I’m simultaneously angry, sad, horrified, bewildered, furious, scared, defiant, perplexed, disheartened, confused, and clear. I can’t read another word, let alone say another thing, and, I can’t refrain from gobbling up every article and post that flashes on my screen. I refuse to watch or listen to one more news story and I am unable to turn the radio or television off. Haunted and heartened all at once.
I’m haunted by so many of the details of last Shabbat’s terrible massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I’m haunted by the fact that on Shabbat Vayera, the parasha that includes the terrifying tale of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, eleven Jews were murdered in synagogue. “Quick! Hurry to do our Creator’s will!” wrote one medieval poet, memorializing the horrors of the Crusades. “His (Isaac’s) father tied him who was offered on Mount Moriah…but we without being tied are slain for God’s love…” I’m haunted by the fact that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, written a mere decade after his own escape from the horrors of the Shoah, suddenly seem relevant. “There is a high cost of living to be paid by a Jew,” he wrote. “Some of us, tired of sacrifice and exertion, often wonder: Is Jewish existence worth the price? Others are overcome with panic; they are perplexed and despair of recovery.” The dark history of murderous anti-Semitism forced its way into contemporary America this past Shabbat. That’s haunting.
I’m haunted, and horrified, by the hate that has risen to the surface in our country. Hate, too, has a long and bloody history. The specifically American varieties – nativism and racism most notably – have reemerged in our time. Just days before the Tree of Life massacre, two African-Americans – Vicki Lee Jones and Maurice E. Stallard – were shot and killed at a Kroger Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky simply because they were black. Jews are hardly the only address. Our political leaders have done far too little to respond, and, yes, I’m being polite. It is entirely reasonable for us to expect elected officials, from the President on down, to speak unequivocally, plainly, and with moral clarity about such matters. I’m haunted, and angered, by the failure of our ‘leaders’ to exercise moral leadership. At a different moment of crisis, Heschel in a famous telegram called on President Kennedy to “declare state of moral emergency.” “The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity,” wrote Heschel. We’ve not seen so much as a hint of either.
[Gustav Klimt “Tree of Life” 1909]
I’m heartened by the overwhelming outpouring of love and support seen and heard in communities all across the country. In our own little corner of America, we have extraordinary neighbors. The expression of love and commitment that many of us witnessed in our own sanctuary this past Sunday evening continues to bring me to tears. If you weren’t able to join us on Sunday, please do yourself the favor of watching it. Video of the central moment can be found here – https://vimeo.com/297642448
We Jews are decidedly not alone in America in 2018. It isn’t 1096, or 1492, or 1938. We face real dangers, of course; and we’re blessed to have allies, friends, people of good will and good hearts who are right now standing with us and for us.
I’m heartened by the resilience and determination and dignity of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. I’ve gotten to see and hear our Steel City brothers and sisters from afar – on television, radio, social media – but many in our own community hail from Pittsburgh and have family and friends there now. The scenes and words from this week’s funerals are truly heartbreaking. They’re also poignant and inspiring. Heschel, in that same essay, observes that “a sense of contact with the ultimate dawns upon most people when their self-reliance is swept away by violent misery.” “Judaism,” he then suggests, “is the attempt to instill in us that sense as an everyday awareness.” I’m heartened to observe that ‘everyday awareness’ even at a distance. Contact with the sublime, Heschel concludes, “leads us to regard injustice as a metaphysical calamity, to sense the divine significance of human happiness, to keep slightly above the twilight of the self, ready to perceive the constant dawn in our souls.”
Last Shabbat’s murderous injustice is both a physical and ‘metaphysical calamity.’ And, miraculously, it has sparked a newfound readiness ‘to perceive the constant dawn in our souls.’ We are resilient and we are not alone. We stand in the twilight and we are able to apprehend the constant dawn. I’m haunted and I’m heartened all at the same time. The memories of these eleven of our sisters and brothers are already a blessing. So may they be for all time.