Counting Our Blessings as We Mourn

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Since the shooting last Shabbat, there has been much mourning among the Jewish people - mourning for the loss of the beloved Lori Kaye, may the memory of this Tzadeket (righteous woman) be for a blessing. Mourning for the Jewish community of Poway, which has lost the sense of placid security that has always permeated the grand halls and high ceilings of that magnificent Shul, where I spent many a Shabbat in my younger years. Mourning for the increasingly absent sense of Jewish security in America - a unique phenomenon in Jewish history which we had all grown so accustomed to enjoying, which we are now watching crumble continuously with each horrific act of anti-Semitic terror.
There’s a lot to mourn this week, and the truth is to some degree, it’s a fitting time for it. The Omer counting period begins on the second night of Passover and continues until the night of Shavuot, when the heavens open wide to receive the prayers of a Jewish people recommitting themselves to receiving the Torah. This was originally intended as a time for constantly increasing happiness, as a series of days to be spent in internal reflection and concentrated personal growth as the devoted approach the moment of reliving the revelation at Sinai. However, the balanced joy of focusing on this cherished Jewish value of self-work and spiritual development was interrupted in the days of the Tannaitic Sages, when the numerous students of the renowned Rabbi Akiva were struck by a fearsome plague that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The plague lasted until the 33rd day of the Omer count - known as Lag B’Omer - when the merit of the saintly Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai caused the plague to suddenly cease at the very peak of its wreaking havoc on the intellectual core of Judean society.
By all accounts, it was a miracle. A plague that by all means should have taken countless more deaths was ended entirely, and as a result most traditional Jews allow on Lag B’Omer those practices that they prohibit during the rest of the Omer count, such as taking haircuts and listening to live music. And for most Jews, the rest of the Omer melts magically back to that for which it was originally intended - a period marked by increasing joy as we approach one of the happiest holidays of the year.
But the fact remains, that despite the horrifying death toll of this 4th century plague, we celebrate on Lag B’Omer because countless lives were saved. A miracle was put into motion on behalf of the merit of a great Tzadik, and as a result of Hashem’s Infinite mercy. Of course, we never understand the reason why tragic deaths need to happen in the first place. These things are for Hashem to know only - the true reason, beyond any attempted explanation, for why there has to be so much suffering in this world. But what we do know is that whenever there is tragedy, it is always tempered and mitigated by Hashem’s attribute of Mercy. Bad times always come to an end, and as Jews, we celebrate the realization that despite how many horrible things happen to us as a result of the evil in this world, Hashem is always shielding us from a worse alternative.
This is the genius of the divided mourning and celebration period of the Omer. We take our time to mourn the tragedy that befell Rabbi Akiva’s students, and then we take our time to celebrate Hashem’s mercy in ending it before it could have claimed more lives, in ensuring that the plague did not spread beyond the students and wipe out countless numbers of the Jewish population at large.
As I mourn together with our people this week, both for the loss of life and the loss of security in a country that is increasingly feeling less like home, I am still stuck in a fog of shock and despair. But through this fog are peeking the ever present thoughts of gratitude that I maintain towards Hashem. Thank you, Hashem, for the understated miracle of the day - that this wicked man’s gun jammed, that he was unable to fire any more than 10 rounds. That in a situation where countless lives could have been lost, only one righteous woman perished that day. Only 3 people were wounded in a synagogue that I’ve seen packed with hundreds of people, countless times.
Obviously even 10 rounds are far too many. Obviously, even one Tzadeket dying Al Kiddush Hashem, even one family sitting Shiva for their wife and mother is too much suffering to bear. But thank you, Hashem, for saving the lives of all the other people in the synagogue that day; thank you Hashem for ultimately foiling what was clearly a plan to inflict mass casualties on an unarmed congregation. Thank you for the heroes in the crowd that day who were able to spring into action and chase away the evil. Thank you Hashem for showing us that you are with us even when time freezes and the bullets start flying, and for ensuring that this tragedy did not end up being a hundred times worse than it was. But even as we thank You for sparing us from worse disaster, understand us as we question why we must experience tragedy at all, why the goodness of this world must still be mixed together with suffering...
May those who were injured, physically and mentally, have a speedy recovery. May we become a more united people in the wake of this destruction, and not have to wait until the next attack is too close to home to realize that every attack against our fellow Jews - here and in every part of the world - is too close to home. May the memory of the Tzadeket Lori Kaye, who took the brunt of the bullets that could have killed countless more people in the congregation last Shabbat, be for a blessing for us all, and may we remember even in times of tragedy to say thank you for the miracles that are always being performed on behalf of Am Yisrael.
Ya’akov Adam Schwartz
Ya’akov (Jacob) Adam Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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I converted to Judaism. When my parents pass on, I desire to sit shiva. My parents are supportive of my decisions, and of my living a Jewish life and raising a Jewish family. Should I expect my Synagogue to recognize my loss and notify members of the death and shiva times?
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