A bit of thematic music while you read:
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take part in security training through a company called Position Purple, through my work at the Union for Reform Judaism.
The training included a variety of skills, ranging from dealing with an unfamiliar person on camp to using a fire extinguisher to actually running through fire, to basic self-defense, to finding and dragging people out of a room with low visibility and poor air quality to securing an offsite location.
Over the course of the training, we kept returning to one overarching theme: that of preparedness. When a crisis occurs, we were taught, all people go through 2 physical stages: shock and panic, before being physically and mentally able to respond. While living most of life in a general routine, we are often unprepared for an emergency; by being more prepared, knowing what to do, and being more alert to what is around us, we are able to shorten the time of both shock and panic.
The name of the company, in fact, comes from this idea—if blue represents routine and red represents emergency, we must focus on becoming purple— heightening our awareness and becoming more alert, even in times of routine, so that we can better respond to crisis when it occurs. If we are aware and alert, we are less surprised when an alarm goes off—because of that, we respond more quickly and more effectively. The more prepared we are, we are taught, the quicker we are able to get through shock and panic and respond effectively.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, we read of the disturbing incident in which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, offer strange fire before God and are instantly consumed by fire. Moses reacts by running around, shouting out orders, and spewing out platitudes to try to make sense of it all. And, as we read, Aaron is silent.
In those 2 reactions, we see models of panic and shock. From this, we can learn that we all react differently to tragedy–and that at different points, we each have moments of shock and panic. We must recognize that others, even their mourning looks different than our own, still mourn from the same depth of emotion. And that we all have to go through moments of not being able to truly react, before we can begin to respond to anything.
But what of tragedy that is in the past? Tomorrow, we will commemorate Yom HaShoah; we will remember the catastrophic events of a time that sits somewhere between memory and history. Still at a time when we can hear the stories of those who were there, yet recognizing that we must learn those stories and make them our own so we can retell them. Still mourning the horrific losses, yet not with the pang of new tragedy, but instead with the familiar ache of years of heartbreak. Surely, with the immensity of the atrocity and the temporal distance, neither the response of Moses or the reaction of Aaron is appropriate. We cannot offer banalities and prosaicisms, or try to make sense of what happened. We can certainly not be silent. Instead, we can turn to the ideal of the Divine, and try to allow God’s actions. Following the incident of strange fire, God gives new laws to Aaron and to the people–new structures, new rituals, new guidance–to help Aaron and Moses through the moment, to give them the tools to move forward, to make sure that such tragedy does not happen again, and to create a community with a sense of preparedness and a spirit of readiness.
Like God, we must create structures in order to create a sense of preparedness, an he awareness of the world around us, a readiness to respond in order to prevent such things from happening in our world. It is our sacred mission to learn the stories of the Shoah in order to tell them to those that have not yet heard them—to the generations yet to come—like God instructs Aaron to teach the laws to the people. We must use our voices to speak out against hatred, against prejudice, against those forces in our world who wish to bring violence upon those who are different. While we cannot make sense from the tragedy, we can learn from the experience so that Never Again is more than our words, but our mandate. As we remember: as we honor the memory of those who were killed and as we honor the struggle of those who survived, may our collective memory compel us towards action. Towards a sense of cognizance of what is wrong in the world—and a sense of responsibility to right it.