Tree of Life

The sea of words in response to yesterday’s barbaric shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh hardly needs my contribution. As if the letter bombs and the grocery store murders weren’t appalling enough, this attack was the rotten cherry on top of a dreadful and violent week. We are heartbroken, we are reeling, we are searching for meaning and wondering where all this will end up.

Frankly I can’t deal with the big questions at the moment. I just have a few fragments of thoughts that are poking at me.

  • I’ve been thinking about the specificity of those who died, the people who showed up on time for shul. Karen Reiss Medwed* wrote about how every community has its on-time folks, the ones who arrive early and make sure the challah is where it’s supposed to be, greet guests, hand out siddurim and kippot. These are the behind-the-scenes people, the wonderful volunteers who care enough about showing up for others that they arrive early and stay late. Whatever is needed, they figure out a way to get the job done. In many ways they are the pillars of the community. And when the pillars are no longer with us, we must all stand a little taller to hold the community up. Every time we tuck the scrolls back into the Ark, we recite these words: It [the Torah] is a Tree of Life for those who hold it with strength, and all who support it are happy. I don’t know that we can find happiness just now in holding up the folks at Tree of Life, and by extension all who are hurting, but I do know we must do so.
  • I spent some time today on Boston Common, attending the Vigil in memory of those lost in the Tree of Life shooting. I’m not a natural at these big gatherings. I get claustrophobic, so I like to keep moving. This means I get to see who is there and observe how people are responding. It was moving to see people who were clearly of different religious traditions showing up for us. I hope and pray that we do the same for them, for as long as it takes, until we no longer need to make vigil after vigil for completely avoidable losses. May that day come speedily.
  • The vigil took place just feet away from “Lest We Forget,” Luigi Toscano’s installation of Holocaust portraits on the Common. Nothing more needs to be said about that. Just sit in silence with it for a minute.
  • After the programmed part of the vigil ended, a moment of spontaneous singing erupted, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It started with a small group of people singing, arms around each other and swaying in that Jewish way we can all picture. I didn’t recognize the song but I wanted to be in that moment. The circle quickly opened and grew, as more and more people were drawn in to participate. What started with a fistful of people ended up with probably close to 200. We just kept stepping back and opening our arms. We’ve been hearing a lot about how the shooter was upset about the congregation’s commitment to HIAS and to welcoming and assisting immigrants (as no doubt, many of them had been welcomed and assisted themselves). And we’d just been reading in yesterday’s Torah portion about Abraham’s model of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). The metaphor was alive and powerful. And then we sang Rebbe Nachman’s words about the world being a very narrow bridge and the essential thing being to have no fear at all. Bracing and beautiful.

I still have fear.

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