These are my remarks this past Monday, November 26, 2018, when I addressed the Pittsburgh Jewish community at their community sheloshim commemoration - the thirty day mark after a death, in this case, eleven deaths. It was very powerful, dignified, and, for me, exceptionally humbling. There were about 800 people in the room - the rabbis and congregants of two of the three synagogues housed at Tree of Life, along with people across the Jewish community and beyond. College students said the names of the dead and lit candles. The mayor was there. A representative of the Israeli consulate in New York spoke. First responders were given a standing ovation and rabbis from every denomination, the head of the Federation, other organizations and the head of the JCC, all got up to offer brief prayers, poems and remarks. A string quartet that rehabilitates banned music played several beautiful, ethereal pieces written by Jews who had themselves suffered tragic circumstances. It seemed like the community was at a pivot point, honoring the dead while needing the permission to return to a semblance of normalcy.
A long time ago across a mighty ocean, a pious man shouldered the sorrows of the world. He lost his job. Many of those he loved died. He was ill and deeply confused. With the last of his savings, he travelled many days to see his Rebbe. You see, this man – this hassid – had always lived with strict ritual observance and intense belief. When his world began to collapse and his faith tottered, he felt there was only once place to go – to his teacher and mentor – to seek an explanation for his great troubles.
He arrived at the Rebbe’s court anxious to understand why all of this befell him. He was escorted into the Rebbe’s study and saw the Rebbe’s radiant face. The hassid poured out his heart. He cried and shared his catalogue of woes. “Why, Rebbe, why is this happening to me? Why?”
When he finished, the two – one standing, the other sitting – were enveloped in silence. The hassid waited and waited for his Rebbe’s verdict. Nothing but silence. The hassid was about to take leave of his Rebbe, feeling more dejected and isolated than ever. Suddenly and without a word, the Rebbe got up, walked around his desk and stood next to his disciple. He held his hand and gently said, “My son, my dear one, I cannot explain why all these tragedies happened to you. No one can. If anyone tries, they are spinning falsehoods. All I can do is stand with you in your suffering.”
I am not a hassid. I am not a Rebbe. I have no disciples. I have not been through the anguish you all have suffered. I, like many of you, was born in Pittsburgh. But I was not raised here. And I was not in the Tree of Life Synagogue. But I am the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who never thought this could happen in America. And I am here to tell you that we are all one family. One Jewish family. One human family. I represent thousands of people around this country and around the world – Jews and non-Jews - who simply want to stand with you in your suffering. Because that’s what a family does. And in crisis, we do it best. In families, we know who shows up for us. We note presence. The Rebbe taught the hassid the gift of simple presence. It was up to him now to be present when others suffered.
In Jewish law, both joy and suffering follow a similar pattern of intensity and incremental change. There is a time for each, as Ecclesiastes
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃
“A time for weeping and a time for laughing. A time for wailing and a time for dancing.”
There is a holiness to the emotions. When we experience them, we must do so fully. There are laws related to the joy one generates around a wedding on the day of the wedding, the week that follows, the month that follows and the year that follows. Joy is not to be experienced and shelved in one day. It is to be savored. It must linger. We move from peak intensity to a slow simmering happiness for a couple as they launch their new lives.
When it comes to mourning, there are laws the day of a funeral, the shiva week after, the commemoration or shloshim a month later and the recitation of a kaddish the year after. Judaism’s great wisdom is helping people move from one stage to the next, honoring their dead through ritual that allows mourners to hold on to the pain while helping them slowly let go. And because we never let go of the great traumas of our lives, we commemorate a yartzheit annually. For as long as we live, we will always say a prayer for those who are no longer with us.
This sensitivity to a mourner’s emotional landscape is encapsulated in two Jewish laws of mourning. During shiva, the mourner always speaks first, not the visitor. The mourner determines the emotional temperature of the moment. And if the mourner does not want to speak at all because of the horror, because of the pain, the two sit in silence. This silence is the silence of the Rebbe in our story. He understood that words can betray, and words can sometimes belittle the depth of our most difficult struggles. Silence is often the more noble and honest response. But the Rebbe understood something even more powerful: the power of presence. We do not let people suffer alone. We show up. We hold a hand. We make the space sacred simply by being there together.
And when the shiva period is over, we invite the mourner to walk around the block, to step outside, symbolically joining the world again. And here, too, we accompany the mourner because re-entry can be much harder than sitting together in the shelter of shared memories, in the comfort of a home. We walk the mourner outside because it is time to re-affirm life, it is time to rejoin the world. But who, I ask you, can really rejoin a shattered world, what mystics call the alma deperuda – a universe of separation and brokenness? On the day of a funeral, it seems impossible to begin mourning. On the last day of shiva, it seems equally impossible to end it.
We all know that sometimes the darkest moments of mourning are when everyone leaves. And the wise organizers of this commemoration understood that a month later is precisely when the hardest emotional work begins. They brought us together in this room. We are here to strengthen broken hearts that they may beat again. We are here to acknowledge and to honor the incredible unity that’s been created in the wake of this tragedy. We are here to hold each other’s hands without the platitude that it will all be alright. Because it won’t. We cannot bring back the eleven precious souls who are no longer with us. We must name evil and dedicate ourselves to fight it. We cannot be afraid of expressing our outrage. At the same time, our mourning teaches us the wisdom of sharing our vulnerability.
And we must stand in awe of the words of the psalmist: Olam Hesed Yibane – the world is held up by kindness. Even coming here, I was struck by this. A few of us at the airport who had all been delayed for more than three hours getting to Pittsburgh started to schmooze. A man traveling for business asked me what was bringing me to Pittsburgh, all of us assessing how critical it was to get there in navigating the hours we waited. We finally got on the plane only to wait an hour and get off again with our luggage. Determined to be with you tonight, I rushed to get a seat on the next and only possible flight that would get me here just in the nick of time. I was stunned when the man I had spoken with, a complete stranger said, “I got a seat on the next flight. I want to give it to you. What you’re doing is more important than what I’m doing.”
By all accounts, for the past month, you too have been held up by such everyday kindnesses. The author, David Gelernter, once wrote, “"If you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out." Just as we extend mourning and don’t rush to normalcy, let us be grateful for the thousand acts of kindness that were precipitated by this tragedy. Let them continue. With each kindness, we honor those who died.
I’d like to conclude with the opening of a poem by Wallace Stevens. I believe it captures what it means to transition back to life, to embrace life and to celebrate it while carrying all of our wounds.
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
Yes is this present sun. Yes. Light is on its way. We are a week away from Hanuka. In the wake of this tragedy, let it be the most meaningful and powerful Hanuka of our lives. If you have never lit a menorah, I encourage you to do so this year - to move from the shiva candle to the Hanuka candles. With each night, with each candle, with each act of light, we tell the world, that darkness has a cure. We must be the light.