Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reflections on a Tragedy

This past Yom Kippur our community was afflicted with a horrible tragedy. During Kol Nidre services, I was giving my sermon to our Sephardic Minyan. (A couple of years ago we started a this service for all Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent and their service is steeped in their rich Sephardic Heritage). Someone had come into the minyan and informed us that there had been a major accident on San Jose Blvd and that one of our congregants en route to services at the Sephardic Minyan had been fatally struck. We learned that Esther Ohayon a beloved member of our community was killed in this horrific tragedy and her daughter Orly was taken to the hospital and was in critical condition.
Our Yom Kippur quickly turned into a day in intense grief. We still continued with services until the end of Yom Kippur but we were in this dark cloud that seemed to be suffocating.
How it is that such sweet, loving and righteous people could have that inflicted upon them on the way to synagogue? Weren’t they on their way to offer prayers to G-d and connect with Him on the holiest day of the year?  

It is not inappropriate to question G-d and ask questions of this nature. Indeed, we learn about Gideon in the Book of Judges, who questioned G-d after all the suffering that the Jews of his generation had to endure at the hands of the Midianites. He said “Where are all your wonders and miracles that accompanied the Jews when they left Egypt?
I do not pretend to know the answer to the age old question of how good people can suffer and evil people can prosper.  I do know what the Torah teaches us on this difficult issue. It is written in the end Deuteronomy that from the time the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from our homeland, G-d has concealed His face from us. This is referred in Hebrew as Hester Panim. The state of Hester Panim allows a world in which acts of terrorism, natural disasters and devastating tragedies to occur without understanding the reason for all of this. This state of concealment causes us to be confused and despondent when confronted with events of this nature.  Had the presence of G-d been less concealed, we would not be struggling to understand His will.
However, we continue to pray for this era of Hester Panim  to be over and done with. Indeed, that is a central theme of the High Holiday liturgy. We plead with G-d for Him to come closer to us and be less concealed.
Life is full of joyous and sad moments. In a moment like this we have to reflect on how fragile life is and how we must take advantage of each and every day. We have to be cognizant of all the blessings that we do have in life. Let us show appreciation to those closest to us. We should not take anything for granted including our families. It is important to tell your spouse “I Love You “or hug your child. If there is an opportunity to help someone in need, it is important to take advantage of those opportunities and not put them off.
I would also like to point out about how much goodness and kindness this tragedy has generated. People all over the world have come together for prayer and tzedaka in a very meaningful way. There was a prayer session at the Kotel in Jerusalem attended by dozens of Orly’s friends in Israel. Individuals from all over the world have contributed funds for the benefit of Orly. Locally, there has been an outpouring of generosity from all synagogues and agencies in our Jewish Community. My phone did not stop ringing for days with people offering how they can be of some help. It is nothing short of inspiring.
I think it is a very fitting tribute to Esther. She attended Chabad and Etz Chaim and taught at the pre school of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. She was a person that transcended the differences we sometimes have and connected in a very meaningful way with all Jews regardless of their denomination or observance. Even in her death she continues to unite the Jewish people in a way that is meaningful and inspiring.

May her memory always be a blessing.

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