Yesterday, the corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway was the scene of a life’s tragic end. A young Jewish man’s sudden death was witnessed by bystanders, who came out of the subway station screaming. The police and ambulance were called and sirens flooded the streets. Shomrim arrived, with their faces white, and soon after, Hatzalah and Zaka, to collect the body for burial.
Upstairs in my museum office, I head the sirens like I always do, not bothering to look outside. When a phone call alerted me to look outside, I saw the flashing lights and crowds surrounding the subway station stairs. I ran downstairs.
From all sides of the street, fellow Jews saw the crowds of skirts and black hats and drew near. First, there was shock, then confusion, followed by an intense sadness that lingered in the air for hours. Pacing back and forth and waiting for details - for a name - bystanders stood frozen in time.
People stepped aside when, finally, the body was lifted from underneath the ground. Everything around me rhymed with pain. I stood still while my insides shook. And just then, when the pain had reached its raw peak, a beautiful melody was heard.
The Alter Rebbe’s niggun.
Right there, a mere few steps away from death and unbearable pain, a wedding was underway in front of 770. Mocking our chaotic hearts and minds, the tune was a symbol of life, of joy, of a future. At first piercing the throbbing pain, the Chuppah song slowly became intermingled with the sorrow spreading all over the street corner.
Tears of sadness erupting aside tears of joy.
Baruch Dayan HaEmes.
The crowd from the subway meshed with the crowd from the Chuppah. Suddenly, the line between life and death was very blurry. Suddenly, happiness knew no limit, and sadness was eternal – all at the same time.
I felt like I was going to explode.
At that very moment, G-d was both a dear friend, and a bitter enemy.
You want the whole world to stop and recognize the loss, but weddings will go on. Babies will be born. Cake will be served at the birthday party.
And when all you want is to experience unbridled joy, lives will be destroyed. Fires will consume. Lives will end.
What does G-d want from us?
There’s no way a human is designed to balance these opposite poles.
But G-d conducts a world where both pain and happiness are ever pressing realities, forcing us to respond to fortune and catastrophe all at once. And it’s striking, that, even when G-d stops the world from turning, it is speeding forward at the same time.
G-d, you stretch out your hand, yes you do.
You do it to strike and you do it to heal.
Yes, you are the ultimate giver.
But you give tears just like you give smiles.
You create fire, and you make it both to consume and to warm.
G-d, please reveal the fusion, the interconnectedness. Where is the beauty in the breakdown? I want to see it, but how can I? What do you expect, G-d? You weigh us down with bricks, and expect us to play hide and seek? You smash us with your hands, and demand us to rise. You burn our core, and request we feel light. You mark frowns and creased brows, but wait for our smiles.
And sometimes I feel like I just don’t know you.
But, one thing is certain. When you are my enemy, you allow it. You never cease to validate our pain. And more than that, you still let us use your shoulder to cry on. After being screamed at, you still hosts our tears. You are behind it all. When we want to escape you, you are there. When we want to embrace you, you are there. And there's no greater harmony than that.
While we may often struggle with the placement of our reactions and emotions, let us pray that our happiness is always more demanding than our pain. May feelings of true growth and gain be more potent than feelings of loss, and may G-d draw near a time when all sorrow will permanently vanish in the face of our joy.