A missing person poster is displayed near a crime scene where police found a suitcase believed to contain the remains of the missing 8-year old boy in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
The city of New York is shaking and so is much of the Jewish world. Little Leiby Kletsky of blessed memory, was buried yesterday evening, but nothing has been put to rest.
The details of the horrific murder of the eight year old child can be found elsewhere, for those who want them. But here I want to focus on the powerful and insightful words of Badana Gertz, a woman in her sixties who came from Flatbush, two neighborhoods over from Borough Park, to pick up garbage outside the building in which Leiby lived.
During the frantic 36-hour search for the missing boy, the effort involved not only the full force of the NYPD and the Shomrim, a local volunteer neighborhood security organization, but hundreds, if not thousands, of regular people. They gathered and organized on the street in front of Leiby’s building, and after a day and a half, there was trash. Rather than simply wait for the Department of Sanitation, at least one person, Badana Gertz began the clean up on her own. Why she chose to do so is a spiritual lesson for anyone at any time, but especially at times like these.
Picking up napkins from the street by hand, Ms. Gertz explained, “At least I was able to do something besides pray and pray and pray.” Clearly prayer was a part of the religious woman’s response, but just as clearly, so was the need to something else as well. Although we may never meet, I now count Badana Gertz as among my teachers.
She did not dismiss the importance of prayer, and she did not give up on its value, but she acknowledged that sometimes prayer is simply not enough. I know, that opens the door to as many questions as it answer – “enough” for whom? For Leiby? For God? For Ms. Gertz? I want to respond, “yes” to all three questions, but that is a personal matter, or one left to those who enjoy theological debates which seek a single right answer.
The need to make a material difference, to clean up a mess when your whole world feels dirty – this too, is a holy need. Picking up dirty napkins, in this context at least, is a sacred act. Perhaps in its own way, it is also another form of prayer, one in which, as in the Kaddish (memorial prayer for the dead), we attempt to argue order and goodness back into the world.
To clean up, to mend what is ripped, is a deeply religious impulse — at least for Jews of pretty much every spiritual stripe. I can’t claim to speak authoritatively for other traditions (I barely claim to do so for my own), and I know that the impulse to fix things is itself part of the problem from a Buddhist perspective, but on the morning after Leiby Kletsky’s funeral, there are all kinds of napkins to pick up. I am deeply grateful to Badana Gertz for reminding us that sometimes prayer is not enough and we can all begin picking up those napkins.