"Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam…”
Translated from Hebrew to English that would be “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe…” That phrase is the start to virtually every contemporary Jewish blessing.
The moment, I was reciting those words was during the candle lighting ceremony at the start of last night’s Rosh Hashanah evening service. Now, indeed those were the words coming out of my mouth. However, at that moment the words were carrying a distinctly different meaning than their actual connotation.
My tone was furious. I drug the guttural sounds of the Hebrew language out with a vicious growl. I even added gutturals when there shouldn’t have been any. I snapped out the ancient language with a feverous snarl.
I was mad…
Admittedly, my furry was completely contradictory to the mood of everyone else at that moment. Rosh Hashanah is a day that marks the start of the Jewish New Year and is a day for celebration. It is the start of the Days of Repentance, concluding on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
However, at that moment, I was in no mood to share in the atmosphere of excitement.
Given the source of my current indignation, there was actually no better place in the world I could be standing, than in the third oldest still working synagogue in America; Congregation MickVe Israel.
My words sounded like “l'had'lik neir shel , yom tov” [to light the candles of the holiday]. However, in my mind, I said, “Screw You! Why did you do that! Why?!? What was the reason you did that!
Oh yeah… I was mad… and last night, on the eve of the Jewish New Year… I was mad and about to have it out with God.
“I have no hope anymore. My heart is beyond shattered, I'm tired and a failure of a parent. We have been homeless since may after losing our home and then jobs shortly after. My 13 yr. old daughter passed away, lost jobs, my mother recently passed away. I'm done with life I can’t take this pain anymore. I've checked into housing assistance and there’s nothing but denial or waitlists. I’m not frustrated just empty inside. I’m done.”
That was the message I received through my public Facebook page on October 27, 2016, at 7:26 a.m.
After four years of working permanent nightshift, I normally wouldn’t be awake this early. However, for some reason, I was awake to hear the “ding” of my cellphone notifying me I had a message that particular October morning.
The pain in this woman’s words reverberated like a shock wave. I laid there in my bed, motionless, my mind racing as I tried to focus on what to do next.
The past month had been a whirlwind for me. Just four weeks earlier, on October 1st, I had woke up to discover that inexplicably, while I was sleeping, I had become “internet famous.” Less than a week later, I found myself enduring the wrath of Hurricane Matthew as he tore through the Savannah, Georgia area. I had been activated and worked almost an entire week, thanks to the powerful storm beating the historic coastal city into submission.
Hurricane Matthew had wiped out the entire electrical infrastructure in the Savannah area, so unbeknownst to me, my October 1st fame had been catapulted, as 123 different media organizations in 7 seven countries had covered stories about me. A week after that I would find myself in Los Angeles, California being filmed for the documentary Walking While Black and appearing on the T.D. Jakes show.
Now, just a week later, in one of the few times I could count on one hand that I had been able to lay in my own bed, here I was receiving a message from someone I’d never met, expressing to me their desire to end their life. I couldn’t even attempt to call some local police department to try to send this person help because I didn’t even know where exactly they were. Essentially, at this moment, I and a stranger who was in considerable pain, were alone in a mutually exclusive vacuum away from the real world. If this person truly intended to take their life, all I had to stop it at this moment was my words.
I got up from the bed and went over to the second story entryway overlook of my house and stared for a moment out the big bay window. The sky was awash with bright oranges, pinks, purples, and blues, as the morning sun made its eastern assent marking the start of the new day.
I closed my eyes and felt the radiant warmth of the sun’s powerful rays as they came through the large pane glass window.
After taking a moment to reflect on the chaotic existence that had become my life over the last month, I laid back down on my bed and began to respond to a woman who had reached out to me in her time of suffering.
In a life that was surrounded by so much trauma, I tried to convey to this woman to never give up. I shut off my conscious mind and just let my words flow from a place in which I had no control over.
“Slow life down. Don’t worry about where you’re going to be tomorrow. Break life down minute by minute and just say, I’ll give it another minute. Then let minutes become hours and hours become days. Just keep giving it another minute. Because as long as you have life, you have hope. Yesterday is over, and tomorrow isn't here yet. The only moment you really have control over is this exact one right now. The most important thing is sometimes the hardest thing for people to realize. Tomorrow is an unlimited ocean of opportunity. As hard as life seems at times, it is all just a challenge we must overcome for something good that is destined in our future. But don’t worry about that right now. Just promise you’ll give it another minute.”
Thankfully, she messaged me right back…
She thanked me for taking the time to message her. Her mood seemed to have improved some, but I could still feel the hopelessness in her words. We messaged back and forth a few times, and honestly, with our last messages, I truly didn’t know if this woman would succumb to her pain, and desire to no longer live.
I struggled to find understanding for why this woman had chosen me to reach out to that morning. Ultimately, October 27th was a very sobering day for me. I felt powerless to help someone who had reached out to me in their moment of desperation.
Seven months later, my phone came to life with a “ding.”
My eyes brightened as I looked down at my notifications. May 3rd, 2017, the same woman who had previously messaged me, was again popping up in my message feed. This time there was no expressions of sadness or mentions of pain. Instead, she was sharing a heartwarming story about a police officer in Idaho who took the time to sit down and speak to a child with Autism. She added, “I appreciate everything you do and try to do to bring awareness and knowledge.”
Excitedly, I messaged her back and thanked her for sharing the link. I asked her how life was going, relieved that she decided to take things moment by moment and it had led her to this Spring day. She told me things were still pretty rough, but she was steadfast in continuing to see light even in the darkest of nights. We briefly messaged back and forth, before parting and going back to the reality of our two vastly different lives. Had I known then, what I know now, I might have said more to her that day.
May 3rd, 2017, would be the last time we would ever have the chance to speak…
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be compared to the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Essentially, they are the two holidays out of the year that people always seem to find the time to make it to a religious service. Normally, easy parking was a little tougher, and I had to park several blocks away from the synagogue for the night’s Rosh Hashanah service. Congregation MickVe Israel happens to be located right in the heart of historic downtown Savannah. Therefore, the inconvenience in available parking was easily offset by the sights and sounds of the evening walk.
As I strolled through the original city squares laid out in 1733, I took in the ambiance of 18th-century townhomes enveloped by oak trees and Spanish moss. As the large, strangely gothic-styled synagogue came into view, I pulled my phone out to put in on silent. I noticed several unread notifications, so I took these last few moments of my walk to check through my various messages before arriving and going inside.
The first Facebook notification redirected me to a comment on a post I published Sunday. As I read the first sentence, my heart sank.
“I am writing this on behalf of my wife because she no longer can.”
The message was posted from the Facebook account of the same woman who had messaged me back on October 27th.
“My wife and mother of our 2 beautiful children gave her all to make this world a better place for everyone around her. She went out of her way to bring love and light to those who were drowning in despair and darkness of depression, sadly ignoring her own needs. She instilled a beauty for love of all walks of life in our children who will carry on her legacy. My wife wanted to meet Lt. Tim McMillan as he was a huge inspiration to her, sadly she never will.”
The words cut into me… grief jumping out of the phone and bouncing around in my head…
“She went to sleep complaining of a headache and never woke up. She was my wife and a mother, sister, daughter, advocate, and friend. Her spirit lives on in all who knew her. So please love each other because tomorrow may be better for some but may not come for others.”
I stood there reading the comment again… silently processing what those words meant.
My eyelids fluttered back and forth as I tried to contain my watering eyes; an uncontrollable side-effect of the disheartening news I had just learned...
By the time the evening service began… my sadness had turned to anger. For me, in that moment, I was angry with God…
Just so we are all on the same page, I make no apologies for last night’s argument with God. The primeval title for the Jewish people is Ben’i Yisrael, or Am Yisrael, which means Children of Israel or People of Israel. Both are distinctions of being descended from Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32.28). In Hebrew, the name Israel means “to struggle with God.”
Essentially, as abstract as it seems to many other religious faiths, as a Jew I am obligated to argue or be mad at God. Last night, I took out that obligation in my anger over this woman’s death.
“Why!? What was the point? Why, would you bring this person into my life and put me in the position to fight for her to live, only months later take her life!?!? Why did you do this? To her!? To me!? Is this just some big game? Because I don’t want to play it anymore!?! I’ve had to struggle through countless stuff this past year, and now you kill off those instances of success that make me feel good?!?”
As the sun set and the Jewish New Year officially began, I would eventually receive the answers to the questions I angrily demanded…
My frustration, my anger, and my confusing resentment, all were because I lost sight of what is most important… I had become swept up in my ego and had spent too much time focused on trying to be something when what I’ve always desired, ultimately requires me to be... nothing.
All of us in this world, are like waves in the ocean and we don’t even know it.
Some of us are large waves. While others are merely small surges. Some waves travel great distances. Yet, others form right near the shore. Ultimately, we are all merely just independent waves that comprise one giant collective ocean. We are often limited in only being able to appreciate the independence of our wake and we fail to see the interconnection of the ebb and flow of our shared lives.
To be a wave is to be something. To focus only on your own wave or the waves that are closest to us means that we forget the true value beyond the shell that contains us all. There is that there is a much larger ocean that connects us all.
Ultimately, to truly do good and care about others, it requires one to not be understanding or focus on the something that defines us as the waves in which we flow. Rather, to truly try to make a difference in this world, one must strive to understand the vast sea of nothingness the binds us all.
To define the manner in which we view the world by somethings causes us to lose focus on the nothing in which we cannot understand. Yet, within that sea of nothing, the characterization of our waves does not exist. That is where true light in this world can be found. That is where real good can emerge.
It is not the power in our wave that makes a real difference. Rather, it is the power found in that sea of nothingness that ultimately causes new and better waves to emerge.
We all walk a path in life that has a purpose. Ultimately, that purpose remains hidden beyond what we can comprehend. Often that purpose involves interactions with another "something" in order to create an effect. As we flow through the waters of life we are oblivious to just how our wake impacts the sea around us. In the end, it is not understanding what our wave creates, rather it is to simply try to create goodness from the nothing that comes in our paths.
I don’t know why I and this young woman’s waves collided into each other on October 27th. All I know is that beyond either of our waves, there was a purpose within the sea of nothingness.
As I left the synagogue last night, I checked my phone and discovered that this woman’s husband had sent me another message. This time there were three photographs of a handwritten essay she wrote only four days before her death.
I encourage you all to read this young woman’s final words because in truth they are not just for me. Rather, as she knew her wave was crashing ashore, her final message was for us all.
In the end, maybe our waves were meant for just that moment;
So that out of nothing could emerge from a sea of hope.
Click Image To Read Her Last Message