What do we say, what do we do, when the unthinkable happens? When we imagine "the unthinkable" in the abstract, there is always some actual, specific picture. It is inevitably a thinkable picture that we conjure up, perhaps so that we can plan for it, or so we can steel ourselves against its possibility. Maybe we imagine the unthinkable because it is simply in our human nature to do so, the way one scratches an itch until it hurts, because it feels so much better then when you stop.
But the unthinkable, by definition, never happens in the way it does in our troubled daydreams. It is always plainer, and more physical. It is bigger than we imagined and smaller too. It doesn't come with a swelling soundtrack telling us when it's okay to cry. It happens fast enough to make our heads spin and then its protracted consequences unfold with nauseating sluggishness.
So it has been this week for all of us in the Ner Shalom community, the Sonoma State community, the biking community and the Norwick family. We are still trying to wrap our brains around the reality of what happened to Steve last Friday. It was real, more horrible and more matter-of-fact than anything our wandering minds could have come up with in our unguarded hours.
The actual moment of the accident is no longer important; the road, the bike, the driver, the drift into the shoulder. At five days out, these details are long gone. Yet our minds return to that moment again and again and again in disbelief and anger and despair. We re-conjure the horror of it because we don't know what else to do. Steve remains unconscious and cannot be visited. The family is well tended at the moment. So we, Steve's many friends and relatives and colleagues and students and former students have constituted a sort of community of people who are simply waiting, when our instincts tell us to act.
The thoughts of some turn to the driver and his behavior - not stopping, continuing with his workday, etc. - and then race quickly to a place of pressing, persistent anger. "Justice," our minds cry, without really knowing what justice is in this case. For who among us has not been behind the wheel of a car that has drifted into another lane? Or done some other stupid or absent-minded thing that was more dangerous than we knew. And while we all fear being hit by a vehicle, the dread of hitting a living person is even more terrifying. At least it is for me.
Did the driver have a stroke? Is his seeming mental impairment a charade? Could he have been drunk? These are things we don't know, at least not yet. The answers to these questions will not make anything better, and may just compound the sense of senseless tragedy we're already facing.
So "justice," we cry, because there is nothing else to do. Stephen remains in a coma. There is no smiling Steve to receive and acknowledge our wishes for healing. We pray for his healing, but also fear that we might be saying goodbye and that our goodbye will not be the full, open-hearted mutual leavetaking we all hope for in our relationships.
Yes, an unthinkable thing has happened for which there is no course of action and no consolation that is even remotely satisfying.
So we go about our lives and do the things we do. Work, eat, study. So I studied this week, which I do regularly with a partner in Boston. We've been reading the teachings of the early Chassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk. Elimelech seemed to have made a project of looking at Torah not as story but as a source of encrypted insights. For him the words, not the plot, were the vehicles that carried messages about what mattered most to him: tzidkut, being a tzaddik, being a righteous person, an enlightened person, a fair person in this world. And so when considering the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Shlach Lecha, which go:
שלח לך אנשים ויתרו את ארץ כנען
Shlach lekha anashim v'yaturu et eretz K'na'an...
"Send out people and they will journey the land of Canaan," Elimelech exhibited no interest in the story of Moses and the scouts he was told to send into the Promised Land. Instead he wondered what those specific words meant as a teaching about tzidkut - about living a righteous life.
Rebbe Elimelech knew very well that in Torah, angels are often referred to as anashim, "people." (With our modern eye we might instead say that there are people who act in ways that cause us to ascribe them the title "angel.") For example, the angels who visit Abraham and Sarah to announce the conception and birth of Isaac are never called "angels" (malakhim) in the text; they are merely called "people" (anashim). This gives rise to a free-floating suspicion in reading Torah that any "person" or "people" mentioned as such could be angels in disguise or somehow divinely directed.
So Elimelech explores what it might mean to "send out angels." There is teaching in Judaism that every mitzvah you engage in - that is, every commandment or perhaps every act of justice or kindness - creates an angel. Is this meant literally or metaphorically? In the mystical mind that distinction is not a clear one; we exist in physical and metaphysical worlds all at once. But whether this belief is literal doesn't really matter; the result is the same.
Our deeds have effect. They transform the world around us in perceptible or imperceptible ways. Our acts of kindness, our acts of compassion release ripples of consequence.
Rebbe Elimelech goes further. He says angels are born not just of our righteous acts, but of our words themselves. Or at least our words when we are acting with true tzidkut, with great righteousness. He says:
אנשים הם הדיבורים של הצדיקים אשר נבראו מלאכים מכל דבור
Anashim hem hadiburim shel hatzadikim asher nivre'u malakhim mikol dibur...
"People are the words of the tzaddikim (the righteous); from each word angels are created." He goes on to parse the rest of the sentence from Torah - the bit about the "people" being sent to journey the land of Canaan - to suggest that our words-turned-angels go out and do work, that they travel on and do something to the terrain itself. He suggests they subdue some of its harshness, taking advantage of a linguistic similarity between "Canaan" (kna'an) and "subduing" (hakhni'an).
Our right action and right speech, as the Buddhists would term them, give birth to angels. And those angels journey the land, changing things. There's no mystery to this. We know it in our lives. We see the effects of our fair and kind actions versus those of our angry actions. This is why I love that Stephen's family, instead of asking the community to demand justice (in the revenge-y sense of the word), they have asked people to engage in just acts. In a recent post, Steve's daughter Sara said:
If you are thinking of my father today, you could do something Steve-like: pick up a piece of garbage, bring cloth bags to the grocery store, leave the car at home, read a poem, go on a hike, have a teaching moment, refill your reusable water bottle or, of course, put on your helmet and go for a ride.
There is so much at this moment that we don't know. So much we fear and so much we yearn for. So much that still has to play out. But in Steve's honor, let us follow both Sara's and Rebbe Elimelech's advice. Let us make angels of litter-clearing and angels of resource renewal and angels of diminished carbon footprint and angels of teaching moments and, yes, angels of the swift freedom of the bicycle. In Steve's name, let us unleash all our healing angels upon the world.