The Sword of Damocles
Like many of you, I have been riveted since yesterday to the news of the partial collapse of the Champlain South Tower in Surfside. My colleague, Ofi Osin-Cohen, the Director of Women’s Philanthropy for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, lived in the part of the Champlain South Tower that is still standing and thank G!D escaped the building. She described how difficult it was to leave, because all the exits were blocked by debris, and how fire rescue needed to send a ladder up to her 4th floor balcony so she, her husband and her neighbors could escape.
Then came further news of a colleague who has worked as the admissions director for several Miami Jewish day schools. Her twenty-something son went to visit his girlfriend Wednesday night and slept over. Tragically, his girlfriend’s apartment is in the South Tower, and thus far there is no word of his fate, but of course, the prospects are grim.
We are transfixed with this tragedy, not just us here in South Florida, but literally our entire nation.
And the question is why? Why has this particular tragedy made such an impact?
First, I think for us here, it’s so very close to home. We know that stretch of Collins Avenue. I’ve personally driven by it innumerable times. This horror is close up.
But that doesn’t explain why the rest of the country is so transfixed by this tragedy.
Second, it’s so rare to see this kind of event occur in the U.S. outside of a natural disaster. We expect destroyed buildings from a hurricane or a tornado. But in the U.S., buildings don’t just fall down, building codes and inspections and laws are designed to prevent these tragedies. We might understand why it can (and has) happened in some other country like Bangladesh (where this did occur not long ago). But here?!?
So it makes us wonder how safe things really are.
And it is that wonder, that questioning of what we think is safe, what seems to be strong and solid, that gives each one of us pause.
Third, to sadly sharpen our sense of unease, let me point out that over the past year and a half of Covid-19, assuming no domestic violence, our homes were our havens, the one place we could hide from the dangers outside. Our homes provided each of us with a sense of protection and safety against the virus that seemed to be relentlessly pursuing us, seeking our death.
It is this sense of safety that I think gets closer to the heart of the matter.
Overnight, in an instant, an entire building, with no warning, collapsed. Many, if not most of the people living in it are quite likely dead (though I pray that isn’t the case).
And what this event means is that any building or bridge, any vehicle or vicinity, contains within it the potential for tragedy.
Most of us are familiar with the phrase “the sword of Damocles.” And while it is not common to focus on a Roman fable in a Jewish Dvar Torah, it’s an instructive tale for our times as well.
When Damocles noted how wonderful it was to live like a king, the king himself ordered he be seated on a golden couch where a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that the king had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, Damocles’ fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. (https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-sword-of-damocles)
Step back from the story for a moment and you’ll see that it’s a fable that has lasted through the centuries because it contains a deep truth about human existence: we all labor under the specter of death at every moment of our lives.
As the Unetaneh tokef prayer that is read on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur states, we are “a fragment of pottery, a blade of grass, a flower that fades, a shadow, a cloud, a breath of wind.” The Torah tells us that we are dust and to dust we will return.
Only G!D is eternal. We human beings all have an expiration date, and none of us knows exactly when it is.
That is a fact of life.
And it is these kinds of random, inexplicable tragedies, like a building collapsing in the middle of the night, that slap us in the face with the truth— the sword of Damocles is suspended above each one of us, always. And though we live like kings, eating succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments, we still cannot escape our human fragility.
Jewish tradition tries to push us into recognizing our self-imposed blindness.
It asks us to build a sukkah, a fragile little structure, and dwell in it for 7 or 8 days to remind us that the homes we think are strong and seemingly eternal, are not, in reality, where stability and strength reside.
It asks us to re-enact our deaths on Yom Kippur, as we meet our Maker like we will in death, a corpse who does not eat or drink, unadorned by ointments and oils, no longer bound by our body seeking sex or comfort, in order to teach us that we are, in reality, ephemeral, “a flower that fades, a breath of wind” no matter how much wealth or property we acquire.
All of this could make us into creatures who are consumed with anxiety and paralyzed by fear. And indeed, many of us are.
Yet, Judaism, as well as most religions, offers a different outcome.
You and I can recognize our human limitation, our inevitable mortality, our powerlessness to control it all, our inability to prevent every tragedy no matter how hard we try. We can acknowledge we are not “masters of the universe” because there is already a Master of the Universe.
However you understand it, there are forces at play far larger than you and I, always.
And when buildings collapse, we are shocked into recognizing that we are not nearly as in control of our lives and our world as we would like to think.
We simply delude ourselves most of the time, because the illusion of control makes us feel less anxious, less powerless, less mortal.
But these illusions and delusions are a temporary fix. Deep down we know this, which is why we have so much and may still be so unhappy. Drinking and drugging and binge watching and binge eating and addicted to this or that.
The material world might never provide the ultimate comfort we seek (though of course, we need at least a minimum level of material comfort to not only survive but be able to thrive).
The material is a means to a higher end— the spiritual.
And by spiritual, I mean religion, prayer, and G!D as well as hessed (altruistic giving), love, deep human relationships, and trust. It’s this last word I’d like to spend some time exploring, because most of us have already experienced or are well-versed in hessed, love and human relationships.
In the Mussar literature of Judaism, there is a quality that every Jew should strive for and it is called bitachon or trust in G!D. Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, writes:
…[I]t is only when you are running after the elusive goal of being happy that this world seems so terrible. If you think that you are supposed to be the master of your life— as if that were possible— the terrible happenings that inevitably come your way in this imperfect world are defeats. They make happiness impossible.
But the Jewish tradition actually gives us a different job description, one that fits much better with this world just as it is. It advises us not to seek happiness but to recognize instead that we are meant to be servants of God…
What exactly does it mean to trust God? BItachon comes in two forms.
There is trust that God will look out for you. This is the trust that says God will deliver the providence you want and need…
There is another more reasonable, less radical version of trust based on an attitude of acceptance. You don’t expect that everything will turn out as you want, but instead accept whatever happens because you understand that there is a reason and order behind the world… even if the reason is not apparent to you at the moment…
One more point needs to be clarified. Although trust requires acceptance, we aren’t meant to be fatalistic. We are still obliged to make our own efforts… You do have some powers that are gifted to you…God is the source of these capacities, so wouldn’t it dishonor those gifts and especially their giver not to put them to use?
Morinis continues by noting that bitachon gives us the capacity to act from a place of no fear or paralyzing worry.
How many of us know someone who is a big worrier? Or maybe it is we ourselves. Why does a person relentlessly worry? It is our mistaken human way of trying to gain control of a situation. But as we discussed, we can’t control everything, which makes incessant worry a huge waste of time, harmful to your mental and physical self, and ultimately delusional.
And while we may not be able-- or even willing-- to embrace the idea of G!D as the author of all things that occur in this world, we certainly can acknowledge that we don’t know it all and will never figure it all out.
There is mystery. And that acknowledgement can free us to accept what life throws at us and to work on growing from it. That’s what the Mussar literature calls Your Spiritual Curriculum. Where we experience difficulty, upset, lack of flow and ease— that’s where our spiritual curriculum lies. That is what we are meant to grow from.
The easy stuff in our lives never teaches us anything except to be arrogant; because we attribute the ease to our own abilities. It’s always and ever the hard stuff that can, if we let it, teach us the biggest truths.
This week’s Parashat Balak contains the well-known words of the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam who is asked to curse the Israelites, but instead is made by G!D to utter blessing (B’Midbar/ Numbers 24):
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.
5 How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!
Around the country, colleagues, seeing this tragedy on the news, have called and emailed me just to say: “How are you? Thinking of you. You are in my prayers.” That’s a curse turned to blessing.
People have been so generous towards those who lost their homes in this tragedy that the Red Cross is asking that we give money rather than things for those made homeless, since they already have received an overwhelming amount of material goods. And maybe some of the extra can be shared with those who are perpetually homeless? That’s a curse turned to blessing.
Do we know whether Team Red or Team Blue is donating? No we don’t. Because it doesn’t matter. In this case, our common humanity overrides all ideology. That’s a curse turned to blessing.
“…the only people who will save us from ourselves is we the people, all of us together. And when we do that, and when we move from the politics of me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful, counterintuitive truths:
that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak,
that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor,
it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.
That is what makes great nations.
So here is my simple suggestion. It might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world.
Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind, and wherever you encounter the word "self," substitute the word ‘other.’ So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature:
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you/You are with me.’
We can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone.”
Look around and you will see so much love pouring forth right now in the midst of this horror. We are not alone; we have each other. That is what community is. And thankfully we have a strong and beautiful Jewish community as well as a strong and beautiful geographic community.
And beyond the human realm, I try to face life without fear because You (capital Y) are with me. It’s taken me a long time, but I have found great comfort in realizing that actually I’m not in charge of everything. The world is not under my control. And The Divinity of All That Is is with me, always.
In the best of times, in the worst of times, I am not alone. And neither are you. And “together/Together” is what will enable us to make it through the valley of the shadow of death.