Monday, April 16, 2012

Omer 1: Chesed of Chesed

My work was quiet and emotional; a lot of sitting and remembering an writing. Here's some of what I wrote:
Today we count Night One of the Omer, Chesed of Chesed.
I’m going to tell you a about a thing I remember. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it, even though I know that the world remembers some of it differently. I don’t think it matters. It’s an event I hadn't thought about in years, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’m sure Wikipedia can tell you the “real” version, if you want.
In any case, at some point in my early twenties, there was a shooting at a small Amish school out Quarryville way. A local English (that’s Amish for “not Amish”) man entered a one-room school house with a gun. I think he might have been the school’s milk man or something. He let the boys and the grown-ups go, but the girls, ten or twelve of them, he kept. Because they were Amish, it was several miles to the nearest phone, but the released hostages set off that way, and called the police, who came in great force, and sent in a negotiator, to no avail. After holding the girls (some of whom spoke only Deitsch, and no English) hostage for several hours, he shot them and then himself. Some of the girls died, and some were med-evac’ed to the hospital with critical injuries. I don’t really recall any more details of the shooting itself; I’m not sure I ever knew them. What actually matters is what happened next.
Again, I do not know if my recollection is accurate. I remember so many things that no one else does, some of them things I know couldn't possibly have happened, and there are so many things I forget. In this particular case, I’m not sure it matters if this is how it happened or not. This is the story I carry with me, and the one I’m telling right now.
Within a few hours of the shooting, an Amish elder was being interviewed by the newspaper, and admonished people not the hate, not to judge, not to think evil of “this poor man” who “had a wife, and children, and a soul that is now standing before its maker.” Later that day, a delegation from the community visited the gunman’s widow, children, and parents to comfort them. By the next day, the entire Amish community, including the parents of the dead girls, made a very public statement of forgiveness. With their children’s blood still wet on their hands, they forgave. That’s how Chesed works. It doesn't undo the wrong; it doesn't condone it, or even really pardon it, but it is ever-merciful; immediately and wholly beneficent. I want to be like that.
There’s an Amish folktale (midrash?) I learned as a kid about a man named William Dirk (or something like that). He was an early Anabaptist (the broad category of Christian that Amish falls into. They don't believe in infant baptism;they think such a thing as that is something you have to take on yourself, as an adult.) in the Netherlands. He was captured by the Inquisition, and imprisoned, tortured and starved. He managed to escape, and ran across a frozen lake to safety, with the guard hot on his heels. Because he had been starved, he made it across the thin ice, but the well-fed guard was not so lucky, he fell through the ice into the dark depths, and so Dirk was free. But here’s the thing that gets me; Dirk turned around. He turned around and saved the guard. He fished the man out, and breathed for him until help arrived. Help, of course, meant the other guards, who hauled Dirk back to prison, and soon thereafter, burned him at the stake.
Torah says that after the waters parted, after we passed through the sea, the Egyptians continued their pursuit, and the water came crashing down on them. Not a single one survived. As we watched their corpses float to the shore, we sang. We sang a song of jubilation at their death. But, I think, we should have turned around to save them. I am finding that hard to forgive.  But, I'm trying.