This piece was written on the 18 of Heshvan, November 5, 2020 on the second yahrzeit of the eleven Jews whose lives were taken in Pittsburgh.
“And all accept the yoke of heaven upon them…” These words in the Shaharit service hold a different meaning today, the second yahrzeit of the eleven Jews killed here in Pittsburgh, recited in a room with the sister of one of the martyrs and the niece of another, members of all three congregations present. Oddly, there are eleven adult worshippers and two kids today- how did it happen that though we asked many to come so our minyan could be in person as well as on Zoom, the numerical count of the living equaled that of the dead?
This is one of the many mysteries, here in this room, a plaque on the wall newly dedicated to the three slain members of our congregation. Another – where do people get the strength? My husband a survivor of the attack recites the blessing which offers praise to God for giving “strength to the tired.” The Haftarah last week from Isaiah 40: 27- 41:16 contains the words, “they shall run and not be weary”(40:31); I’ve always found them inspiring but more so when read by a woman who had her adult bat mitzvah on this portion 4 years ago and survived the attack that killed her brother and comes to synagogue every week. I feel buoyed by the strength and fortitude of those who are clinging to the words of our sacred texts and traditions.
Do I have the strength? One of the things I try hard to do is strengthen myself and others, to teach others that they can grasp for more knowledge, learn more, do more. I broke my ankle over the summer and spent many weeks in physical therapy that wore me out and exhausted me when I started and felt empowering by the time I ended – I wonder whether there will be a similar, if much much lengthier process with grieving over our community’s trauma. The difference being that there is not an expert on the musculature and makeup of the human body to say that if these exercises are done in this order for this amount of time, a change will be wrought. Nothing so exactly formulated exists for the psyche.
But in the meantime, I do make efforts and have done unfamiliar things, spoken to people and groups I might not have in the past, and started to see myself not just as someone with ideas for programs and how to plan them, but who can ensure they are carried out. I’ve wanted for years to invite Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel here to speak because of her unique combination of accessible theology and Jewish learning. She is famous for having told those praying for the safe return of her son and two other kidnapped boys in Israel in 2014 that prayers are not in vain even if they are not answered as we wish, that we are not entitled to force God’s hand, that as humans we don’t understand how the world is run, that “God doesn’t work for us.”
Fraenkel is a voice of sincere, authentic Jewish theology, grounded in the Jewish texts she teaches at two schools for women and in being concerned about how the faith of others will be impacted by tragic events, a voice I thought would be helpful here. I was honored to introduce her as she spoke by Zoom on October 27. When I hear someone like her who seems to have both immense strength and immense humility I understand what endurance is possible.
I think differently now about other parts of the siddur too. When the morning service speaks of God’s making a covenant with Abraham to take him out of Ur Kasdim, a place of fiery furnaces and fathers sacrificing children, I wonder about the meaning of the covenant. Is it the agreement to risk all to live openly as a Jew in this world? Is it to expose yourself to the forces of lawlessness that feel they can twist any situation to their liking so that they ultimately come out ahead despite the legality of a claim? Is that what this covenant is guaranteeing us if we cling to the characteristics of Jews in Yevamot 79a: being merciful, being able to be ashamed and doing acts of kindness?
The prooftext for “acts of kindness” is from the reading for this week, the command to Abraham in Genesis 18:19, “For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him and they shall keep the way of the Lord to do justice and judgment.”
The sense of what this covenant is about and the risks it can entail has never felt stronger to me than in these moments at the Shaharit service with the 10 others, two of whom survived the attack, 2 are close relatives of those who survived. One is one of my adult bat mitzvah students – this week is her mother’s yahrzeit and she had been on her way to shul that October 27, 2018 morning, but a phone call from her brother delayed her and she never left her house. Her life spared, her commitment to having an adult bat mitzvah and studying for it was retained.
Two others are here who were outside the building on their way in when the attack happened. Another has greatly increased his commitment to the synagogue in the time since the attack. All of us are running and somehow not wearied all the time, though certainly, I feel it at many moments. In fact, at the grocery store last night, the person in front of me grabbed my cart to tug it up the slight hill we were ascending because he could see physically that I was having a hard time. That small act of assistance almost brought me to tears.
The Torah portion for this week, Genesis 18-22, contains the binding of Isaac, the notion that Abraham it seems was willing to risk his progeny and the hope that his teachings of justice and judgment would live on into the future if that was the command of God. In a class at Matan this week, Avivah Zornberg suggested this as a therapeutic corrective, almost doing the act without completing it, to work through the violence Abraham had experienced as a child in Haran. This is a most optimistic view of the portion – but what about when Jews are actually sacrificed without the chance to rework their traumatic moments?
This year, I see not just the sorrow of the trauma of the almost sacrifice, but the joy at the beginning of the portion, the annunciation of the birth of Isaac. Sarah says, merrily, “after I am grown old I shall have pleasure,” the unexpected delight in a joy she had never thought she could experience.
For us, too, as we leave the Shaharit service, we dash home to watch the bris of our newest family member, given his name Shimon Lev Nielsen in London. This name, “hearing heart” or “heart that is heard” seems to indicate a way to access all needed to function well in our world. Knowing that even as we mourn those lost, new lives are being welcomed into the world creates joy that hadn’t been present before, all 70 Zoom screens bursting into a chorus of “siman tov u’mazel tov” to create a community not possible in real life since London is under lockdown and the only ones physically present at the bris were the mohel, father, mother, and baby.
At a two year remove from the atrocity we experienced here, I want to step back and remember the wonderful lives of the eleven Jews killed only for being Jews praying collectively on Shabbat. I want to appreciate them for the positive and joyful moments they experienced and provided to others. Unfortunately, in human life, we have to experience all of the ecstatic and horrible moments that life provides. The book of Ecclesiastes famously has a chapter containing oppositions, birth and death, crying and laughter, eulogizing and dancing. The contrast to killing is healing (Ecclesiastes 3:3 ), a juxtaposition one might not expect to flow naturally. In the class given to our Pittsburgh community, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel used the word “rectification” to speak about what the possible paths are that humans can take when evil leaps up. That makes sense to me, that if there is killing which implies violence, there needs to be something delicate, a healing, that will rectify the situation. Violence can’t be undone, only healed.
So for now, I will allow that part of the acceptance of the covenant of heaven is this awareness that healing exists even if it does not fully feel that it has made its way to my family or my congregation. My ankle is mostly healed, though when I overdo walking or carrying heavy things, the pain flares up. This “yahrzeit season” stretching from the first volunteer efforts on October 25 to our dedication of a monument at our New Light cemetery on November 8 feels like an overload of pain. But I know too that there will be healing, in time.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.