Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
New York is still shaking and so is much of the Jewish world. Little Leiby Kletsky of blessed memory, was buried last Wednesday evening, but nothing has been put to rest. How could it be otherwise?
The details of the horrific murder of the 8 year-old child can be found elsewhere, for those who want them. But I want to focus on the powerful and insightful words of Badana Gertz, a woman in her 60s, who came from Flatbush, two neighborhoods over from Borough Park, to pick up garbage outside the building in which Leiby lived. This woman, whom I have never met, became a kind of rebbe to me and could be one for the rest of us as well – a spiritual master of Tikkun Olam, of liberating sparks of holiness in the midst of events which make even the most faithful among us question whether anything remains sacred in our world.
During the frantic 36-hour search for the missing boy, the effort involved not only the full force of the NYPD and the Shomrim, a local volunteer neighborhood security organization, but hundreds, if not thousands of regular people. They gathered and organized on the street in front of Leiby’s building, and after a day and a half, there was plenty of trash. Rather than simply wait for the Department of Sanitation, at least one person, Badana Gertz, began the clean up on her own. Why she chose to do so is a spiritual lesson for anyone at any time, but especially at times like these.
Picking up napkins from the street by hand, Ms. Gertz explained to a New York Times reporter, “At least I was able to do something besides pray and pray and pray.” Clearly prayer was a part of this religious woman’s response, but just as clearly, so was the need to something else as well. Although we may never meet, I now count Badana Gertz as among my teachers.
Although many do at such times, she did not dismiss the importance of prayer, nor did she give up on its value. Ms. Geertz simply and sagely acknowledged that sometimes prayer is not enough – we find ourselves needing to do more.
I know that very formulation opens the door to as many questions as it answers – “more” of what? “enough” for whom? For Leiby? For God? For Ms. Gertz? I want to respond “yes” to all three of those last questions, but that is a personal matter, or one left to those who enjoy theological debates which seek a single right answer. Ms. Gertz was speaking to a more fundamental issue, one with deep roots in our tradition.
The need to make a material difference, to clean up a mess when your whole world feels dirty – this, too, is a holy need. Picking up dirty napkins, in this context at least, is a sacred act. Perhaps in its own way, it is also another form of prayer, one in which, as in the Kaddish, we attempt to argue order and goodness back into the world.
The Kaddish is written in the future tense, perhaps precisely because in the midst of loss, we acknowledge that the sacred has been diminished – that God’s name is not as great as it was before the loss we have suffered. But, it is also in the future tense because we believe that through the words we say and the actions that we take, we can restore that sense of greatness and the presence of the sacred.
To clean up, to mend what is ripped, is a deeply religious impulse — at least for Jews of pretty much every spiritual stripe.
I can’t claim to speak authoritatively for other traditions (I barely claim to do so for my own), and I know that the impulse to fix things is itself part of the problem from a Buddhist perspective, but on the morning after Leiby Kletzky’s funeral, there are all kinds of napkins to pick up. I am deeply grateful to Badana Gertz for reminding us that sometimes prayer is not enough and we can all begin picking up those napkins.
In the days and weeks ahead, we can all begin to pick up more napkins – to see the messes, and along with our prayers, begin to clean them up ourselves. Our actions will not fix everything, and may feel quite small relative to the challenges we face, but the very act of doing so can help restore a measure of decency and hope at a moment when we crave both so deeply.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the author of You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right.