It was a typical weekday evening commute, and I was on I-94 between the downtowns at about 5:15 pm. The roadway was a parking lot with each vehicle trudging forward in slow motion, in a manner that was not entirely unlike the un-dead villains in a zombie movie.
With MPR playing to help manage the boredom, I stared straight ahead and carried on, bumper-to-bumper, along the road. Without warning, a little Prius began to move sharply into my lane, its driver apparently noting an opening of a yard-and-a-half or so between my vehicle and the car in front. The Prius’s turn signal was blinking and its driver was clearing going for it. I hit my brakes hard, simultaneously making room and looking warily in my rear-view mirror to see if I was going to get rear-ended. To my relief, the aggressive lane-change resulted in no injuries or damage.
I let out my breath and instinctively laid on the horn for a good three seconds, with an extra toot for good measure. It was not my greatest moment. As I finished sounding the horn, feeling very little satisfaction but having expended my frustration, I noticed the sticker affixed to the center of the Prius’s bumper: God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions.
Oy. In the midst of my flash of righteous anger, something to which I was reasonably entitled, I received some powerful reminders. My first reaction to the bumper sticker was a cynical “blech” for its saccharin sensibility, but there was no denying that its message was one that resonated deep within me. Even that Prius-driving idiot was a person and a part of creation. Whether the driver was poorly skilled or rude does not change the fact that he or she is worthy of God’s blessing. And mine. My anger receded and I continued the crawl home.
Of course, my inconsequential traffic squabble and flirtation with road rage means nothing in face of eternity. But the thought process that was started by that bumper sticker has stayed with me, and vexed me, as I face the onslaught of recent news.
A Broken World
There is some horrible stuff going on in the world at this moment. In Syria there is a civil war in which innocent non-combatants are getting caught between a repressive regime and rebel fighters. This isn’t merely a political disagreement being acted out militarily and resulting in “collateral damage.” The Syrian government is responsible for indiscriminately killing its own people as it attempts to maintain the upper hand in the conflict.
And then there was the shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater.
How can we make sense of this evil? I’m not sure that it’s possible, and our Jewish tradition adds complexity to the task.
The morning prayer service provides us daily reminders of humanity’s relationship to creation. Tradition teaches that between the time that we fall asleep at night and when we awaken in the morning our neshamah, or soul, is taken from us and resides with God. In the prayer Elohai Neshamah we express gratitude for the return of our souls to our bodies:
My God the soul that You implanted within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me; You keep body and soul together. […]
The implications of this prayer are not subtle. First, it applies to everyone. All people are created with a soul. Further, our souls are in the care of the Eternal One – at least for a period of time each day. And we begin every day of our lives with our souls in a state of purity.
What happens to the pure souls of those who enact horrifying, senseless violence?
In God’s Image
In Mishkan T’filah, the siddur of the Reform movement, one of the morning blessings reads:
Praise to You Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who made me in the image of God.
This blessing states that each person is made in the image of God. What that means precisely is left to lengthy interpretation. But to me, at a minimum, it seems that there is no escaping the fact that every person is created with an aspect of profound holiness.
How is it that people made in the image of God can enact evil? This is an eternal question without an answer.
As the media attempts to make sense of recent tragic events, and ongoing humanitarian crises, there seems to be endless analysis of how those who kill are different from the rest of us. The details of their lives are combed through in a search for clues as to what went wrong, or what signs we should look for to prevent future tragedies.
But most of all, I think we are looking for ways to see them as “other.” Because we cannot rectify the vast distance between their actions, and the pure and holy potential of their existence. And of our existence.
Despite the questions it leaves unanswered, and the discomfort it leaves behind, our tradition insists upon the pure and holy essence of every human being. No exceptions.