Eat, Pray, Love: A Jewish Response to Tragedy

Rabbi Elan S. Babchuck
Temple Emanu-El, Providence
December 22nd, 2012
Eat, Pray, Love: A Jewish Response to Tragedy

In my second year of rabbinical school, I took a class on how to write divrei Torah – short, poignant talks about all things Torah.  My teacher – Rabbi Shawn
Fields-Meyer – began with a very simple piece of advice. She said: “Write what
you know”. In other words, as tempting as it might be to comment on
anything that your heart tells you, stick to what you know. Don’t quote Buber
if you haven’t read “I, Thou”, don’t paraphrase Heschel if you don’t know his
book “The Sabbath” inside and out. However, with great respect to my teacher
and friend, I’m not in rabbinical school anymore, so it’s time I broke a rule or

I’ve never read the book “Eat, Pray, Love”, but from what I have gleaned from
a cursory look at the Wikipedia page, it’s a delightful 2006 memoir that tells
the story of a middle-aged divorced woman who goes on a year-long, revelatory
exploration of self by eating her way through Italy, learning to pray in India,
and finding love in Indonesia. I have no doubt that the book is worth reading,
and that the movie – starring Julia Roberts – is eminently watchable. But I
haven’t read the book, haven’t seen the movie, and don’t plan to do either
anytime soon. I am, however, going to discuss the title, rabbinical school rules
be damned.

On Thursday afternoon, I sat on a conference call with 175 rabbis from around
the country, Reform and Conservative, discussing ways to react to the
unspeakable tragedy of 8 days ago in Newtown, Connecticut. Some rabbis
shared beautiful sermon topics, others shared texts from our tradition to offer
guidance in moments like these, and still others discussed plans to take
political action to decrease gun violence. Perpetually multi-tasking, I put the
call on speaker phone and answered emails, tuning in and out from moment to
moment, until the host of the call introduced Rabbi Jeff Silberman, a Chaplain
and spiritual leader at Danbury Hospital, where many of the Sandy Hook
victims have been – and continue to be – treated.
“We’re still in triage mode,” he shared, “running on fumes.” He wasn’t sure
what he could offer, other than the same advice that he’s been giving to the
staff at the hospital, to good samaritans who have called to offer help and
support, and to patients and their families.

“Eat, Pray, Love,” he advised. “That’s all there is to it.” He proceeded to share
stories of how the community has come together to do each of these things, to
find goodness in the world and to embrace it in one of our nation’s darkest
moments. So, in the spirit of a man I’ve only met by phone and a book I only
know by name, I’d like to share a few stories of the goodness that has shone
through in Newtown over this past week.

A man named Tom Cavanaugh, a New Jersey native who lives in Los Angeles
and works as a police dispatcher, felt like he needed to do something, despite R
being almost 3,000 miles away from Newtown. The words of his Sicilian
mother echoed in his head: “When someone’s in mourning, when they lose
someone important, you send them prayers and food.” So he called up the
Newtown General Store and gave them his credit card number, paying for the
next 100 cups of coffee that they would sell that day. And later, when he
posted about his wonderful gesture on Facebook, many of his friends and
family followed suit, so much so that the stores and restaurants in the area
have struggled to keep enough stock and supplies due to all the generous
donations from good samaritans all around the country.

At 9:30 on Friday morning, the nation observed a moment of silence to honor
the victims of the shooting. On the heels of countless candlelight vigils around
the country and the world, this moment of silence gave us all an opportunity to
say our collective prayers – prayers of healing, prayers of hope, and prayers of

Finally, on the topic of love, Chaplain Silberman shared that the entire
surrounding area – inside and outside of Newtown – has become filled with
love. Love in all forms: letters, calls, gestures, visits, donations, and everything
in between. Pure, unadulterated love. On the off-ramp from I-84 into Sandy
Hook, he explained, a massive white tent stands tall above the highway, big
enough to fit a small army, and filled with teddy bears. A teddy bear ten!.
People have been searching far and wide for a way to share their love, leading
countless numbers of them to the nearest toy store, where they picked up the
biggest teddy bear they could find, and shipped it off to the teddy bear tent in
Newtown, Connecticut.

Eat, Pray, Love. That’s all it takes.
The trio shouldn’t sound alien to our Jewish ears, as they’re deeply embedded
in both ritual custom and ritual law surrounding Jewish mourning rites. We
often joke about how many bagels and kugels show up in our houses of
mourning, but the truth is that we find great comfort in these foods, all the
more so when the bagels are hand-delivered by our friends and the kugels
home-baked by our colleagues.

Our tradition requires us to pray three times a day as we mourn our loved ones,
always surrounded by a minya” (group of 10 Jewish adults) of community
members, never alone. This is an instance in which our tradition has provided
us a halakhic (legal) framework to give our community’s mourners exactly what
they need. We say the Mourner’s Kaddish in the company of others not only
because Jewish law requires a minya”, but because we know in our hearts that
mourners should never have to go it alone.

That’s where the love comes in. When we say “HaMakom Yenachem Etche#”,
we ask that God comfort the mourners among all the other mourners of
Israel. Nobody mourns alone.

Jewish law may only requir$ prayer, but Jewish ethics demand all three. And at
the end of shiva, as the mourners rise up to begin inching back into a new
routine out in the world, we say to them:
“No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be
an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end,” (Isaiah 60:20).
With regard to the tragedy in Newtown, our sun has not yet risen, nor our
moon illuminated. While the last of the funerals will be held today, we haven’t
even begun the first stage of national aveilu! (mourning) for the unthinkable
tragedy and unspeakable losses we have suffered. Parents have lost their
children, a town has lost its innocence, and a nation has lost its patience with
the growing regularity of gun-related tragedies.
And yet, in the midst of this ever-growing darkness among us and inside of us,
there is a light. An eternal light. A light to guide, a light to warm, a light to
comfort, a light to battle the darkness. That light, per Isaiah, is God. Through
all the darkness, we must find a way to recognize and lift up the goodness that
remains in the world, because it is from the abundant goodness in the world
that God’s loving light shines.

This coming July will mark 10 years since one of my closest friends left the
world abruptly, at age 20. There’s a longer story to tell, and I will tell it at some
point, but for now you should know that his death was sudden, it was tragic,
and nobody that he left behind has been the same without him. A couple of
years after he died, I visited his father, and at some point during the visit I
asked him how he has managed to cope with such a horrific loss. I asked him
what he did to make it through each day, what it took to get to a place where
he could recall – with a smile – his son’s beautiful life before thoughts about his
tragic death would overshadow the brief moments of happiness.
I’ll never forget what he told me that day. He said that – for a long time – life
didn’t feel like life anymore. Food didn’t taste like food. Hugs didn’t feel like
hugs. Love didn’t feel like love. And then he reminded himself of a passion
that his son had in this world – his insatiable appetite for goodness, for
Godliness – anywhere and everywhere he could find it. And he was always

As time began to pass, and the minutes turned to hours turned to months, he
began incorporating his son’s advice into his life more. While he would still
wake up with the familiar feeling of emptiness – that indescribable vacuum in
his stomach – he would force himself to stand in front of his bay windows for a
minute before beginning his morning routine so that he could soak up the
sunlight, embracing goodness for just a moment. When it came time for
breakfast, one day he decided to pass on his regular breakfast of a bowl of
cereal, opting instead for a decadent stack of chocolate chip pancakes, fresh
berries on the side, and the most sticky-sweet, fresh-from-Vermont, maple
syrup he could find. And he took his time to savor each and every bite.

At the other end of the day, as he wound down from the rigors of work and life,
he would listen to one of his and his son’s favorite albums – the debut album of
Norah Jones – and say a prayer in his son’s memory.
In short, he told me, he survived the tragedy – and continues to survive the
tragedy 10 years later – by searching for and embracing the goodness that
remained in the wake of his darkest hour. By embracing the search for light, he
eventually would come to find it.

There is no piece of halakhah telling us how we as a community, as a
congregation, as members of a broken nation, should observe the mourning
rites in memory of the 20 first-graders and six educators who perished 8 days
ago in Newtown, Connecticut. We’re not commanded to tear our clothing, to
cover the mirrors, to say kaddish. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.
So in the absence of both ritual custom and ritual law, I want to propose that
we take guidance from the title of a book I’ve never read, but which has
already brought great light to a place of darkness: let us Eat, Pray, and Love.

Let’s go downstairs in a few minutes, and let’s Eat. I have it on good authority
that – thanks to the USY Pre-Convention – we have 80 pounds of mac and
cheese and farfalle al pesto downstairs. Let’s eat it all – every last morsel, and
let’s take time to taste each bite. If we feel like it, let’s go over the dessert table
first, have a brownie, a cookie, a cupcake, maybe all three. Sure, there’s butter,
there’s sugar, there are carbs and fat, but there’s goodness in those brownies.
There’s comfort in those brownies. Especially when we enjoy them together.
Let’s Pray. Let’s pray musaf together, pooling our voices and directing our
collective kavannah – intention – to God, to each other, and to the southwest,
down 95 and up the 15, to Newtown, Connecticut.

Most importantly – in my humble opinion – let’s Love. Let’s love ourselves,
love our parents, love our spouses, and love our precious, innocent children.
Let’s love strangers like we’ve known them for years. Let’s love our families,
our communities, our nation enough to know when it’s time to say “Enough!”.
Enough hate. Enough violence. Enough guns. Enough death.

Let’s eat, pray, love our country back to life. Back to light. And let’s start right