

​​                        Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, Versions by Robert Bly

Isn’t it enough that the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting is Saturday?

Isn’t it enough that the 48 page report about it was released two weeks ago?

Now we can hear the 911 calls from December 14th, 30 long minutes of panicked, tearful voices, one from a woman with a bullet in her foot, one from the custodian, begging for help. “It’s still happening. Please, send someone. Why aren’t they here yet?

What is the matter with us?

Weren’t the 28 bodies enough?

Six educators dedicated to their students.

Twenty children who wanted to learn.

One mother who thought that guns and shooting ranges would help her son talk to people.

One crazy loner with a loaded gun deep inside him, taking four more guns and ammo with him, shooting his way into the school.

Why do we need more evidence, more proof that the shooting a year ago happened? Do more details make it more real?

For me it was real the moment I opened my iPad that Friday morning and read 16 words. That’s when the damage began.

“Shooting in Connecticut school”

“Shooting at Newtown school”

“Eight students dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.”

Sam, my precious six-year-old grandson, a first grader at the school, was he one of the eight?

The call to my son, “Sam’s okay… no, don’t come… I’ll call you later.”

The damage I did to myself watching TV that day—every channel playing the same scenes over again.

The bucolic view of the school resting among the trees. The children and parents grabbing at each other. Police cars, fire engines, ambulances scattered across the parking lot. News reporters shoving microphones into shocked faces, wanting the best, most heart-wrenching story.

“It looked like the set of an action film, ma.”

The damage I did to myself seeing the photo of Adam Lanza – those crazy, wild, wide eyes. I knew those eyes. I’d seen them every day of my life as a kid. They were the eyes of my brother, tortured and torturing. His scope of damage was limited to those he lived with, but the effects have lasted a lifetime. He, like Lanza, died too young and not soon enough.

I saw those eyes and knew what happened. I saw Lanza’s first day in kindergarten, when nobody talked to him because he was too strange. I saw him get older when children get crueler. I heard their taunts: “Weirdo,” “Crazy,” as they made circles with their finger at the side of their heads.

I saw him hearing their words, wondering what they had to do with the emptiness and devastation inside of him.

Did the taunting began in the first grade? Is that why he choose that hallway? Did he think he was killing the children who tormented him and teachers who didn’t protect him?

The damage I do to myself feeling sorry for him. My son and his family will never recover. If they don’t know where their kids are for a nanosecond, they are back at the school that morning. When the first day of school comes in September after the blissful forgetting of summer, they are back at the school that morning. When Sam enters the new school, they will still be back at the old one.

With all of that, I do damage to myself feeling sorry for Adam Lanza. His life was lost long before December 14, 2012. I still feel sorry for the parents who didn’t know how to help him. For the brother who both loved him and wanted nothing to do with him.

The damage I did to myself by not flying to Connecticut that afternoon. I wasn’t there to help, to cry with them, to not be so alone, so walled off from everybody.

The only times that were real to me were the nightly FaceTime conversations with my son. I should have been there. But I was frozen in the moment, reading those 16 words on my iPad.

The damage I did to myself reading all those articles Google Alert sent me for six months. I was with the first responders, “Reliving Horror and Faint Hope at Massacre Site.”

I did damage to myself when I stood across from the firehouse in Sandy Hook, in front of the barriers keeping me from walking up to the school. When my son pointed out where he found Sam, whisking him into his arms, both of them crying; the windows of the room in the firehouse where the families waited for their children.

I damaged myself every time I searched for the reason Sam’s classroom escaped. It was the first classroom Lanza came to and he walked right by it.

The damage I did to myself when I found out why. His teacher hadn’t removed a small piece of black construction paper, covering the window of the door. It was from a lockdown drill two weeks before. Lanza couldn’t see the children being ushered into the tiny bathroom. He thought the room was empty. He walked by.

I do damage to myself because of one piece of black construction paper. My survivor’s guilt makes me ask, “Why was Sam’s life saved when so many died?”

The damage I’ve done to myself every day since the shooting asking, where was God?

Kabir poses the question: “When deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you have God?” I ask, when so many innocents died in the name of craziness and revenge, how can I believe in God?

My faith disintegrated that Friday. The faith that was deeply rooted inside of me throughout my life, even during my time with my brother’s crazy eyes. It took only 11 minutes for it to be gone.

Before the shooting, I believed there was meaning in every experience no matter how painful. I accept the fact that there is no meaning in this one. People have become strong enough to live through the death of their children and loved ones. But that’s not meaning, that’s survival.

After a year I am at a standoff with God. I still pray. I still believe there is a core of goodness in everybody. But not the way I did before. I step more carefully through my life, not being sure of anything.

I think about my grandson’s one question to me about living in LA. ‘Savta[1] Rachel, are there any bad guys living in LA?” “Yes, Sam, there are.” Do they live near you?” “No, honey, they don’t.”

How could I tell him that bad guys live everywhere? Given what he had been through this year, I thought this one lie was okay.

[1] Hebrew word for grandmother.

Rachel Bat-Or is a rabbi and licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California. She works with professional writers and speakers to find their authentic voice so they can inspire their audiences. She can be reached at rabbirbo@gmail.com.

 

Take That Back

Take That Back!

How often do we stop, honestly look at our lives, and ask, “Is this what I want to be doing right now?”

We all have parts of ourselves that we

  • squashed because our family or friends didn’t accept them;
  • gave away to others who seemed to need them more than we did;
  • stopped using because they wouldn’t pay the bills;
  • simply forgot about when our lives became too busy.

We were each born with magic, excitement, and openness. As children we believed anything was possible. Then we grew up. How much of that magic is left in our lives today? And how can we get back what we lost?

The answer lies in chapter 25, verse 10 from this week’s Torah portion, Behar.

“…and you shall hallow the fiftieth year… It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.”   

Each Israelite family was granted a portion of land when they entered Israel. But over the years some were forced to sell it because of poverty, illness, a death in the family. After 49 years, the Israelites who had given up their land were commanded to reclaim it.[1]

We can also use this commandment to find all the parts of ourselves we gave away.

We can make a list of the things we loved and no longer do; the dreams we had as children and didn’t pursue; the projects we started and never finished.

Unlike the Israelites we don’t have to wait at all to reclaim what we lost. We can reclaim it now. We can spend time this week examining our lives to see what we let go off and decide if we want it back.

Do we want to write poetry, do art, dance, cook, play sports, go to museums, become involved with organizations that are important to us? Do we want to reclaim our childhood ideas and dreams? I hope the answer is yes.

Let’s make a commitment to choose one thing that we gave up and bring it back into our lives. If that feels good, then pick another and another. Reclaiming those pieces of ourselves will give us more pleasure than we could even imagine.


[1] This is a wonderful example of how important economic justice is in the Jewish tradition. We are commanded to divide our possessions as equally as possible.

Cultural Touchstones

 Several years ago a dear friend of mine living in Israel told me about his wife. He had been married before, the divorce had been difficult, and he waited a long time until he was ready to find love again. When he did meet his future wife, he realized that their shared cultural touchstones was a part of why he fell in love with her.

Because both of them were born and raised in the US in the same generation, they watched the same television shows: Mork and Mindy, Welcome Back Kotter, Six Million Dollar Man, and All in the Family. They listened to the same music: the Eagles, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Springsteen. And they lived through the same political changes: Watergate, the oil crises, Roe v. Wade, and Three Mile Island. They remembered where they were when the astronauts landed on the moon, when Woodstock took place, when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in tennis.

My friend knows how important those shared references and experiences are. They create an automatic connection between people.

Beloit College understands this phenomenon all too well. Every September Beloit publishes, the Mindset List, a list of some 70 events, people, and things that had stopped being cultural touchstones 18 years before, the year the current Freshmen were born. This year’s list addresses those things which were no longer relevant in 1994. It’s not only fun to see what this class missed out on, it’s also a walk down memory lane for those of us who are older than 18.

First the whimsy:

In 2012 Benjamin Braddock, “having given up both a career in plastics and a relationship with Mrs. Robinson,” could be the grandfather of a member of the entering class.

TheTwilight Zone involves vampires, not Rod Serling.”

The current freshmen “can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.”

“They have never seen an airplane ‘ticket.’”

I’m sad that the freshness of Benjamin Braddock and the magnificence of Rod Serling cannot truly be appreciated by today’s 18 year olds. Both were part of the paradigm shift from more conventional entertainment to a more eclectic artistic creativity.

Then there’s the real sign of the times. “For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.” In addition to this, “women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.” Both of these facts were unimaginable until the later part of the 80s. Women have come a long way.

But in the past several years, the most obvious changes that have taken place from 1994 until today have to do with technology.

The list tells us that those born in 1994 have always lived in cyberspace.

Because they can find most of what they want to know online, they have no need for “a new set of bound encyclopedias on the bookshelf.”

They may wonder why “outdated icons with images of floppy discs for ‘save,’ a telephone for ‘phone,’ and a snail mail envelope for ‘mail’ have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.” For most of them, these objects have no relationship to their daily lives.

They use technology to stay connected with each other because they “probably are the most tribal generation in history who despise being separated from contact with their similar-aged friends.” This includes “enjoying school and summer camp memories with a digital yearbook,” rather than actual books filled with photos developed from a roll of film.

It’s clear how central technology is to their lives. It is certainly central to most of our lives today no matter how old we are. But those who are just entering college have a facility and comfortability with technology that many of us who are older will never have.

While technology enriches our lives, it also takes something away. The connections we had in earlier years were simpler and more immediate. The 60s and 70s weren’t utopian. I very clearly remember our gender, race, and class segregated society and I don’t want to go back to that. But I would like to recapture the pleasure of neighbors gathering on their front steps after dinner; waving hi to the people next door or across the street as we walk to the store, maybe even stopping to talk to them, rather than having our eyes glued to the tiny screen of our smart phones.

Each year this list reminds me of the important parts of my life that I have lost over time as well as the beneficial parts that have been added.

As we look through the Mindset List and smile at the those things that now seem antiquated, let’s remember to hold on to those things that came before and are still worthwhile, as we embrace whatever innovations are to come.

Healing Requires the Courage to Feel and Tell the Truth

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Rumi

 Whenever we talk about healing, we are talking about how we process pain. It is the pain we experience that leads us to the desire to heal. And even though it seems counterintuitive, without the lessons we learn from both pain and healing, we would be shallow human beings. We would be unable to understand the pain that others experience and the paths we need to follow in order to heal.

I read two stories recently on pain and healing that inspired me; both were about pain caused during the Shoah (the Holocaust). Two Germans, a man and a woman discovered acts of evil perpetrated by a member of their family. Both of them had the courage to face the pain their family members caused and by talking about it openly, rather than hiding it, created healing for themselves and others. These two acts, feeling the truth and speaking the truth are the essential components in our healing journeys.

Just before Tisha B’Av this summer at the Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville, New Jersey, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger spoke these words “I’m not a son of a [Holocaust] survivor. But I’m a son of a perpetrator. And I have to live with that, and I have an ongoing living and struggling with that issue. But today I’m also a Jew. I’m an Israeli citizen and serve proudly in the IDF as an officer.”

Wollschlaeger is the son of a highly-decorated World War II German tank commander in the elite SS killing squad, the Totenkopf (Deathhead Squad). When his father was arrested years after the war ended, Wollschlaeger learned what his father had done. Before learned the truth, he had been proud of his father’s war decorations. But while his father was in prison, Wollschlaeger would not visit him. Instead he took the time to learn about his father’s crimes.

This happened at the same time as the Eichmann trial in Israel. Wollschlaeger read as much as he could about what Eichmann, the Nazis, and, therefore, his father had done. He was afraid that his family was permanently tainted by his father’s evil.

Instead of putting this new information aside and going on with his life, Wollschlaeger traveled to Israel, worked on agricultural kibbutzim, studied at Hebrew University, all the while learning more about Judaism. He became an Israeli citizen, converted to Judaism, and married a German Christian woman who also converted. He does not think of his modern orthodox life today with his wife and three sons as making amends for his father’s actions, but as fulfilling his own Jewish destiny. His ability to speak to Jewish groups about his reality, his pain, and his healing, is an important model for us all.

*                            *                            *

The second story is about Barbel Pfeiffer. Her grandfather not only helped to build the electrical system and gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp, he also served as an SS guard who beat Jews and other prisoners as they worked to make tanks in a factory. On her latest trip to Auschwitz, Pfeiffer said, “I have been in Auschwitz five times already, but every time I go, it makes me cry again,” Her most recent visit was with a Christian-sponsored, interfaith group called March of Life, inspired by the March of the Living. Instead of going to camps in Europe and then to Israel, the March of Life visiting only concentration camps. On this trip there were 420 people, 50 of whom were descendants of Nazis and Nazi collaborators.

Barbel didn’t know her grandfather but was told he never talked about what he did during the war. It “came to light when my parents saw how much I researched my family history, and how badly I wanted to know what happened during that time,” she said. She was the first to delve into her family’s connection to the Holocaust. Her father didn’t know what his father had done but learned about it from a relative who assumed he knew.

Pfeiffer broke the chain of silence in her family. Her husband went on the latest trip with her to Auschwitz. While she was there, she called her sons and told them how she felt. “They asked me, ‘Mother, are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I think it is very important to talk with them about it, and we do.”

At the end of that trip Pfeiffer’s final words to a reporter were “We have just come from Auschwitz. I told the Holocaust survivors, their children and their grandchildren, they are very precious people for me.”

These stories show us that it takes courage to experience our most profound pain and then heal ourselves from it. Once we heal ourselves, we can then help others to heal. It is said, we heal not only ourselves, but seven generations backward and seven generations forward. Imagine the children of Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer. These children have parents who tell them the truth even when it is painful and show them how to experience thei pain and then heal from it. Their parents are role models for them and us about how to live a righteous life.

Both Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer followed Rumi’s advice and saw the light in their families’ wounds. This light led to profound healing for them and others.

May the words and actions of these two brave and righteous Germans serve as our inspiration to spend time every day reflecting on the truth of our lives, facing the pain that we feel, and healing our bodies and souls.

 

Awe Therapy

Awe Therapy

Soft, white sands lead into the sparkling, teal water; stands of fir trees with exposed roots as tall as people dot the beach; craggy rocks rise just to the left of the sand, green and purple leaves of bromeliads grow from the crevices of the rocks, purple and white passion flowers crawl along them toward the water; the rocks themselves grow to become the majestic mountains of the Napali Coast. This is as close to the Garden of Eden as we’ll ever come here on earth, a place in which we feel expansive, peaceful, inspired; a place in which time seems to stand still. This is Ke’e beach on the northern shore of Kauai.

The opposite of this expansion is what Melanie Rudd studied at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where she is a PhD candidate. She knew that one of the biggest problems we face today is feeling that we don’t have enough time.

In her study she showed participants ‘awe’ videos and ‘happiness’ videos. The first showed scenes of astronauts in space, whales breaching, and gorgeous waterfalls. These were to evoke the participants’ awe, which Ms. Rudd defines as how we feel when we encounter something so beautiful that it changes our perspective, at least for the moment.

The second type of videos showed scenes of parades, confetti, and smiling, joyful people. These were to evoke feelings of happiness. Ms. Rudd wanted to know if feelings of happiness and awe evoked the same reactions from people.

She found people felt satisfied with their lives when they watched both types of videos. But when they experienced awe, the subjects felt they had more time in their lives. They were more willing to volunteer; had more desire to use their money to buy quality experiences, such as tickets to a play, rather than buying quality material goods.

In Ms. Rudd’s words: ‘[E]experiencing awe, relative to other states, caused people to perceive they have more time available and lessened impatience.’

I wasn’t surprised to read about the results of this study. I knew about the effects of awe inspiring moments in my own life. For me those moments are most intense when I’m at places like Ke’e Beach. I feel as though I can do anything, have time for anything.

I also know that happiness and awe evoke different reactions in me just as they did in the study’s participants. I feel awe in nature most profoundly when there are few or no people around. When there are people, playing, enjoying themselves, my heart fills with joy for their joy. But I don’t feel as though time has stood still. I don’t feel my own being expanding. Awe stands alone in creating those feelings.

It is always wonderful to be in precious, awe-inspiring locations. The problem for me is continuing to hold on to the feeling of awe when I am faced with the regular stresses and time boundedness of my life. I suspect most of us feel the same way.

That’s why the most exciting part of this study is knowing that we can recreate that feeling of timelessness even when we are not in nature. We can do it by looking at videos or photos of awe inspiring places. We can even do it by remembering our time in those places. With just 60 seconds of looking at or remembering awesome images, we can bring back that feeling of time standing still. This is so important for each of us. It gives us a way to tap into the creativity that comes from being released from our time-bounded reality. All we need is 60 seconds, and all of us have 60 seconds at least once a day.

While the Stanford study does not relate the feelings of awe to spirituality and religion, others do.

Albert Einstein, a scientist and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a theologian have remarkably similar things to say about awe and wonder.

Einstein says: ‘The most beautiful and deepest experience a [person] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion…’ Behind every mystery, he says, ‘there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly…, this is religiousness… To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. [‘My Credo,’ 1932]

Heschel says it more succinctly: ‘…Awe… is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.’ [God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, pp.76]

Both men associate awe with humility. The expansion caused by the majestic scene we are looking at, along with the contraction of knowing that this scene is beyond our power to create. Those seemingly opposite feelings help us create balance in our lives.

In the presence of wonder, we feel powerful, not time bound. In the presence of wonder, we also feel unpretentious, simple. These two feelings keep us from either trying to do too much or not doing enough.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim, 18th century Hasid from Poland, gave us a method of maintaining our balance between expansion and contraction. He say we should carry two notes with us, one in each pocket. One note should reads: ‘Just for me was the world created.’ This is the expansion, I can do anything note. The other should read: ‘I am ashes and dust.’ This is the contraction, I have to be careful not to overstep my bounds note.

By carrying these two notes, when we are feeling expansive and begin to make big plans, we can take out the ‘I am ashes and dust’ note to be sure we are being honest and realistic about what we can accomplish. When we are feeling insecure and unsure of what we are doing, we can take out the ‘Just for me was world created’ note to remind us how important we really are and how much we can accomplish.

I want to thank Ms. Rudd for her study. Now we know we can carry inside of us a feeling of awe and not have to travel to be inspired by beauty. We can find that inspiration any time we need it. Now we can continue to use that awe in our most creative and joyful ways.

The Sociopath Isn’t Always Next Door

The experience has become too familiar. We hear about a mass murder, the most recent at a movie theatre in Aurora CO. We find out about the alleged killer, this time James Holmes. We try to make sense of him and his actions. We debate whether he is a sociopath, knowing right from wrong and choosing wrong, or whether he is insane. If only being to label him would magically remove our pain, frustration, anger, and fear.

One way we cope with such difficult and intrusive feelings is to distance ourselves from those who perpetrate evil. We assure ourselves we are nothing like them and focus only on the evil they do, not on their humanity. This distance helps comfort us, helps protect us from seeing that we also have the capacity to cause pain to others.

Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, proved this reality in his famous experiment in 1961. He found that 65% of his subjects were willing to administer electric shocks up to 450 volts to fellow subjects in the experiment. The shocks were not really given and the fellow subject was part of the experiment. But not knowing that, almost two thirds of the men and women tested were willing to administer what they thought were increasing amounts of electricity to another person even when he or she begged them to stop. Click here for the chilling transcript. This experiment has been replicated many times since 1961, most recently in 2008 by Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.

Martha Stout in her book, The Sociopath Next Door, tells us that what divides us from the 4% of the population who are sociopaths, is that they have no conscience and we do. Our conscience is the part of us that knows the difference between right and wrong; the part that feels an obligation to support and protect people simply because they deserve that support and protection.

We are all capable of understanding the right thing to do based on what society, employers, friends, and family expect of us. But actions that are intellectually based have nothing to with our conscience. Stout tells us that our conscience is motivated by feelings, not thoughts, that our conscience is activated when we feel love, compassion, and tenderness toward people.

But with people we don’t love and especially with people from whom we feel disconnected, we are not as likely to support and protect them or even actively care about what happens to them. We feel a disconnection because we perceive unbridgeable distances between us and others. We feel these differences with those who are richer or poorer; more or less educated; have darker or lighter skin; observe a different religion than we do. Once we create those distances between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we can more easily ignore ‘their’ humanity and ‘their’ needs.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, we all live in a personal world of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There are people we feel more comfortable being around, those are the ones we tend to live our lives with. Most of us were taught about finding differences between people when we were very young. Once those lessons become embedded in our feelings, they are very hard to change. Hard but not impossible. In fact, changing how we feel, from seeing the differences to seeing the similarities is one of the most important things we have to do.

We have to find the humanness and commonality that automatically exists between us and everybody else, even with those people who do the most damage in our world. It is our most difficult challenge and our most important action.

If we do not learn to accept the humanness in everybody, we will end up being part of the 65% of Milgram’s subjects who chose to cause harm to others. None of us can afford to let that happen.