In memory of my father, Michael Leis z”l
As many of you know, my father was killed on Shabbat Shuva – in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – two years ago. He was struck by a car in a hit and run while walking with my mother and two friends (one of whom is Judge Robert Ziemian) on the sidewalk of a quiet beach road in Cape Cod. They were on the Cape for a conference for my mother’s lifelong career advocating for recovery courts – at first with Judge Ziemian 30 years ago – to provide mandatory treatment in order to prevent future harm.
September 14, 2022. Our day in court.
No one could see or understand what had happened in the dark of that night. But the sky was crystal clear blue on this September day, one year later.
In the intense unetaneh tokef prayer, a dreadful scene unfolds. The angels quake in fear on behalf of humanity who is facing the truth of our mortality- who by fire, who by water. Our family’s harsh decree would be laid out before the packed courtroom: graphic evidence of the circumstances of my father’s death.
The liturgy offers not a way out but a way forward:
Teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah are PRACTICES to make the harsh decrees easier to bear.
Teshuva: turning back into to conscious, empowered, honest resilient, selves
Tefilah: contemplative practice, prayer for the purpose of alignment and compassion
Tzedekah: efforts to dismantle systems of injustice, making things as right as possible.
None of these things were in my mind when we sat for our day in court, but the truth is, I had been practicing these pillars over the year before because I had to; there was no other choice.
My family sat in the front row on the right side of the courtroom. The defendant and his family on the left.
I couldn’t face that direction. Instead, I turned behind me to the face of our close family friend. Curled up in Barbara’s eyes, I felt safe.
Until then we had known nothing about him, but his name and his record. Our minds naturally filled in the voids, forming snapshots as humans do. (Reference to Rosh Hashanah sermon on judging others and ourselves)
He pleaded guilty two times.
vehicular homicide [bang on table] GUILTY,
leaving the scene after a death
[bang on table]
The man who killed my father admitted to killing him and leaving him on the road. The core of my being shook; facing reality shook me to the core.
The court system had kept us apart for the year. We were on our own to make sense out of my father’s senseless death through bits of evidence shared through third parties. We were also on our own to imagine who this person was.
When I see a human face, I seek goodness, the spark of the divine, but I was overwhelmed by the enormity of seeing the face of the man who killed my father. I don’t know if I was more afraid of recognizing the humanity in his face, or seeing none.
Before I read my Impact statement : My father, Michael Leis
spoke about how the Talmud, a basis of our legal system today, carefully and through much debate lays out laws for assessing harm and damage done, ensuring accountability for various losses. There are categories including loss of work, shame, and physical loss. The rabbis of the Talmud overturn the Torah’s ruling, “an eye for an eye”, rejecting revenge and instead, prioritizing prevention of future harm, while affirming that the dignity of all involved is maintained.
The actor and martial artist Bruce Lee said “Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, but fall to our level of training.”
My studies had compelled me to claim a moment in the courtroom, to call on our core values on this day of judgment.
“We must regard with the utmost respect the infinite value of both my father’s life and the life of the defendant.” I said the right words.
Yet my frame was still limited to my own experience. I still could only look on “our side of the room.” I wasn’t ready to face him, and that was OK.
Then my sister Jenny stood up. She paused, took a deep breath and looked around the whole room, trying to make eye contact with everyone, with his family, with the court staffers and with the judge.
In her statement, she shared with wrenching sadness, four impacts:
losing a parent and her closest person, sudden loss, violent loss and lastly, the impact of the violent, sudden loss of her most special person without apparent regret, apology, or taking responsibility.
At kol nidre, I spoke about wild salmon, compelled to swim upstream while their skin is falling off, on their way home. Like the salmon who swim upstream compelled to claim a moment, Jenny defied the norms of the courtroom in which we are only to address the Judge.
“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, but fall to our level of training.”
Jenny’s training, her life’s work and her regular practices – include drawing intricate visual maps based on deep reflection. She practices the principles of non-violent communication, facilitates conflict resolution sessions and guides communities through impactful meetings. Jenny practices conscious communication and conscious community.
Unbeknownst to any of us, Jenny had practiced for this moment.
My sister Jenny turned to the man who killed our father and told him directly that what she most wanted at that moment was human connection.
She told him that he could write anytime with an authentic apology, sharing with her, his experience of what happened, and what he had learned.
She extended her hand with a self addressed stamped envelope. I slowly followed her hand, and the envelope, to the police officer who then handed it to the man. She had granted him humanity, expanding our side of the room to include his side of the room.
I looked at him.
Tall. Large frame. Longish dark hair. He was crying, nodding his head in response to my sister Jenny’s invitation to connect. I saw so much pain in his face, and also, he seemed relieved. I was relieved to see him as human. (What had I thought he was?)
We were both crying, the unetaneh tokef angels quaking in fear at the horror of what had happened and what it meant for our lives.
I could see him as a human suffering, which in no way lessened or invalidated ours, which had been so fully and lovingly witnessed including by many of you here today. I had become in some way concerned for him at that moment, in his world.
(Quietly) Could this be compassion?
Facing life without my dad, my children without their beloved grandfather, my mother suddenly alone to navigate life. Facing the gruesome details of how he died.
THE HORROR! The angels tremble in fear.
Yet here there was- a human. A human who was taking responsibility for his actions.
Emmanuel Levinas a
French Jewish philosopher, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, spoke of the face not merely as a physical feature but as a profound conduit for the word of God, a manifestation of the Divine that beckons our respect and ethical duty. The face, in its raw vulnerability, stands as a testament against violence, compelling us to acknowledge the inherent humanity and divinity in the other.
Facing takes practice. Reality is sometimes the harsh decree.
Practicing facing our decrees, whatever they may be – and so much is beyond our control- lessens their harshness.
But I discovered that day that while facing reality can be a harsh decree, the human face is not the harsh decree.
The human face is never the harsh decree.
Seeing his face that day in the courtroom, watching him taken away in the sheriff’s van in cuffs, while saying “I am sorry, I am so sorry” to my sister’s face, speaking with his family afterwards, and finding out that they are good people (what kind of people did I think they were?), I felt the profound resonance of Levinas’ teachings — the imperative to approach the face of the perceived “Other” with compassion.
How do we overcome our pain, our judgements, our biases, our fears, our rightness, our moods, to be on both sides of the Courtroom?
The courtroom is our kitchens, our communities and neighborhood, our bedrooms and our offices. The courtroom is our schools, our cars, our futures.
The unfaceable can be our spouses, our children, our co-workers, our neighbors, our voters.
How do we face the unfaceable when we are only on one side of the courtroom?
We practice. And every day is game day. Practicing facing means treating every day like game day.
What faces are hard to face? Take notice. I have started to. Whose faces do I actually face on any given day? Start to notice.
In parshat Ha’azinu read this year just a day before Yom Kippur, God hides God’s face from us, angry.
So too do we hide our faces from one another when almost any strong emotion arises.
Every interaction can be a sacred encounter with the face of God.
Eye contact is not easy for everyone. Yet in seeing faces and hearing stories, witnessing joys and struggles, we discover reflections of the Divine.
Turning towards the other, especially when it’s challenging, is a profound act of spiritual courage and INTIMACY In- to- me -you -see.
It is a conscious choice to recognize our shared humanity and the divinity in each of us.
Do we feel it in our own face? (touch your face)
Compassion naturally arises when we turn towards, and choose to see humanity. Rena DeLevie, a local leader in the work and the practice of compassionate leadership, urges us to introduce compassion when there is fear or anger, suggesting that this shift not only transforms our internal experiences but also leads to better outcomes in our interactions at work and at home.
My sister Jenny’s act of reaching out was not a spontaneous gesture but the culmination of a life in which she practices intentional compassion. She lives teshuva, returning, tefilah, reflecting and tzedakah, repairing, as practices.
Why should game day be any different than practice?
My mother, Roberta, the morning after, I think even before her coffee, began making phone calls in her mind to follow up on addressing the needs of the man who killed her husband in order to help him and for prevent future harm. She has spent her lifetime doing this- why would game day be any different?
Roberta Wall writes about Torah from a social justice and healing lens. She has facilitated restorative circles with Israelis and Palestinians. Roberta reflected to me: “I want to live in the flow of forgiveness as much as I can because I feel how it unravels trauma in me and in the world.” She then clarified that living in the flow of forgiveness does not mean that we must forgive everyone who hurts us. It is not always possible to forgive, yet we can always choose to stand in the flow of compassion as a practice.
When we yearn for connection, for compassion, for love, for forgiveness, we are expressing a yearning for God’s face like Moshe yearned for until he finally saw it at the end of his life. This we read just after Yom Kippur.
May we yearn like Moshe yearned. May there be yearning for each other’s faces in the new year, may we turn towards one another, embrace our shared humanity, and when possible, be given the strength, courage and trust that comes from practicing to forgive – starting with ourselves.
Two days after court, I posted this on Facebook:
After an entire day of processing The Day, I am greeting This New Day with gratitude. May we move on to live our lives as dad would want us to. May all beings – including a man who made a big mistake and his family -know happiness. May all be relieved from suffering. We are one humanity. One heart. One struggle.
Levinas taught there is “trace in every face” of the Divine Mystery. Even if it’s just a trace, don’t miss seeing it in every face as we practice facing this new year together. And remember: every day is game day.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah — may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing, compassion and only goodness.
With gratitude to Eden Sidney Foster my amazing sermon coach.