Newtown

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

“...and may our acts be considered loving (chayn) and wise in the eyes of G‑d and people.” Grace after meals

After shopping for Shabbos, I came home only to hear the horrific news of the slaughter of some 20 innocent kindergarten and first grade students, together with several teachers in Newtown Connecticut.

I know this area quite well, as my brother at one time lived near Danbury. Beautiful tree-lined roads, houses set back from the roadway, rock walls lining the borders of many properties having been placed there hundreds of years ago – one could not find a more tranquil place to live. In fact, while this area with its small towns, town squares replete with flagpole and flanked by the local Methodist and Presbyterian churches, was once the exclusive domain of the shrinking population of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans, W.A.S.P.S., it is now inhabited, ever more populated by, folks more commonly associated with big city life. Folks from various ethnic backgrounds have fled to these oases of tranquility to escape the harshness, the coldness, of American city life. As evidenced by the names of the deceased and those interviewed on TV, folks traditionally associated with the city – Italians, Irish and Jews, are finding these “Yankee” towns to be their proverbial heaven on earth.

However, there is no escaping the fact that the cold reality of the anonymity of city life infects the entirety of our nation. So many folks live in their own bubble, passing us on the street unnoticed, weighed down by their own misery and affliction. No one seems to care. Doors are locked, windows are shuttered, even outside the tumult of the big city. And then a calamity of the proportions of Newtown occurs. Suddenly, the closed-door opens, the shade is lifted, and we feel the pain and suffering of others and reach out with sympathy and warmth.

Over the next few weeks we will be learning more about the perpetrator of this heinous act – he himself but barely out of his teens. Already, the media is placing his life under a microscope attempting to analyze what would motivate a person to commit such an atrocity. Was it his family life? Did he suffer from some emotional problem or mental challenge? And, if he did, is there anything we can do to ensure that this ever increase in mass murders of innocent victims can be dealt with?

In the grace after meals, which we recite every time we break bread, there is an interesting request. We ask of G‑d. “...and may our acts be considered loving and wise in the eyes of G‑d and people.” The word for loving used in Hebrew in this request is chayn. What is chayn?

I know you may have heard this word used in Yiddish and understood it to mean sweet, ingratiating. It is used to describe the nature of an individual. Yet, it means far more than that. It is the sense felt by OTHERS that you exude a sincere love and affection for them, that you in the very essence of your being, are sincerely concerned about their welfare.

I know this type of approach, that of absorbing the feelings of another to the extent that that person actually, in a visceral way, feels that connection you have with him, is frowned upon in certain schools of counseling. We are told that the counselor must be objective, aloof, if he is truly to guide and help the individual. Not only is there a concern that objectivity may be compromised through such compassion, there is also concern that connecting on such a level will bring untold pain and misery to the counselor. How can he/she continue their personal life if, in fact, their being, their essence, their very soul is burdened by the pain of others?

We are told that the great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, had the capacity to “feel the pain” of another to such an extent that the pain was more real to him then it was to the person afflicted. Can you imagine the tears pouring down the face of this Tzadik as he listened to you unburden your soul to such an extent that you knew he is one with you? That was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The comfort, the sense of belonging, being part of someone else, who loved and revered you to such an extent that your pain was felt in him as more real than it was felt by you, is the answer, is the soothing balm, for this isolation and sorrow you felt.

We are as well told that this unique quality of compassion of this great Rebbe came with a terrible cost. When his soul was so weighed down by the pain of others it could no longer stay in this physical world, it left this physical world through Histalkus; his soul finding peace before the the throne of G‑d.

Please don’t misunderstand. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak enjoyed a very happy life, a life filled with simcha, true joy, as through his unusual connection with his fellow human beings, he was, in a real sense connecting with G‑d Himself. For each human being has, as expressed in Genesis, the very breath of life breathed into his being by G‑d. G‑d is in each of us. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak felt that he was continually in the presence of G‑d during his sojourn on earth – he experienced constant union with G‑d through his human encounters. That is the ultimate joy.

That is true chayn, true expression of love for another individual. It is a love that is not only expressed in sincerity, but is palpable to the other individual. I have found in my nearly 50 years in the rabbinate that my shedding tears, sincere tears brought about by my emotionally feeling the loss another experienced, not merely commiserating but actually deeply feeling that loss, felt by the bereaved, was far more effective in reaching out, in ameliorating their pain, then all the eloquent words I could muster. Yes, it wore me out. It was exhausting. Yet, in reflection, I understood that this expression of emotional connection was the most purest part of my human experience in this life, the closest connection I could have with G‑d. In the end it gave me true inner peace.

Could this young man’s encounter with an individual in his life who could really express true chayn that reached through the walls that surrounded him, forestalled this horrible act? Something in my heart tells me that the answer is yes. For true tranquility can never be found in a New England rock wall or tree-lined roadway. It is found in the embrace and love one feels emanating from another human being through chayn.