Friday, March 29, 2013

Taking Leave of a Hero

Slowly, one by one by one, they are slipping away. The liberators, as a class older than the survivors, are almost gone—there were, after all, children among the Shoah survivors but there were no child liberators, all of whom were soldiers serving either in the American, British, or Soviet armies—and the few that remain are very old: Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who died last week at age 95, was a young man of twenty-seven when he entered Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, and was confronted with the physical evidence of savagery that even the most inveterate pessimist sleeping though the worst of all nightmares could never manage actually to conjure up.

We at Shelter Rock have in our community several individuals who were liberated earlier that same day by four soldiers from General Patton’s Third Army: Jack Rosenthal, Joe Zeller, and Irving Roth. What that can have been like, for those four soldiers—their names were Pfc. James Hoyt, Tech. Sgt. Herbert Gottschalk, Captain Frederic Keffer, and Sgt. Harry Ward—or even for as hardened a solder as George S. Patton himself (who entered the camp personally a few days later to see for himself what even he must have been hardly been able to believe), we can only imagine. Still harder than that would be to imagine what the survivors, and particularly the children among them, could possibly have made of the presence of American soldiers treating them with kindness where just one single day earlier there had only been S.S. officers and German soldiers treating them with unimaginable brutality. But perhaps hardest of all to conjure up would be the emotions triggered by entry into the camp in the heart of the first Jewish chaplain on the scene. We, after all, who know the larger story and who have the ability to set Buchenwald into its context as a specific kind of camp playing a specific role in the Nazi war against the Jews, can hardly comprehend the vastness of the horror. But for Rabbi Schacter, who arrived in the camp on the day of liberation itself without any verifiable sense of the extent of the catastrophe that had befallen the Jews of Europe, it must have seemed as though he had somehow stepped across an unseen border separating the verdant hills of eastern Germany from some unknown outpost of hell on earth, a hell to which had been consigned not only the already dead but, amazingly, also a significant number of the somehow still living.

That day, April 11, 1945, was by the Jewish reckoning the 28th day of Nisan, thus not even a week after the end of the Passover holiday. The theme of liberation from bondage suffuses the holiday and its various customs and observances. Even in the army, Jewish soldiers were permitted to participate in seder meals and encouraged to take pride in religious traditions that so precisely matched the sense of the Allied mission to bring freedom to occupied Europe. And, indeed, what Jewish American soldiers could possibly not have found great satisfaction in the thought that they, the latter-day descendants of the Israelites who fled from slavery and became free people in the desert, were engaged in the slow, painful process of bringing freedom back to so many nations that had become little more than vassal states in the service of their German masters? Nor, of course, was it solely Jewish soldiers who felt that way—the liberation of Europe by all Allied troops was well underway when Rabbi Schacter walked into Buchenwald and found what he found, and it must have been the rare soldier who did not personally feel the burden of history weighing down on his shoulders as victory became inevitable and, acre by acre, Europe—including Germany itself—was made free of its demonic overlords.

It seems amazing to say it this way, but Buchenwald, where over 56,000 people died, was not an extermination camp per se. Indeed, aside from its Jewish inmates, Buchenwald also housed among its prisoners Poles, Slavs of other ethnic sorts, homosexuals, Gypsies, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Allied prisoners of war (including Americans and Canadians). But the most brutal punishment was reserved for the Jews and that explains why a mere 4,000 of the approximately 21,000 prisoners liberated on that day in April were Jewish, almost all of them survivors of various death camps in Poland who had been marched or shipped to Germany towards the end of the war as the Nazis, acting neither from shame nor remorse but merely from a fear of punishment at the hands of the victorious Allied forces, became eager to obliterate the evidence of their own barbarism. Among them were, amazingly, 904 children under the age of seventeen including, aside from the Shelter Rockers mentioned above, the young Elie Wiesel and the even younger Yitzchak Meir Lau, later the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. These were the people to whom Rabbi Schacter was called to minister.

In some ways, he was the right man for the job. He spoke Yiddish well, which made it simple for him to communicate with the newly liberated. What he found at Buchenwald was beyond description in any language, of course. And yet, somehow possessed of a sense of duty that most of us can barely imagine ourselves taking on without collapsing beneath, he went to work. He traveled to London and came back with Passover supplies and conducted a kind of after-the-fact Pesach seder in Buchenwald in the style of the second Passover briefly mentioned in the Torah in the ninth chapter of the Book of Numbers. He began the slow, painful work of restoring life to the living, of helping the survivors come to terms with the disaster that had befallen not only them but their families and the communities from which they came and in which they had grown up. He wasn’t a seasoned clergyman—having been ordained at Yeshiva University in 1941, Rabbi Schacter had served for exactly one single year in a synagogue in Stamford, Connecticut, before enlisting as a chaplain in 1942. And now, a mere three years after that, he was—in one of those kismet moments that seem so natural in the movies but which it never seems quite possible to imagine happening in real life—as the result of one of those unimaginably unlikely concatenation of events, qualifications, and experiences, Rabbi Schacter suddenly found himself center stage at one of the pivotal moments of all Jewish history leading, of all things, a seder celebrating freedom from slavery for people who themselves had only weeks earlier themselves been slaves to a pharaoh no less intent than his ancient forebear on eradicating the Jewish people. Nor did he simply provide standard chaplaincy services for the newly freed inmates by leading religious services and providing them with tefillin and other religious paraphernalia. In the end, he watched over the Jews of Buchenwald and helped them find their way into the world, personally bringing some of them to new lives in Switzerland, helping arrange for others to settle in the United States, and assisting still others find their way to what was then still British Palestine.  Later on, he served as the rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center on Hull Avenue in the Bronx for more than half a century.  Eventually, he became the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, then ended his career in the service of his alma mater, working as director of rabbinic services at Yeshiva University.

It’s hard to imagine Rabbi Schacter at twenty-seven facing Buchenwald with exactly one year of rabbinic experience under his belt. It’s hard, actually, to imagine anyone suddenly coming face to face with misery on that scale and not running for cover. But reading his obituary in the paper  the other day prompted me not only to wonder about the mettle of a man who could step up to the plate in a situation like that and proceed to bring the solace of faith to people who had experienced a level of degradation we who were not there can barely fathom. I did, of course, wonder what kind of person could step into that situation. But I also inevitably found myself (and still find myself) wondering how I personally would have behaved in that situation, if I could have found it in me to speak about faith, about pride, about destiny, or about the eternal nature of the Jewish people without looking away, without ducking behind the kind of platitudes and slogans that reduce theology to pap. The question, of course, has no real answer. Which of us could ever say with any degree of certainty how we would have responded to the unimaginable, how we would have behaved in a situation that we ourselves would have been unable to conjure up even hours before stepping through that famous gate mockingly emblazoned with the words Jedem Das Seine (“We Get What We Deserve”) lest any inmates imagine they were being unjustly punished in that place? Which of us—no matter how secure we feel in our faith or how proud of our membership in the House of Israel—which of us could say with certainty that, when confronted with evidence of inhumanity on a scale the world itself hadn’t even known, we would have found the foundation upon which rests what we believe about God to be strong enough not to collapse under the weight of what we would then know first-hand about the world?

I would like to think that, had I been in Rabbi Schacter’s shoes, I would have behaved as admirably as he did, that I would have found it in me to serve the living in a way that a single year dealing with a suburban synagogue in Stamford could not possibly have prepared him even to imagine, let along actually to negotiate successfully.  In the end, we find out all sorts of things about ourselves as we move forward through life. Some of those things are pleasant confirmations of what we think we already know. Others are more sobering. Some, occasionally, are truly distressing. I would like to think I could have done that work.  In the end, though, who really knows what any of us is capable of undertaking? And that question, unanswered and unanswerable, is what I took with me from the story of Rabbi Schacter’s death, may his memory be a blessing for us all and may he rest in peace.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Telling the Story

As we move through these final days leading into Passover, I’ve been thinking for some reason about an aspect of our festival observance that seems to get lost in the shuffle as we all scramble to make ready our homes, get all those meals cooked, find the Haggadahs wherever it is we put them last year, and figure out who is going to sleep where. It’s a busy time. I’ve been staying up past my bedtime for days and days. Joan’s solved her problem by not sleeping at all. It will all get done, of course, as it always does always get done. And it’s more than easy to see why no one has the time for the leisurely, ruminative contemplation of the story behind the festival. Still, isn’t that just a bit odd, considering that the commandment to tell the story in as detailed a manner as the guests at one’s seder, and particularly the children present, are likely to appreciate and to interiorize rests at the generative core of all that cleaning and all that cooking? Given how difficult it actually is to relate the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the next generation carefully, effectively, and interestingly, it’s strange to think how little playtime that specific commandment actually gets in terms of how we organize our run-up to the seder evenings.

 Even odder is to consider how it is that the Haggadah—the book which gets its name from the commandment in question (the word haggadah in  Hebrew literally means “telling” or “story” and derives directly from the words v’higgad’ta l’vinkha in Exodus 13:8, “and you shall tell your children”  every year on the eve of Passover how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt)—even stranger is the way that the Haggadah passes over the story itself and never actually does get around to telling the tale from beginning to end as a sequential story that someone hearing it for the first time could understand easily.

For some reason, it took me years to notice this. I’ve always loved the Haggadah, always found in its ancient cadences a kind of liturgical satisfaction that other equally ancient works seem to me to lack, or at least to lack to the degree that the Haggadah possesses it. I suppose we all have our favorite passages. We surely all have our favorite songs and melodies. But it is probably because we are all so familiar with the book—and I know for a fact we at Shelter Rock have many in our midst, and not only myself, who can recite long passages from the book by heart and remarkably accurately—that it takes some serious stepping back even to notice how oddly and little clearly the story is told. Take a look when you get there this year at the seder and tell me if you think that someone who knew nothing of the story going in and only read the Haggadah would leave the table with a clear sense of what specifically happened to the Israelites or how their liberation from bondage in Egypt was actually effected.  The question I want to write about today, then, is not why this is historically so—the history of the Haggadah itself is a bit shrouded in mystery, although it is clearly an ancient book that was already in existence during the early Talmudic period, which is to say by the third century CE—but rather what point the liturgists who created the Haggadah were trying to make by telling the story in the specific way those chose to tell it.

I suppose the simplest answer would be that the whole concept of telling the tale is meant from the get-go to be a heuristic experience, one that was developed specifically to whet the appetite of listeners to learn more. Motivation, then as now, is the key to learning. Any teacher, whether in nursery school or graduate school, will tell you exactly the same thing, that what makes any teacher great is not his or her ability to tell things to students in class but to awaken in them the desire personally to feel interested in the specific material the teacher wishes them to master. According to this line of thinking, then, the obscure way the Haggadah tells the story is not flaw but pedagogy…and that the whole point is not to impart information, or not solely to impart information, but to stimulate the interest of the listeners in the story under discussion, to motivate them to want to learn more.  We could say, then, that the Haggadah avoids a straightforward rendition of its core story specifically and intentionally to draw listeners in, to awaken their nascent curiosity in the tale, to make them want to ask the questions that will lead them ultimately to internalize the lessons the story is being told to teach in the first place.

Or maybe there is another answer. Like many of you I’m sure, I read with interest Bruce Feiler’s article in the “This Life” column that was published a few days ago in the NY Times.  Adapted from his newly published book, The Secrets of Happy Families, the article put forward the thesis that one of the key indicators of a child’s future success in life as an adult is the degree to which that child is possessed of a clear, cogent narrative regarding his or her parents’ and grandparents’ life stories. Basing himself on the work of Emory University psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, Feiler makes a convincing argument that the more children know about their ancestors—going back even to the parents and grandparents of their own grandparents, or even further back than that when possible—the stronger their sense of being possessed of an “intergenerational self” is going to be. And it is precisely that sense of one’s intergenerational identity—the understanding of one’s place in the universe not in terms of the people one actually knows, but in terms of the far larger, broader, rich, and more complex story of the people who constitute one’s extended family back through generations and generations—that is what gives children confidence and provides them with the basis for a lifetime of emotional health and happiness.

For all of us, no matter how much we may know about our families, there is a point at which the parade of ancestors crosses into partial, then total, invisibility as the boundary of knowability is crossed.  Mostly, we can name our four grandparents. Some of us can even name all eight of our great-grandparents. I imagine some fortunate few of us might even know the names of some of their great-grandparents’ parents. But how much further back than that can any of us go? Not too far! And yet…must I not logically be the direct descendent of someone who was alive a thousand years ago in 1013?  It was a long time ago and not a long time ago. Kaifeng, China, was the world’s largest city. Henry II was Holy Roman Emperor. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo, still standing, was finally completed that year. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, one of my own culture heroes whose reduction of the Talmud to its constituent laws I consult all the time, was born that year. The Jews were expelled that year from the caliphate of Cordoba in Spain. And somewhere in the midst of all that must there not have lived the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather? Add a few more “great-grandfather’s” to that sentence and the answer has to be yes…but his name, his identity, the story of his life, and the degree to which he resembled me (if he did, but how could he have?)—all that is lost to me, and irretrievably so.

So maybe the whole Haggadah experience is designed to awaken that sense of intergenerational identity in all of us, and particularly in our children. We tell the story clearly and unclearly to mirror the degree to which we can know something, but nowhere near everything, about our families, about our histories…and also to mirror the way in which we can only be truly happy in life if we balance the obligation to invent ourselves with the effort to self-situate in the context of our own families’ histories. We tell the story, therefore, in a way that says to our young people almost clearly how things truly are: you won’t ever know the whole story…but you can listen carefully, learn what you can, paste disparate details together, use what you do know to create something like a flowing narrative. We’ll get you going by starting the story off for you. Our ancestors descended to Egypt and settled there when they were still just a small family group, but they grew there to be a multitudinous and mighty nation.  The Egyptians began to treat them harshly, forgetting they were their own invited guests, and, in the end, they enslaved them, whereupon our people cried out to God, whereupon God heard their voices calling out and took note of their suffering….and just a million generations later you yourself were born.

I don’t know if that’s the “real” reason the Haggadah tells its story the way it does. Maybe it is! Or maybe not…but the concept of the intergenerational self is for some reason very resonant with me.  My own grandparents and great-grandparents, all but one of them immigrants to this country, were eager to forget the past, to speak only English, to focus on their identity as Americans and barely, ideally never, to speak of their former lives or their parents’ or grandparents’ lives in what they derisively referenced as the “old country,” the land of the past as opposed to the land of the future in which they hoped their descendants would evermore thrive. And their plan worked, at least in the sense that I am not at all ambivalent about my place in the universe in just the way that my immigrant forebears must surely have hoped would be the case. Could it be that the kind of intergenerational identity the Haggadah fosters can only be born of confidence in one’s actual place in the current version of the universe? We are, after all, a community of secure citizens well-rooted in this place and proud of who we are and what we have become. And that, in turn, seems to me to be precisely the right platform on which to stand as we call out to those at our seder tables and say that the story in the book, obscurely told though it may be, is not the story of people who lived millennia ago in a far-off land but rather the story of us, of our own people, of our nameless but real ancestors whose lives on earth somehow flow directly into our own. Will our descendants in 3013 think of themselves in just that way? We can only hope!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Illi Habent Papam

A little bit, I’m jealous. Of the media frenzy, not so much. Nor, not really, of the pageantry, of the splendor, of the gorgeousness of it all, or of the life lived amidst the Caravaggios and the Michelangelos and the Leonardos. Maybe a little bit of the Caravaggios. And maybe also a little bit of the not tens of thousands but scores of millions of people watching intently to see whether the puff of smoke is going to be white or black, good news or bad news, game over or game on (or just time out)—maybe of that I find myself just a little bit envious. What would it be like, I wonder—not in a self-deprecating way particularly, but just out of a sense of reasonable curiosity—what would it be like if there were 1.2 billion Jews in the world instead of a paltry 13.5 million? Then I bet you’d be able to get a decent kosher meal on an airplane! (Okay, so maybe 13.5 million people isn’t that paltry. But it’s not 1.2 billion. Not by about 1,186,500,000.)

If the Shoah hadn’t befallen our people, most demographers estimate there would be about 27,000,000 Jews in the world today, about the same number as there are citizens of Nepal or Venezuela. (As things actually stand, the real post-Shoah world has fewer Jews than Cambodians.) But that’s not the particular fantasy I want to pursue today, although it’s a fascinating one. (Just to digress for a moment now that I think of it, how odd is it that no one has written that novel? Michael Chabon skated by some version of that fantasy in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I didn’t like as much as I expected I would, but he didn’t really see the fantasy through all the way. Is the fear that such a book could somehow inadvertently end up as a tool for evil in the hands of Holocaust deniers? Do people really take fiction that seriously? I’ll have to consider the issue more carefully and be back in touch. But what a remarkable work of intermingled history and fantasy a novel based on that premise could be in the right author’s hands!)

Instead,all the publicity related to the naming of a new pope leads me to wonder, of all things, what the Jewish world would be like if cooler heads had prevailed in Roman times, if Jerusalem hadn’t been destroyed, if the Temple hadn’t been razed by the Romans in unwitting (or possibly not unwitting) mimicry of the Babylonians who had demolished the city six centuries earlier. Would the Temple still be standing? Would Judea have eventually morphed into some sort of Jewish state once Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, five hundred years almost to the day before my birth, and Byzantium was no more?  That, probably not: the Turkish sultan, Mehmet II, who defeated the Byzantines incorporated Israel into his empire, just as he did the rest of the lands his minions conquered, and surely would have done so even if the Temple had still been standing on its hill in Jerusalem. Would the Turks have torn it down as a way of demonstrating the supremacy of Islam over its so-called “parent” faiths? The Turks turned Hagia Sophia, the largest Catholic church in Constantinople, into a mosque. But that was more about politics than religion, and Mehmet, seeing no reason to make enemies unnecessarily, permitted other Christian churches in the capital city to remain open. Nor was Mehmet particularly hostile to Jews or Judaism. Indeed, it was he who established the Chief Rabbinate in the Ottoman Empire and appointed Rabbi Moshe Capsali to the post of Chief Rabbi. And it was only forty years later that thousands of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal found refuge in Mehmet’s empire. So why would he have cared that an ancient Temple continued to stand on a high hill in what the sultan himself, who was all of twenty-one years of age when he suddenly ruled the world, would no doubt have considered a dusty backwater of his enormous empire?

So let’s go with that fantasy for a bit and see where it leads us. The Temple still occupying the Temple Mount, the skyline of Jerusalem would be completely different. No Mosque of Omar. No Dome of the Rock.  As the centuries would have passed, serious architectural shoring-up would almost undoubtedly have been in order: the Second Temple was inaugurated for use in the year 515 BCE, but even Herod’s massive first century CE renovation of the original structure would itself be more than two thousand years old today if it were still standing.

Would it by now be the oldest building in the world? Not exactly—the Minoan Palace at Knossos is still mostly there and it was built even before the First Temple was built in Solomon’s day, and the Temple of Hera in Paestum, Greece (which was built while the Second Temple was under construction in Jerusalem) still exists, as do many other pyramids and tombs of various sorts scattered across Asia, Europe, and northern Africa. But it would still be up there with the very oldest structures of its kind. Would we still be conducting the traditional worship service there by slaughtering goats daily at dawn and dusk, then worshipfully flinging their blood at the corners of the altar before immolating their dismembered carcasses atop the bronze altar in the Temple forecourt? Would there still be priests carefully attending to the various grain offerings and wine libations that accompanied the daily sacrifices? Would the Temple management have opened a gift shop by now?

More to the point, would there still be a High Priest, the individual Scripture plainly calls “the priest greater than his own brethren,” presiding over the whole operation? Would he be our pope, our infallible leader? Or would the cup long since have passed to the rabbis, who would be in a position of having to tolerate the formal leadership of the HP while it would all along be they themselves who really call the shots? If the Temple still stood, would there still be a Sanhedrin meeting regularly in its Chamber of Hewn Stone? Would its rabbinic members relate to the HP somewhat in the formally polite and respectful way the British Prime Minister must by law relate to the Queen or King and acknowledge her or him whenever necessary as the head of state, while understanding all along that the power democratically vested by the nation in its leadership rests on the shoulders of its elected officials and specifically not on the shoulders of its royalty? 

The Torah depicts Moses as pursuing two different plans for national leadership. The priesthood he hands off to Aaron and, indeed, Scripture depicts the office passing after Aaron’s death to his son Eleazar, and then from Eleazar to Eleazar’s son Pinchas. So that chain of heritable authority seems to be well underway as the Torah draws to a close. Yet when Moses actually begins to feel his own end approaching and asks God to appoint “a leader over the community who will go out before them and who will come in after them, who will personally lead them forward and who will oversee their return,” God doesn’t respond by pointing out patiently or impatiently that the nation already has such a leader in Moses’s great-nephew Pinchas, but by instructing Moses to bring forth his young amanuensis Joshua, then to lay his hand on his head and, in so doing, to transfer to him some of the charism of governance that has enabled Moses to function so ably as his nation’s leader  at this point in the narrative for four long decades.

You could say that the scene is now set for a state of ongoing insecurity with respect to national leadership: the “real” power vested in Moses will be transferred in a non-heritable way to the one most up to the task rather than to his own sons, whereas the inherited mantle of priestly leadership will pass from generation to generation but without its wearer granted anything like real power to govern or to lead. It is specifically not Joshua’s sons—if indeed he had any—who take over when he himself passes on. Indeed, the history of the nation’s leadership now features a series of unrelated personalities called shoftim (sometimes translated a bit misleadingly into English as “judges”) who rise up in times of trouble to assume the mantle of national leadership and who are mostly unrelated to each other. Of course, there were also priests and a High Priest. But when the age of the shoftim came to an end, they were replaced by a long series of kings.

The model, therefore, is not one of a huge pyramid with an infallible leader seated comfortably or uncomfortably at its pinnacle, but rather of something more or less akin to the way the Jewish people actually has chosen to self-govern over all these centuries with different kind of leaders stepping forward to lead militarily, politically, spiritually, intellectually, and every other which way.  Rather than to opt for infallibility, the model seems actually designed to encourage endless debate and argumentation, and, even more to the point, a valorization of indecision so that all issues appear to remain endlessly open for continued discussion and ongoing, inconclusive deliberation. Perhaps the right way to conceptualize the approach is to imagine the people’s leaders gathered on the top of a mesa staring warily at each other instead of at the foot of a pyramid worshipfully looking up at someone seated atop its peak. It’s not necessarily a better way to self-govern, but it’s our way. And, for better or worse, it seems to have served us well over all these years. The key is simply not to confuse endless argumentation with actual dysfunction. As I mentioned last week, we are a very fractious people. But we seem somehow to be strengthened rather than debilitated by our fractiousness. 

Jewish people should only wish good things for Pope Francis. He speaks in a slightly self-deprecating way, but seems fully aware of the power to do good in the world that has been placed in his hands. Instead of focusing on this or that regretful remark he may have made in the past, therefore, the more productive response for those of us outside the Catholic world should be, I think, to encourage a man who seems truly humble, yet who has been called upon to lead move than a billion people forward along their chosen spiritual path. Jews could never thrive in a system that rests on the infallibility of its leader. But the system seems to work well enough for Catholics and our job, therefore, is simply to wish the new pontiff well as he pursues the common mission of Jews and Christians to bring redemption to an unredeemed world.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Tale of Two Babies

A tale today of two babies, one who found life instead the life-long specter of death and one who died instead of facing long decades of life, and some thoughts about how to interpret the data without losing faith in the reasonableness of the universe…and of faith itself.

The baby who died, but should have lived, we surely all know about. Nathan and Raizy Glauber, both twenty-one years old, were in a livery cab on their way from their home in Williamsburg to a nearby hospital because Raizy, seven months pregnant with their first child, was not feeling quite right. It ought to have been nothing at all—a quick midnight visit to the hospital, a doctor either reassuring them that nothing serious was wrong or reassuring them that whatever was wrong could be dealt with adequately and safely, a leisurely return trip home, a relieved effort to salvage what was left of a night’s sleep.  But instead of any of that actually happening, a BMW barreling down Kent Street at about sixty miles per hour—twice the legal speed limit—broadsided the cab at the intersection of Kent and William Street. The cab driver survived. The other driver fled on foot. Nathan was taken to Beth Israel, but pronounced dead on arrival.  Raizy was taken to Bellvue where, although police say that she too was pronounced dead on arrival, her baby was nonetheless delivered successfully. A miracle! But not one of too long duration when, after living for a day, the child could live no longer and joined his parents in the World of Truth. May their memories be a blessing for their families and their friends, and for us all, and may they all rest in peace.

I suppose you could argue that the story shouldn’t constitute any sort of complication to the faith of the faithful. Aren’t there automobile accidents every day, including some that cause fatalities to wholly innocent people? Don’t babies die all the time after suffering terrible traumatic injuries? Don’t children? The answers to these questions are obvious, obviously. And yet…when the baby has a name, and when his parents have names and predecease him by a single day—and do so by dying senselessly, pointlessly, and needlessly in an accident that could just as easily not have happened—then the story of a family that died for no discernible reason other than because some maniac was speeding down a city street in the middle of the night and lost control of his vehicle somehow steps outside the rubric of “this happens all the time” and becomes an issue for people whose faith rests on the presumption of the universe being possessed of order and equity.  The driver of the BMW, a local man with a record of drunk driving, has now turned himself in. Details will emerge as the story unfolds further. But no verdict, and no prison sentence, will bring the dead back to life.

The baby who lived but could just as easily have spent a lifetime facing down death also has a name, but it hasn’t been released to the public. Nor has even the baby’s gender been specified. But with or without a public identity, his or her story is amazing. The child was born in rural Mississippi to a mother infected with the HI virus in the fall of 2010. The mother, who had received no medical attention at all during her pregnancy, was unaware that she was infected and had obviously received no treatment of any sort. But because tests during labor suggested that she might have been infected in utero, the baby—at the age of thirty hours—was transferred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where Dr. Hannah Gay departed from standard practice to order a three-drug regimen intended not merely as prophylaxis on the chance the baby might have been infected but instead as actual treatment based on her reading of the baby’s test numbers to indicate that the baby actually was infected. As a result, the baby’s virus levels were reduced to the level of undetectability even before a full month had passed. The treatments continued until the baby was eighteen month old and the baby’s virus level remained at zero. That much was not unexpected, but then the mother stopped bringing the child to the clinic and only chose to return five months later. Dr. Gay says now that she expected the baby’s virus levels to be high after so prolonged a period of non-treatment, but—to her amazement—the baby’s levels were still undetectable. In laymen’s terms, the baby had been cured.

Not content with her own results, Dr. Gay engaged the help of a team of medical researchers at the University of Massachusetts who put the baby through more sophisticated tests that yielded the result that the virus was indeed still present in the baby’s body—or, more precisely, that viral genetic material (whatever that exactly is) was present—but that no evidence was found of any virus that was able to replicate, which would be the way that the virus would make someone sick with AIDS. Nor, even more surprisingly, was any virus capable of replicating found in any of the so-called traditional reservoirs within the body in which such viral material often hide, almost as though it were trying to avoid detection by the physician/sleuths seeking to find it and run it permanently out of town.

Now, of course, begins the real debate surrounding the crucial question of whether the baby was “really” cured. Some question whether the baby truly was infected in the first place. Others wonder if we might simply not yet have tests sophisticated enough to detect viral material hiding in every conceivable nook and cranny in which it might plausibly be hiding out. Still others have raised questions about the details of the mother’s medical history, or about the baby’s. I personally lack the background or training meaningfully to comment on any of these issues…but even the strong possibility that for the very first time a baby born infected with a terrible virus capable of leading to terrible consequences appears to have been cured through the aggressive use of drugs that, at least provisionally, appear totally to have eradicated the virus and made the baby not infected but fully well—that seems like an amazing accomplishment that the world should surely celebrate.

I am old enough—more than old enough, actually—to remember when HIV infection was a death sentence. Today, through medical advances unimaginable even twenty years ago, AIDS is a manageable, if miserable, disease that many people live with and only some die of.  It’s true that this development in Mississippi does not have any clear implications for adult carriers of the HIV, but the very fact that, apparently for the first time, a baby was cured by having the virus not contained or controlled, but actually eradicated—that surely sounds like a milestone worth celebrating. (There has been, so far, one single adult deemed fully “cured” of the virus, the man at first only known as the Berlin Patient and then later identified as a man originally from California living in Germany whose treatment was based on stem-cell transplantation.) But even if the baby’s story has no direct implications for adult patients, it’s still a huge step forward in understanding how to treat, at least, babies born infected with HIV, of which the United Nations estimates there were 300,000 born in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. There are, by all accounts, more than three million children in the world living with HIV.

Reading these two stories against each other is the kind of stress-inducing experience most people who seek solace in faith try to avoid. One baby should be doomed to living with the viral equivalent of the sword of Damocles hanging over its head if it somehow fails to stick to its regimen of medication for the rest of its life, yet somehow comes in contact with the one doctor in the universe willing to try a kind of therapy not usually given to babies in this one’s situation…and ends up cured. No virus. No sword. No lifetime of worry or viral anxiety, just clear sailing into a future unclouded by the fear of AIDS.  Another baby is on its way to being born into a warm, loving family constituted, just so far, of two happy, healthy newlyweds. It seems destined to grow up in a tight-knit, close community of people who cherish their children and who, even if they dress peculiarly and seem to the rest of us to be a bit excessively insular in terms of their relationship with the outside world, are still normal enough Jewish people to understand that the future will eventually rest in the hands of the children we are educating and raising today. And then, out of the blue, the universe turns on a dime…and that baby goes within the course of a few hours from being a fetus safely developing in its mother’s womb to being an orphan, then a patient, then a victim.

The easy explanation—facile, yet very appealing—is that we simply can’t stand far enough back to see the whole picture. According to this soothing interpretation, there is always justice, always a divine plan, always a point to what happens in the world. We just can’t always know it. We lack God’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all events, of all things, of all people. We lack the insight necessary to understand how justice works in its ultimate sense. We cannot peer beyond the veil into the next world…which natural limitation creates in many of us a sense that there is no justice in the world, but which really only means that we cannot fathom how justice truly works because our human condition almost requires that we only see part of the picture and not ever all of it.

I wonder if anyone has ever found that a comforting set of thoughts. I once did, or at least I thought I did. But I’m long past finding it possible to wave away the injustice of the world with a consoling reference to my own inability to understand how things truly are. I suppose there is a certain arrogance embedded in that thought, but there it is: I want the world to be a just place in which God occasionally alters the plan to save doomed children without ever altering the course of human events to permit a child to die who deserved (as do all children) to live into adulthood and to thrive in the bosom of a loving family.  But what I want isn’t always what I get. Nor is it what any of us gets.

There is a built-in fragility to the world, a kind of delicate balance between alternate destinies that each of us negotiates in the course of the years and decades—or hours—of our lifetimes. Contrary to what we all wish were to be the case, the future really is a blank slate waiting for words to be written on it. Mostly, it is we who write those words. But they are also written now and then by others, including by others whom we don’t know and never meet. All life is interconnected—that much really is true, I think—but the fact is that we all live our lives at the confluence of potentiality, probability, plausibility, happenstance, good and less good fortune, and the guiding hand of a God Who set the world in motion, then left it to spin along without feeling the need, apparently, to micromanage the daily affairs of its inhabitants. The good news is that we are ennobled by the freedom of choice that God has granted us. The bad news is that we live in a world in which, occasionally, very bad things happen to good people, even to newborn innocents.

The correct response, therefore, is neither rage nor blasphemy, but humility in the face of an ever-spinning world that takes us along for the ride until we ride no more. We are neither masters of the universe ourselves nor marionettes who only think of themselves as free men and women. We are fragile, breakable things holding on for as long as we can, players in a play featuring more improvisation than fixed lines. We are, all of us, creatures who spend lifetimes careening between the fantasy of control and the fantasy of being fully out of control. What the contemplation of these two stories suggests to me, then, is one deep and unsettling truth: that among the tools that the Creator uses to rule over creation, nothing is more capable of discouraging arrogance than the randomness of destiny that somehow co-exists with divine justice in a world that logically should feature one or the other…but in which traces of both are somehow nonetheless fully perceptible.