Wolpe, 54, is the rabbi of Sinai Temple, the first conservative Jewish congregation in Southern California. He has written seven books and delivered the benediction at the Democratic National Convention in September.
The paradox of tragedy is that it is a constant in life and yet never loses its capacity to surprise us. At such a time, faith has an important message, though not always the one we assume.
Sometimes consolers seek to prove that the terror was not truly terrible. “They are in a better place” or “God wished it this way.” I do believe there is something eternal about us, but I have been around death often enough to know that this belief can feel more like a mockery than a comfort when grief stings.
What religion can provide at such a moment is community and eternity. In such moments, there is a natural tendency to despair. Religious leaders — along with many others — not only point toward the goodness of those who responded and helped, but we assume meaning. In a religious world view, human life is not an empty pageant, human loss is not a final event. It is tragic, but death cannot rob even the briefest life of its dignity and its impact. Injury and illness make life infinitely more difficult but not one whit less sacred.
There is no full healing and we all live with scarred hearts. You cannot take away another’s pain. When in the Bible Job’s friends first meet, they sit and weep with him. Then they launch into explanations and justifications that in the end do not help; it is presence, not pontificating, that makes the difference. Community, an assurance of meaning, a recognition of the limits of healing: these are the gifts of religious leadership and community.