Three Lessons from Boston
Making Meaning out of Tragedy When Nothing Makes Sense
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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Explosions at the Boston Marathon kill three (so far) and injure over a hundred more.

And all I can think is: here we go again.

When man-made tragedy strikes, I do what most of us do: stop, drop and search for meaning. I scan the newspapers, hunker down in front of the television, check Facebook and call friends and family to: first, make sure that everyone I know and love is safe; second, to see who knows something that I don’t yet know; and three, to see who might be able to offer something resembling a lesson to be learned.

After all, if there is nothing to reflect upon, learn here and grow from, then this senseless violence was really only that – senseless. And if that’s the case, then what?

So I have decided to make my own meaning out of this tragedy. I recognize that this is a personal and maybe even professional crutch to help me manage my anxiety, my sense of helplessness and a gnawing sense of hopelessness. It’s a strategy to help me cope with despair and confusion, and it gives me a small feeling of control in an uncontrollable situation. It even allows me to wonder what God might have been thinking – even as I struggle with whether or not I still believe in God.

In the face of the unknowable, the unfathomable – and probably just another in a series of unbelievably horrible human acts, here are three lessons for myself:

  1. Normal is underrated. Here’s what I know: I will be holding my kids extra close – and in a week, I will (probably) be yelling at them again. For better or for worse, our memories are short while our habits are long. When I heard that an 8 year old child was among the fatalities, I had a visceral reaction. So soon after the Newtown shootings, I couldn’t wrap my mind around another innocent child being taken down in such a violent way. Like any parent, I realized how truly blessed I was – and am – to have my children safe and sound. And like any parent, I started making promises to myself that I knew instantly I wouldn’t be able to keep: I will be more patient. I will really listen with my full attention. I will truly honor their gifts. As Mary Poppins would have called them, these were “pie-crust” promises: easily made and easily broken. In fact, within 18 hours of the tragedy, my feelings of unbridled gratitude for having living children were replaced with feelings of frustration over how pokey my kids are getting off to school in the morning. Easily made, easily broken. So maybe the lesson here is to count the blessing of having a relatively normal life – with all the love and the irritation it entails. 


  1. Heroism is a big word made up of small, simple acts. Like you, I watched footage of the first responders who ran into the wreckage rather than run away from it, towards safety. This is who we typically think of when we think of the heroes of a tragic event. But I also heard about the hundreds of civilians who handed over their cell phones to the wounded athletes so that they could call their loved ones.   read about the marathoners who, after finishing a grueling 26.2 miles, ran another four miles to the nearest hospital to donate blood.  I saw online how many Boston residents offered their homes, their beds, and their sofas to anyone who needed them. These are also the heroes – the people who engaged in small acts of loving-kindness. These are the people who brought a little ease to the uneasy, a sliver of sunshine into the gray cloud of explosive debris. These are the people who renew our faith in humankind, when it was, in fact a member of our humankind who caused such suffering. And the lesson I want to take from this is that seemingly insignificant acts can make all the difference in the world, so let’s do more of them under non-emergency conditions.


  1. Embrace Not Knowing.  In a knowledge economy, not knowing may feel like an impoverished state to be in. But in a world when you cannot logically or emotionally make sense of why someone did what he or she did to cause untold damage, not knowing feels genuine, organic and true. Yes, it also feels scary, disturbing and even unfamiliar – especially if you, like me, spend most of your waking hours sharing – and occasionally showing off – your expertise. But I’d rather feel frightened and real than embrace a phony façade of calm. Not knowing can be terrifying – but it is also an important way of being. Not knowing drives curiosity. Not knowing drives innovation. Not knowing drives authentic relationships.  I’m willing to tell my kids that I don’t know why this happened or what we can do about it in the future. I’m willing to admit that I don’t know how I feel about God right now. And apparently, I’m willing to publish the fact that I’m making up meaning from these terrible, terrible events as my way of dealing with not knowing.

Last Update:

06/13/2013 - 18:13
Boston marathon bombing

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It seems to me Cambridge ought to look carefully at its policy of accepting itself as sanctuary for anyone who says they have been victims. The family came with the father and the mother and sons seem to have accepted everything good given as their absolute right. They think the US is stupid besides being culpable for all sorts of bad things and so, these clever sons looked on the internet and made bombs to be left to explode in front of eight year old children and all sorts of other people who were there. They owed respect and gratitude and got everything without being asked for anything and gave viciousness in return.

I think David Levin makes a valid point. The Dali Lama makes sense. We try to analyze & make sense to make us feel better. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to dwell on the wonderful responses of ordinary people/citizens & those in charge & the Drs. & nurses, etc.? Can we make sense of man's inhumanity to man? The killings of innocent people all over the world? The greedy? Those w/only self interest? Rather, we need to remember the ordinary people who make sacrifices, the leaders like Martin Luther King who in face of danger, kept true to his vision, the downtrodden who rise above their circumstances & overcome w/o hate & remember those left behind. One must have hope. To dwell on evil, unless there is a lesson to be learned, is a waste of time & energy. Perhaps I'm being over simplistic. After all, I did not lose anyone or know of anyone who was injured. But I have to believe & not to despair.

With respect to Deborah Grayson Riegel, it is premature to be making meaning from the tragic events still unfolding in Boston. Boston is a terrible tragedy. The needless suffering at the hands of a cowardly terrorist is profound.

We have rushed to the aid of Bostonians we tell them not to worry, the culprits will be caught and brought to justice; we tell them they are resilient and will bounce back, we tell them they are strong and will get through this, we tell them the marathon will be back next year.
We tell them so many things that we need to hear to soothe ourselves, calm our fears, assuage our pain, to make meaning for ourselves.

But right now we should use Jewish wisdom and tradition to guide us in caring for Bostonians. The loss is fresh and the wounds are still open. Our mourning tradition says we should be there to comfort the survivors with our caring presence. We need to let them grieve, bury their dead, care for the injured. We need to give them the space to move through the stages of this painful process supporting them with our love. Sadly, the period of “Shiva” has not yet even begun. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to let the bereaved know they are not alone through our quiet presence.

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