Rabbi Roger C. Klein
Yom Kippur 5774/September 13, 2013
I had a revelation this past August. On Tuesday, August 20th at 4:30 in the afternoon, to be specific. No, the skies did not open up; nature did not gather up into a hush. I heard no voices, saw no angels and the lion did not lie down with the lamb. But I sensed, as I was experiencing it, that what I felt and what I learned shared several of the characteristics featured in traditional reports of revelations: I was stunned by the experience which I am sure was a communication from reality. I felt instantly that I was in the presence of something profound. I had seen its likes before, but never so clearly and so dramatically. Yet, it was too deep for full understanding. It was filled with mystery. I am still stunned by it to this day; and still trying to measure its power.
But before I tell you about my revelation, I want to remind you of a monstrous event that took place this past winter. I am referring to what happened last December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut, when a deranged 22-year old named Adam Lanza, having just murdered his mother in cold blood, entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School and proceeded to gun down, in rapid succession, 20 first graders and 6 staff members and, as a result, ripping apart forever the lives of nearly 30 families. Who of us can put aside the thought of devastated parents coming to a portable morgue to identify their murdered children? Who can forget the “long and almost unbearable procession of grief” (Huffington Post, December 17, 2012) as Newtown began laying its dead to rest in one funeral after another, one image after another? One little boy was “a football fan who was buried in the Number 80 jersey of New York Giants star wide receiver Victor Cruz.” Another was a twin whose sister now lives with lifelong guilt, turning over and over in her mind and in her dreams the unanswerable question: why was I the one to survive? Who can forget the memory of Veronika Pozner weeping at the funeral of her slain son, Noah, saying “I will miss your forceful and purposeful little steps stomping through our house. I will miss your perpetual smile, the twinkle in your dark blue eyes, framed by eyelashes that would be the envy of any lady in this room.” And then, upon finishing her remarks, falling, limp, into the arms of her friend. All those families, all that tragedy, all the nightmares that lay ahead, all the weeping for those children who will never have the chance to fall in love or to become, in the words of Noah’s mother, “a doctor or a soldier or a taco factory manager”? So many ruined lives caused by one deranged individual bent on mayhem.
And now let me move from December of 2012 to this past August 20th, when a repetition of the Newtown massacre was about to unfold at The Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia; when another troubled young 20-year old with a long history of mental illness and arrests, Michael Brandon Hill, slipped into yet another elementary school, armed, as was Adam Lanza, with an AK-47, 500 rounds of ammunition, and “nothing to live for.” But this time the outcome was different. This time there were no murders of six-year old children, no portable morgue, no mass funerals, no lives brutally cut short, no ravaged parents and brothers and sisters and grandparents, no town turned upside down with grief, no flags flown at half-staff, no governor crying out that “evil visited this community today,” no trip south by a shaken president. This brutally familiar beginning to an almost inevitable brutal outcome was, this time, stopped in its tracks … the crisis averted. How did this happen? The answer: by one individual, an individual who would be invisible in a crowd and unnoticed were we to pass her on the street. Her name: Antoinette Tuff, a clerk who worked in the school office. Antoinette Tuff is the source of my revelation. Antoinette Tuff, who alone stood between pacification and catastrophe.
Perhaps you recall the story. Michael Brandon Hill had entered the office and quickly discharged six shells into the floor. Ms. Tuff was there. An agonizing, 22-minute conversation ensued. Tuff eventually talked Hill into setting down his weapon and lying on the floor to wait for police. We have a recording of that conversation, picked up by a savvy and patient 911 operator whom Tuff had reached by phone. One reporter, writing subsequent to this event, remarked that she can’t listen to that recording without crying. It’s that powerful; it’s that moving. And it is that conversation that called forth my revelation. Here are some excerpts.
“I’m in the front office,” Tuff says to the dispatcher. “He just went outside and started shooting. Oh, can I run?” And what if she had run, as I think most of us would have? But Antoinette Tuff didn’t run. Instead, she stayed and talked to him. She told the dispatcher that “he doesn’t care if he dies, he doesn’t have anything to live for. He said that he’s not mentally stable.” Then she turns to him, in control of herself and calm, reaches out to him and sympathizes with him: “I can help you; you want me to talk to them? Let me talk to them and let’s see if we can work it out so you don’t have to go away with them for a long time.” When he interrupts her to say he’s already shot at police, she reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference, you didn’t hit anybody.” Then, advocating for him, she tells the operator: “He just shot outside the door. If I walk outside with him, they won’t shoot him? … He just wants to go to the hospital … Can you talk to the police and let them know he wants to go outside with me?”
And then, with warmhearted gentleness, she moves toward him emotionally. She had started by calling him “sir” but now she begins calling him “baby” and “sweetie.” She identifies with him, touches his deeper humanity with her own, and empathizes with him by telling him parts of her story. And at this moment, across the enormous divide between would-be murderer and gentle pacifier, sorrow touches sorrow, pain reaches out to pain. Her personal tragedy, which she brings up from some raw place in her soul, achieves expression as she speaks to him: “Don’t feel bad, baby, my husband just left me after 33 years … I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now, I’m still here and talking to you about it. I’m still working and everything is OK.” She continues: “It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you.” That “I love you” and that “I’m proud of you” marks, for me, the deepest moment of this encounter because, with those poignant remarks, she has shown him that some decent human being cares enough about him to take an interest in the question whether he is to rise or sink (an altered quote from Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism, p. 405). And she told him this with stunning spontaneity … without self-conscious effort, without contrivance, without manipulation. At that moment she showed him that, to one person at least, the would-be killer, the desperate individual, the sick soul was, at bottom, a human being just like her. She had humanized him and he sensed that she cared. And he began to trust her.
She presses on, her words now emboldened by her graciousness: “We’re not going to hurt you, baby. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life … You’re going to be OK. Your name is Hill?” she asks. “My name is Hill, too. My mother was a Hill.” She then encourages him to put down his weapon, to lie on the floor, and to surrender. But she assures him that she won’t abandon him once the worst is over. “Tell me when you’re ready, then I’ll tell them to come on in,” she says. And then she tells the dispatcher, “Let him drink his bottle of water. Don’t come in shooting at anything, they can come on in, and I’m going to buzz them in.” Then she goes back to soothing Hill. “I’m going to sit right here so they’ll see that you didn’t try to harm me … It’s going to be alright, sweetie, I want you to know that I love you, it’s a good thing that you did give up.” Then the police came in and it was over.
I said at the beginning that this episode stunned me with the force of a revelation. Perhaps you can see why. What streamed toward me as I witnessed Ms. Tuff’s words was the mysterious depth and capacity of her soul. And I stand in awe of what I witnessed. Under enormous pressure … and spontaneously, instinctively, and without the time to “come up with a plan” … she called up her own pain as well as her reservoir of courage and empathy and skill … to help him, to soothe him, to advocate for him, to console him, to treat him humanely, and to communicate to him all that she felt. She was, said one commentator, like an Olympic athlete with a difference. Unlike the athletes, she never trained rigorously for this event; nor, unlike the athletes, did she know the event was coming until it had already arrived. Did Antoinette Tuff help end the shooting? No, she ended it all by herself.
And there is more. In the aftermath of the event, Antoinette confessed that much else was going on within her during that conversation with Michael Hill. Two things, in fact. First, contrary to her calm exterior, she was scared to death. Here’s what she said to the dispatcher once the ordeal was over: “I’m going to tell you something, baby. I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life. Oooooh, Jesus!” To which the dispatcher responds: “But you did great. You did great.” She was terrified … who wouldn’t be … but she found an inner strength to put the terror down and do what she had it in her to do.
And she also prayed. She doesn’t say what she said when she prayed or whether she said anything at all. I sense that her prayer had less to do with asking for help … how could she have focused on two conversations at once? … than it was an almost instinctive conviction, borne of long experience … that her world was good and that her efforts would be supported. Her faith centered her, emboldened her, enlarged her, prepared her to face firmly whatever came her way. The poet, Emily Dickinson, captures this idea in its negative formulation: “The abdication of belief,” Dickinson writes, “makes the behavior small” (Ralph W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, # 1581; Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, #1551). Belief, for Tuff, had helped to make her behavior large. And I think this idea challenges all of us to think about the role of faith, the need for faith, the power of faith in our lives … so that we will be ready to face firmly whatever comes our way.
Now my remarks so far have focused on one individual … a remarkable individual. There are others. I saw this inner power again just this past weekend when the Belarusian tennis player, Victoria Azarenka, who had just lost a heartbreaking U.S Open finals match to Serena Williams, stood at center court for the awards ceremony. When it came time for her to speak, she stammered, through tears, something like the following: “We fought a hard match; it’s an honor to play against one of the greatest players who ever lived. Serena deserves the victory.” Graciousness, courage, character rising to the occasion … to put things in perspective and to put self-pity away. Another example of “the matchless, incandescent spirit” of humanity (a description of William James by his biographer, Robert D. Richardson, op. cit, p. 519). This is what I am celebrating with you this evening.
And, when I think about it, which I often do, I recognize that I see this same resilient and incandescent human spirit regularly in my privileged work as your rabbi. I see it, with special clarity, when I meet with families who have just lost a loved one. I sit with them to console them, to prepare the details of the funeral, and to discuss the life and attributes of the deceased … so that I can deliver a eulogy. It is during these conversations that I often witness what human beings are made of. It is during these difficult discussions, when emotions are raw, when family conflicts lie just below the surface, when the need for control fights against jumbled emotions, when negative feelings toward the deceased and toward others in the room struggle against the impulse to be generous and forgiving … it is during these tense conversations that I often sit in awe of the effort of the mourners to rise to the occasion. Sometimes that effort comes easily, sometimes it does not. But mostly, people try. Most of the time I see people reach down deep within themselves to summon their best inclinations … to lead with graciousness, fairness, and empathy. It is sometimes hard for them when so many other things are going on inside them; but I see them trying. And every time I see it, it touches me deeply. And, witnessing it in some, I look for it in others. And when I look for it, I see it. And then my faith in the fundamental goodness of human beings deepens. Now, that faith is sometimes deflated by people who do not live up to their higher selves. But I do not let that shake my confidence. My conviction is that each of us has a reservoir of kindness and integrity and empathy; that each of us is able to express our best selves in our daily lives and daily encounters. And when we recognize it in ourselves and when we witness it in others, we ought to celebrate the power of the human spirit.
We live in a cynical age. Tragically, there is ample reason for it. We suspect our politicians of looking out only for themselves and toward their next election. And there is evidence for this. We suspect our professional athletes of cheating and then lying about it. And there is plenty of evidence for this, too. We are convinced that every judgment reflects bias, that every argument is the result of “spin,” and that nothing is true because everything is mere opinion. All this has made us skeptical. This has led, corrosively, to what the poet calls “the abdication of belief.” And, as she surmised, this has made our behavior small. But I am here tonight to say to you that this is not the whole story; nor can we allow it become the main story. We must see in ourselves our own fundamental goodness. And we must look for the goodness of others. Seeing Antoinette Tuff on the street, who would have suspected the deep humanity that lay within her? And so we cannot allow ourselves to be blind to the inner power and goodness in others … our neighbors, those we pass on the street, the people sitting next to us right now. Great people are everywhere if only we had the will to see it and the graciousness to expect it and notice it. For, as the poet herself says: “Not ‘Revelation’ – ’tis – that waits/But our unfurnished eyes” (Emily Dickinson, Franklin #500, Johnson #685).