Dear Members, Nursery School Families, and Friends, Yesterday evening we had a healing service attended by about 100 people. The number of people in attendance was double the number I expected. I express my thanks to Rabbi Miller, Lisa Iskin, and Diana Klein from the JFCS who contributed in making the evening meaningful for everyone in attendance. We concluded with Havdalah, everyone holding hands and surrounding Rabbi Miller and with the lights dimmed. I spoke briefly and multiple people requested copies of my prepared remarks. I decided to share my remarks (below) with everyone since I know that many people were unable to attend because they are staying with family or friends around the Bay Area.
Dan Pine, the J.’s news editor was in attendance. His article including interviews with various members may be found at: Gathering of prayer and healing at Santa Rosa shul.
Henry S. Cohn
It has been a trying week for all of us in Sonoma County. Of course, not only Sonoma County has been affected by the horrific fires, but Napa, Mendocino, Solano counties, among others have been impacted. But, no community has suffered the number of deaths and the physical destruction of homes and commercial buildings as much as Santa Rosa. At this Healing Service tonight our focus is the Santa Rosa Jewish Community, although the entire Sonoma County Jewish Community has been affected. The calamity has not been limited to one synagogue. Here at Beth Ami, seven families lost their homes and at least one Nursery School family. At least 25 families from Shomrei Torah lost their homes and at Ner Shalom the mother of one of their members perished in her home.
Never in my life have I been so close to a catastrophe where I personally know so many of the families who lost their homes and where I know virtually everyone who needed to evacuate. In the past week I have communicated with so many congregants either by phone, through text messages, or e-mail. Unbeknownst to the people I with whom I have been contact is that I often had tears in my eyes.
I live in Petaluma and so far we have been spared of any fires, although I am now prepared to evacuate should the situation change. I am neither thankful nor grateful that my home has been spared. I am fortunate, but I can’t feel thankful or grateful when so many others that I know personally have experienced misery. I am thankful that more lives have not been lost and for the courageous firefighters, first responders, EMTs and volunteers staffing the evacuation centers.
I have been contemplating whether tonight was too soon to have a Healing Service while the fires are only minimally contained. I know that many families are scattered around the Bay Area staying with friends and family and would be unable to attend. I decided that if only one person showed up, then holding this service would be worth the effort. The healing process needs to start with someone.
On erev Rosh Hashanah I shared the Midrash that tells us that when the Jewish people came to the shore of the Red Sea, they panicked. Moses began to pray, and as G’d instructed him, he held up his rod over the sea. But the Midrash tells us that the sea did not yet part. In the face of the charging Egyptian army, the Midrash tells us that Nachshon Ben Aminadav, one of the tribal leaders, proceeded into the sea. At that moment, the sea parted and the Children of Israel were able to cross on to dry land. Ad-nai’s intervention only came when G’d saw that at least one person was willing to act.
No one will walk away from here tonight completely “healed.” Healing is a journey that starts with a first step. We live in a world where we are frequently told to keep our suffering hidden-both physical and mental, but especially mental suffering. When we create space in our holiest times and places for our own grief and the suffering of our loved ones, we make individual healing possible.
The Torah itself refuses to shy away from stories of loss and human fragility. In the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) the first chapter begins with the verse: “v’eileh ha’devarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael: these are the words that Moses spoke to the entire people of Israel.” Moses begins telling the Children of Israel the narrative of their wanderings, the stories of heart-break in leaving Egypt, the deaths of his siblings, the illnesses that struck his people and his own moments of vulnerability. Moses offers these words on the lip of the Promised Land that he will never enter.
In Hebrew the word devarim, means both words and things. Our words, our stories, are tangible in Judaism. Moses offers his words as a legacy–a concrete way to accompany the people in his absence and to comfort each of us as we continue on our own journeys. Our journeys never follow a straight path, but are come with twists and turns and sometimes heading backwards.
As we start a new week, may we turn our eyes towards our loved ones, members of our community and the parts of ourselves that are struggling with the brokenness of grief and loss. And may we offer each other devarim, words that tell the stories of our pain and sanctify our losses, so that our love might bring one another r’fuah sh’layma–a complete healing and the true wholeness of broken hearts.