What keeps us safe?
In this week after the Parkland, Florida massacre, questions of safety and security are top of mind. In 21st century America, many structures and mechanisms designed to keep us safe exist. For the most part we take those structures for granted; consider the last time you actually noticed the security officer keeping watch at a public gathering. Those mechanisms all came crashing down in the terrorized hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Wednesday. The entire population of a public high school was, for too many minutes, completely at risk and vulnerable, unsafe in the extreme.
So what keeps us safe, especially when the “normal” mechanisms fail? To begin to answer that question (and how can we do anything but begin in the face of this monstrous tragedy?) I believe we need to look inwardly and not to external factors. Yes, it’s true, I always suggest an inward turn first! My abiding sense is that before we debate policy – and there’s plenty of debate to be had – it would be really helpful, and healthy, to examine our fears and to try to articulate and understand what makes us feel safe and secure.
Our tradition offers us some wisdom on that burning question. First, this week’s parashah. Tetzaveh describes the attire of the ancient priests, in particular that of the Kohen Gadol, the High (or Chief) Priest. An essential part of the Kohen Gadol’s wardrobe was a blue robe that featured an unusual hemline. “On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:34-35) The Torah goes on to tell us that “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out—that he may not die.” (Exodus 28:35) The blue robe with the pomegranate and bell hem, in other words, protects Aaron the High Priest and keeps him alive!
That, of course, is completely crazy. How can a woolen robe, even an elegantly accessorized one, actually, physically, save one’s life? A 19th century Hasidic master, Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, points us toward an answer. The pomegranate and the bell, he suggests, are opposing symbols. The hollow bell bespeaks an individual’s emptiness, and hence dependency on God and on others. The seed filled pomegranate represents that very same individual’s strengths and ability to act in the world. The point? The High Priest, and we, need both. What keeps the Kohen Gadol alive is the mix of vulnerability and confidence. At the end of the day, that’s what makes for safety and security.
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have emerged this week as our High Priests and Priestesses. They’ve invited us to weep and grieve with them, sharing their vulnerability in poignant and powerful ways. They’ve exhibited their confidence and even audacity, articulating their hopes and dreams with profound eloquence and fearlessly speaking truth to power. They’ve taught us all that community matters, that commitment matters, that love matters. At this truly frightening time, it is the young adults of Parkland, Florida who make me feel safe. It’s not a complete answer; but what a beautiful beginning.