After Boston Marathon explosions and manhunt, reflecting on ‘shelter in place’

By Dr. Erica Brown/JNS.org 

Dr. Erica Brown, following the Boston Marathon explosions and manhunt, reflects on "shelter in place." 

I don’t know about you, but before recently I had never heard the phrase “shelter in place,” the order residents and businesses were given by law enforcement during the manhunt in Boston for the suspects of the Boston Marathon explosions.

SPW—the emergency-speak code for a “shelter in place” warning—is a term for the mandate to seek immediate and short-term shelter, usually from fear of chemical or terrorist attack. It’s a way not only to protect large groups from danger, but to also provide the necessary space for emergency workers to handle the situation with sufficient room and efficiency.

Shelter sounded way too comforting for what the authorities requested during the search for the Boston Marathon explosions suspects; they basically wanted people to remain secure while the threat of terrorism loomed close to home. The anxiety of not knowing what was happening added to the mounting pressures of Bostonians to manage a situation that, mentally, seemed to defy all reason. And looking back at those events, we have now had a little more time to digest them and think generally about the notion of shelter.

My first thought on hearing the expression “shelter in place” took me to a book that Mary Pipher wrote years ago about family dynamics, The Shelter of Each Other. I always loved that title, capturing as it does the sense of family as refuge and safe space, the place captured by Robert Frost in his poem “Death of a Hired Man.” Frost writes, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Hopefully it is a place of shelter because you also want to be there. Home, we hope, is a refuge, a haven, an island of sanity in a world that does not always make sense.

The order to stay home was particularly poignant given the situation. At times of nonsensical violence in a world gripped by pain, we want people to take strength in the places that offer them love, tenderness, understanding and compassion. Where better to go than home to have temporary relief from the volatility of terrorism?

My second thought was the book of Psalms, where the notion of God as a refuge or shelter is stamped all over the short bursts of religious meaning and feeling we call Psalms. In the close of Psalm 25, for example, as stress increases, the need for protection multiplies: “Protect me and save me; let me not be disappointed, for I have sought shelter in you.” In a first-person plea for attention, the petitioner suffers internally and externally, plagued by the weight of his own sins and the punishing attitude of his enemies. He seeks refuge in God and asks not to be disappointed. God as a last resort must provide the comfort he cannot find elsewhere.

It is not only spaces that provide shelter. People provide emotional shelter, and God provides spiritual shelter.

The word shelter comes from the word for “tight battle formation” in Middle English, implying a place where one can find temporary relief and refuge from difficult external conditions. Often we use shelter as a place to escape bad weather or the perils of homelessness for a few nights. We seek protection and find respite. But there is a big difference between a shelter as a place of temporary escape and the haven or refuge that is implied in Psalms. One is temporary. The other is eternal.

In Exodus 16:29, Moses demands that the Jewish people remain there they are on Shabbat and refrain from collecting manna, their food which fell from the sky each day in the desert; instead, he instructs them to collect double portions of manna on Friday. “Remain every person in place; let no person go out of his place on the seventh day,” Moses says.

Not everyone listened to Moses, to his or her own detriment. They did not trust Moses and put their own needs before that of taking refuge in God’s gift of food, given to them with divine conditions.

Remaining in place when you doubt the place you’re in requires a profound level of trust and faith. It is a miracle that among the thousands of people at the Boston Marathon finish line, two suspects were identified and only days later were caught. It happened because a city trusted its caretakers in public service. We owe them much gratitude for their holy work and for asking us to take shelter when they put themselves in the center of the storm. May we honor the memory of those who died. May God bless those in public service and keep them from harm.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

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Posted on April 28, 2013 and filed under Torah Commentary, Jewish Life.