Bringing Sense to the Senseless

On Sunday – taking advantage of the long-awaited spring weather – I got on the subway at Finch Station with my three kids and my parents, and we travelled downtown to the Royal Ontario Museum. Riding the Yonge line, I was aware (as I always am) of the incredible diversity around me – so many people of so many backgrounds, and places of origin, and languages, sharing a subway car. Sharing a city.

Monday midday, Torontonians received devastating news: a van attack had killed ten people and injured fifteen along the stretch of Yonge between Finch and Sheppard. The incident occurred just steps from where my family and I had boarded the train 24 hours earlier. All afternoon I received messages: from friends and family making sure we were OK. From members of my congregation whose loved ones had been nearby. From fellow Torontonians in disbelief.

What do you say at a moment like this? What do you do? These kinds of events have become almost commonplace around the world – you seem to hear almost every day about some kind of shooting or bombing or pedestrian attack somewhere in the world. But here? In Toronto? This is a different kind of city; these things aren’t supposed to happen here.

Well, it’s happened here. And yet, Toronto is a different kind of city. The response to yesterday’s tragedy has reflected that. Much has been made, for example, of the lone police officer who calmly apprehended the suspect without firing a shot. Was it a reflection of training? Of a uniquely Canadian way of thinking? In the coming days, we will know more about his identity and what enabled him to handle the situation in such a heroic manner.

But I was struck most of all by the memorial wall. Just south of Finch, a makeshift memorial has sprung up along Yonge Street, with flowers, candles, posters reading “Love For All, Hatred For None,” and notes – hundreds and hundreds of notes of condolence, remembrance, and sadness, in a variety of languages. There are notes in English and French, in Persian and Korean. I even noticed one in Hebrew. This is Toronto: a city where people who look different, believe differently, and speak different can come together to support one another. Where tragedy leads not to calls for revenge, but to pleas for “love for all.” Where our diversity is seen as an indicator of our strength, even in the most tragic of times. On a sad day like today, that makes me proud and gives me hope.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People that:

…we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”

It is hard to know why things like this happen. We can scour the evidence, try to understand the perpetrator’s motivations and emotional state. But in the end, there is no grand plan that makes it all OK. Rather, meaning is made in how we respond to tragedy: Do we reach out to one another in support? Do we try to learn from what has happened and create changes that can prevent it from happening again? Do we affirm our values and respond in ways that make us proud?

These are the ways that we bring sense to the senseless, and in so doing, honour the memory of the dead.

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