Today is Tisha B’Av, a day of sadness in the Hebrew calendar, so I have chosen to reflect on somber matters.
A few months ago one of my toddler son’s day care teachers was murdered. I didn’t know her well. She had moved to Pittsburgh just a few months before, and only cared for my son for a period of a few weeks before being assigned to a different classroom. Like many people we interact with in a superficial way, I had a fondness for her without really knowing her at all. She was kind, upbeat, and a little bit quirky. One day I came to pick up my son and found her holding him and dancing with him, both of them smiling.
After she was assigned to work with a different group of kids, I still saw her periodically at the school, and always exchanged warm greetings. She was a private person, and I didn’t know much about her life. I knew that she moved to town to be close to a sister, and that she had a pet cat that had been sick, but that was about the extent of it. I don’t recall the last time I saw her, but it probably was a couple of weeks before her murder.
On a Friday in February she didn’t come to work or answer her phone. It was unlike her either to be late, or to be unresponsive, so the school notified police. A couple of hours later, police found the murdered bodies of the teacher and her younger sister in the basement of the home they shared. A few weeks later, the sisters’ next door neighbor was arrested.
I first learned of her death more than 24 hours after the bodies were discovered. The school sent out an e-mail notifying parents that the teacher had died tragically. At first I couldn’t comprehend what I had read, and then the questions began. “Was she in an accident?” I wondered. “Had she been ill?” I searched her name online and turned up news reports about her murder. I was shocked.
Wrapped up in the disbelief that I would never see her again was the haunting thought that while those of us who knew her were going about our lives as usual, just a couple of miles away, she was in the midst of a horrible assault that would claim her life. I imagined her terror, her panicked efforts to call out for help.
In a weird case of misplaced emotion, on the day that no one knew would be her last, I had an odd pang of sadness after picking up my kids from school. First I had stopped in the toddler room for my son, and then went down the hall to pick up my daughter before taking them both out to the car. My son was not usually the last kid in his class to be picked up, but he had been that day, so his teacher, another lovely young woman who is alive and well, must have closed her classroom right after we left. As I strapped the kids into their car seats, I noticed her walking down the block, and I had a moment of melancholy as I realized she had been in the school one moment, and was gone the next. Later that night the early childhood director sent an e-mail that this particular teacher was leaving her job to go to graduate school, and I realized I would never see her again.
But it was the other teacher, the one with the quirky sense of humor — who danced with my son to calm him down — who faced a bleaker fate that night. The sadness I felt for one person passing out of my life to pursue her career paled in comparison to the horror of someone I knew being brutally murdered.
One month before the teacher’s murder, our community had been saddened by another tragic loss – the death of a young woman to cancer. In the many months of her illness, community members had signed up to recite chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) each day to pray for her recovery. Following her death, I decided to continue saying “my” chapters daily, and after learning of the teacher’s horrible death, I changed my focus slightly. More than just reciting Tehillim, I decided to direct my thoughts to whomever might be experiencing distress at the moment I was praying. To be a voice in solidarity with whoever was alone in their pain, or terror. To pray for an end to their suffering.
The news of war in Israel in recent weeks has caused me to reflect even more about young, vibrant individuals facing horrifying experiences, especially those who are terribly injured or killed. I think of their families, many of whom live so close to the warfare that envelops their sons and brothers, daughters and sisters, but have no knowledge about their movements from hour to hour, and are powerless to help them. I have relatives and friends serving in the Israel Defense Forces, so my thoughts are foremost with them, and with my other friends and relatives who are at risk of being hit by shrapnel, or worse, from Hamas rockets.
But I also think about the people of Gaza, and the fear and loss they are experiencing as they are ruled by a ruthless terrorist regime, and I think about the atrocities in Syria, and the 219 girls kidnapped from Nigeria, and I think about people in my own community who live in fear from domestic violence or gang activity.
Every day, somewhere, at every moment, there is someone calling out to G-d, asking to be saved from the horror that envelops them. I dedicate my prayers to those who call out alone, letting them know that others wish to protect and comfort them, to neutralize the dangers that threaten them.