Why I Went to Wadea’s Funeral: Noah 5784

by | Oct 19, 2023 | Blog, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD, President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality | 2 comments

On Monday morning a headline crossed my newsfeed: A six-year old boy in suburban Chicago had been brutally stabbed to death by his family’s landlord. His mother was severely injured while trying to protect him. 

The story was tragic. What made it even more significant was that the boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was, like his mother, from the Palestinian community. While the landlord was–I hate to say it, thank God–not Jewish, the authorities are treating the murder as a hate crime because it seems the landlord was activated, in part, by the Hamas pogrom in Israel on October 7.

I live in the Chicago area, and I knew right away that, if possible, I wanted to attend the boy’s funeral. I felt called to go for a few reasons: As an American, I’m heartbroken and outraged that this would happen to any family, or that anyone would feel unsafe because of who they are; as a parent, I’m shattered at the family’s loss; as a Jew and a Jewish leader, particularly in the present moment, I wanted the family and the larger Palestinian community in Chicago and the United States to know that I bear witness to their pain. If there is anything we should be able to come together on, it is that the death of children is unspeakable sorrow. We should be able to show up for one another for that. And at a time when I feel so powerless to help my own people in Israel, this act of humanity and bridge-building felt like a small concrete action I could take.

I went with a few colleagues. As we approached the neighborhood where the mosque was located, it was evident this was a huge event. Traffic was backed up. We had to park on a side street and walk ten minutes, along with hundreds of others streaming toward the mosque. The mosque filled up, and the crowd spilled outside into the parking lot. It felt like thousands of people were there.

Since I went, some have asked me whether I felt unsafe. The answer is no. In fact, I was warmly welcomed as an honored guest. Dozens of people came up to me to shake my hand and thank me for coming. A few of us hugged. Everyone I spoke with seemed to share the sentiment that what the vast majority of people want is simply to be able to raise their families and live in their communities in peace. That felt like a small glimmer of hope.

Parashat Noach is, among other things, a story of violence, terror, survival, and rebuilding. As I referred to in my post last week, it is part of the Torah’s larger meditation on the fraught nature of siblinghood, the profound difficulty humans seem to have in living together in peace. And, in the concluding story of the Tower Babel, it offers ground for reflecting on the values and complexities of languages and cultural identities–dynamics that were all present in the moment, that are all present now. There is a reason we read this book again and again: “hafoch bah v’hafoch bah, ki hakol bah–turn it and turn it, for all is within it.” 

After the flood, God promises Noah not to destroy the world again and establishes that the rainbow will serve as a sign of that commitment. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (Likkutei Halakhot Shabbat 7:70) comments that the rainbow (KESHET) evokes the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah (teKiah, SHevarim, Truah). There are many ways we might interpret this connection: A call to repentance, a call to duty. What stands out to me is that both the shofar blasts and the rainbow contain within them a full spectrum: of emotion, experience, language, culture, people. They ask of us: Can we make room for all of that within our own hearts? Can we find a way to live with ourselves–and with one another? For that, at the end of the day, is the basic question of the covenant, whether it is the Covenant of Sinai or the Covenant of Noah. The stakes of these questions, as we are being so painfully reminded right now, are life and death.

I’ll conclude with a note about the kippah I wore (pictured): I generally only wear this kippah on Yom Kippur. On most other days I wear a black one. But at the funeral I wanted to make sure people saw I was there, that a rabbi showed up. I hope in doing so I was able to effect some modicum calling us all, inviting us all,  back to the demands, expectations, and possibilities of the Covenant of Noah. I hope I was able to perform a small act of kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the divine name, in a time when that name has been so horribly desecrated.

May all our children know no more suffering, may our families and communities know no more sorrow.