After Pittsburgh

Posted on Oct 31, 2018

Had the Jews at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh not been gunned down early in the Shaharit service last Shabbat morning, they would have read the portion from the Torah—Vayerah—that describes the visit of God’s angelic messengers to Sodom. The townspeople surround the house of Abraham’s nephew Lot, where the angels have agreed to spend the night, and shout menacingly, “Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” When Lot refuses, reminding the mob of the virtue of hospitality, they taunt him with a cry that strangers and minorities—and those who shelter them—have heard and feared in many societies and cultures throughout the ages. “The fellow came here as an alien, and already he acts the ruler. Now we will do worse with you than with them.” The mob moves to break down the door and are thwarted only by God’s angels, who now have all the evidence they need of the “outrage” and “great sin” that led God to send them to destroy the city.   

Narratives in the Torah like this one—and even the legal instructions that follow in subsequent chapters—do not translate easily into policy, program, or party preference. We are commanded in dozens of passages to take care of the stranger, to welcome and even love the outsiders in our midst. This is what God wants. We are not told exactly which of the many immigration bills that have come before Congress in recent years meet the Torah’s requirements and which do not.  Even the thousands of commentaries compiled by rabbis and sages over the centuries—the so-called “Oral Law”—cannot entirely supply that sort of guidance. We are similarly taught by the Torah from the very first chapter of Genesis onwards to value every human life—for all of us are created in God’s image, no matter what our religion or race. We are told to carefully weigh the words we speak, for words themselves can do grave damage, and often lead to physical violence, even death, as they did in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat. Where exactly should we draw the boundary between “hate speech”—which must be stopped because it is as dangerous as falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater—and “free speech,” which must be protected because it is an essential tool in helping us arrive at truth and become better individuals and a better society? The Torah does not specify this. But the text clearly believes that the people of Sodom, mobbing Lot’s house and threatening its inhabitants, strangers in their city, crossed a line.

Of all the many stories that I have read in the last few days about the awful event in Pittsburgh, I have been most affected —brought to tears in some cases, I confess—by accounts of people from various backgrounds and communities coming together in grief and determination. At a time when increasingly loud and aggressive forces are working to sow hatred among us and plant discord, it is more important than ever that we stand with one another and give each other strength—and give our institutions strength—to do the work that needs doing.  When nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were murdered during Sunday morning services three years ago, my congregation sent messages of solidarity and contributions to help the families of the victims. When 26 worshippers were killed during Sunday prayers a year ago at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that tragedy too struck all of us. 

The Christians, Muslims, and individuals of other faiths—or of no religion—who stood together in Pittsburgh and around the nation this weekend offered the only adequate response to shootings such as these. It just does not matter a whole lot, when innocent people are murdered in prayer—or on high school and college campuses—what words the victims uttered in praise and thanksgiving, what courses they were taking in school, what color their skin or which party they support or what position they take on major issues of the day, no matter how strongly we feel or they felt about those issues. The dividing line that matters most today is between those who think it is okay—or even virtuous—to hate and kill, and those who are determined to stand up and say that we are better than that, that our society can be better, will be better, and we will help to make it so.

What shall we do in response to shootings like the one at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation? How should we act differently? I will suggest three directions set by the prayers that the members of that synagogue and all others recite on Sabbath morning.

The blessing that begins the Shaharit service praises God for giving roosters the wisdom to distinguish day from night and call out that difference for all to hear. We must do likewise, I think. Let’s understand what’s happening in our country right now as clearly as we can. Gun violence is of course not new in the United States. Bigotry is not new; anti-Semitism, racism, and hostility toward immigrants and strangers are not new. Neither is the vicious cycle of poverty and injustice in which far too many Americans are trapped. But we seem to be living in a period of heightened violence and hate. The worst anti-Semitic slaughter in the history of the United States has taken place at a moment when bigots are emboldened as they have not been in many decades to express hatred openly and act on it to murderous effect. A lot of people are afraid. We need to understand what is going on, stop the hatred before it spreads even further. For all the grey areas in morality and the legitimate differences over policy, Right and Wrong are sometimes not in dispute. Truth and Lies, Day and Night, are easily distinguished and we can call out that difference, demonstrate the difference, through actions and policies that promote love and justice.

At least twice during Shabbat morning services, Jews recite Psalm 145, known by its first Hebrew word, Ashrei. Each line of the prayer begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet—but one verse, beginning with the letter nun, is missing. I’ve wondered since I first started saying Ashrei as a child what happened to it. We have the verse that starts with memmalkhutkha malkhut kol olamim. “Your sovereignty is eternal; Your dominion endures in every generation”—and we have the samekh—someikh Adonai le-khol ha-noflim. “The Lord supports all who falter, and lifts up all who are bent down.”

Let me suggest that today, as we mourn the victims of the shooting in Pittsburgh, we resolve that WE shall be that missing nun, the bridge between the verses that precede and follow it. We will be among those who ensure that God’s dominion “endures in every generation,” including in this generation, by “supporting all those who falter and lifting up all who are bowed down.” That is one sure way that we human beings can “praise God’s name forever and ever.” 

The growing list of families of those killed and injured in these shootings and bombings—or threatened with similar violence—are of course the very first we must succor and support. But there is grief—and real fear and trembling—in many communities this week. Individuals and families who have suffered personal trauma at some point in their lives relive that trauma when they hear the news coming out of Pittsburgh. Others feel kicked in the stomach: fearful, angry, depressed, and in tears for reasons they do not understand. All of us need reassurance that this is not a country where one needs to fear going to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple; not a place where one should suspect one’s neighbors rather than trust them. We need confidence that when we do stand up for justice and compassion we will be supported by people of many backgrounds and communities. The moments of greatest vulnerability are the moments when we need most to know that we are not alone.

The mourners’ kaddish—recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service, every shivah, every memorial for the dead—will be heard more in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation as a result of this week’s murders. Like many prayers—and almost any piece of literature, any words we say—it can be interpreted in more than one way. I believe that when we pray that “God’s great name be magnified and sanctified as God wished in the world that God created,” we are expressing not only a plea but a collective hope and resolve. The individuals whom we mourn are no longer able to perform that act of sanctification in the world—and we are promising to pick up the slack. The loved ones who died in shul this Shabbos can no longer perform acts of love as they did while alive. We resolve that we will love all the more in their place, love more people more often, and act to make our love more effective in the concentric circles of family, friends, community, nation, world.

Let’s all pray with special intentionality in the days and weeks to come, knowing that our prayer obligates us to work together to help God bring about the better world for which we pray.