April 5, 2001
Freedom. Empathy. Pain.
My fireplace mantle is stuffed &'9;with get-well cards. They come from people I know and many I've never met. One of them might have come from you. In the two months since I started writing about my lung cancer, the cards have been flowing in, plus an equal number or more of e-mails. They touch me deeply.
As I prepare for Passover, I think about putting the cards away. There are so many, they slip and fall off the mantle onto the floor. I'm having 25 for dinner; surely it's time to pile the cards into a box. The surgery was a while ago, and even my scars are healing.
But no, the get-well cards are coming with me, with my family and our guests, on the tribal journey we take this weekend from slavery to freedom.
How could it be otherwise? When we sit down to the seder, we are told to remember that this matzah and that karpas, these bitter herbs and that charoset, are because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt. I'm still not sure that my cancer is "my Egypt," but the cards tell me what God is.
God is empathy. God is the two-sided conversation between the one in pain and the ones who comfort the suffering. When the Children of Israel cried, God found a way out. Without that call and response, we are all slaves.
The question is one of willingness.
In the final plague, the Torah presents an interesting conundrum: God has told the Israelites to paint both the lintels and the insides of their homes with blood, so to be spared the slaying of the first born. Yet the Torah says that on that dreaded night Pharaoh was roused by the crying, "for there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Exodus 12:30)
Well, which is it? Were Jews protected or not? Did the Israelite children die or didn't they?
My own experience tells me that empathy knows no such divisions. The world of the slave is divided between "haves" and "have nots"; there is a plantation, a water fountain, a wall of stucco and mesh between those who deserve blessings and those who are scorned or damned.
But for those who live in freedom, fate is fluid. It is the great unknown. All that buffers us from life's hardships is our ability to care; the burdens and responsibilities for each other that we choose to take on with an open, unbounded heart. This is community, and it is our only sane choice. There are no hard divisions between cancer and not-cancer, or as Levi-Strauss said in another regard, between "raw" and "cooked." In freedom, the death of one's neighbor's child is tantamount to our own.
I learned that lesson again this week, in a newly horrific way.
Among the 18 dead in last week's fatal crash of the Aspen-bound private Gulfstream III jet was Ori Greenberg, 23-year-old son of George and Victoria Greenberg. George is president of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (MJC&S). Since Thursday, every Malibu family has held its children close, for it seems that there is no house where there was not some child dead.
I've sat on the temple board with George, who heads Vanguard Media Corp., in Westlake. I know his dignity and class, and how community lives in him. Victoria is a mainstay of MJC&S, part of every committee and mastermind of our High Holiday tent service, which attracts 1,000 worshippers. Their daughter, Rosalia, 11, is one of our stars, with a brilliant glow.
Ori Greenberg was bar mitzvah in our temple, played soccer in the local AYSO, and went to the local public high school. I've seen his 15-minute short film, "Havoc," which told the story of a drug bust from the point of view of a young homeless woman. It justifiably earned him the Best Director award at the Santa Monica Film Festival and feature work at the Independent Film Channel.
With young Greenberg were his fiancée Elizabeth Ann Smith, 21, and his Chapman College roommate, Mirweis "Mir" Tukhi, 26, assignment editor at KTTV. At the funeral, Ori's grieving parents addressed a crowd of more than 350. George and Victoria rose in praise: of community that had restored them in the hours since the plane careened into the Rockies; in praise of the love of Liz and Ori, cast forever in a Gatsby-like glow.
But that was not all. The Greenbergs praised Tukhi and their son. Tukhi's younger and older brothers, Faheed and Jawad, both spoke at the funeral, praising the friendship between Muslim and Jew that began with a love of Tukhi's mother's rice.
"You want to know how to help me?" Victoria Greenberg told the crowd. "Be kinder to those who disagree with you. Love each other more."
The question is one of willingness.