I am a victim, a witness and a survivor of the worst massacre in the history of the American Jewish community, and I am the Rabbi of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh.
In the time since the tragedy there, I sometimes find it challenging to separate personal, subjective feelings from being objective due to my presence there that day. As a leader in my community, what words of wisdom can be offered that are not tinged with my own grief, borne of both my experiences and the deep loss that I feel for 11 beautiful souls martyred in our synagogue?
The massacre in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, tore the scab off the wound, revealing pain and suffering that I thought I had processed. That day, and subsequent days, taught me that I will forever carry with me October 27, 2018 — when my own place of worship was attacked — and be regularly reminded of it. But they also taught me that what I do with these deep-seated feelings is my choice to make. I know there are times when the narrative is in charge, and yet other times when I can try to effectively direct that narrative.
How does a Rabbi respond? How does one inspire and guide others? There is no playbook to refer to, no Rabbinic colleague to share their personal experience, no prior reflections upon which to ruminate. Yet my deep abiding faith grew even greater. I turn to God daily for support, guidance and inspiration. It was apparent from the beginning that my being spared had to lead to action, that the 11 must not have died in vain.
As I take a step back to take it all in, permit me to share my view from 30,000 feet. After the horror in Tree of Life, I took an oath a scant two weeks later at a rally at Point State Park, in downtown Pittsburgh, that stated that the word “hate” is an obscenity, just like other four-letter words. I, and many others, now refer to it as the “H word.”
H speech frequently leads to violence, as it did in Pittsburgh and, alas, other places. When we tone down our rhetoric, though, we lessen the emotional impact of our words, and perhaps steer ourselves and others away from the wrong path. If you don’t like something, I urge you not to say “I ‘H’ it.” Rather, say: “I don’t like it.” This simple act is necessary to restore civil discourse to our society, buffeted as it has increasingly been by too much uncivil discourse.
More than anything, H speech reveals the unhappiness of its author, who foists anger, disappointment and insecurity upon another group and who is unable to personally deal with life’s challenges. When you blame others for what happens to you, you transfer your perceived victimhood to them — in this case, the Jewish community — and they then become the victims and the victimizers at the same time. This demonstrates the absurdity of anti-Semitism: those who speak and act from bigotry try to come across as victims, with the Jewish people as the source of their problems. The Jewish people, victims of this eternal plight, respond and make the bigot feel even more victimized.
The Jewish community is resilient, having faced, and continuing to face, numerous forms of anti-Semitism, one of the oldest forms of H speech in existence. But while H speech is not going to disappear any time soon, I have seen that it does not remotely reflect the attitude of all the people on this planet. Within minutes of the massacre at Tree of Life, words of love flooded my email and social media accounts. Strangers of different faiths shared in their grief and dismay, and offered comfort, strength and hugs. The sheer volume of communication from people across the planet, which continues unabated, offers a loving reminder that the vast majority of human beings on this planet are good, decent people. They felt my pain, and could not understand how a fellow human being could inflict such carnage upon other human beings. They wanted to reassure me that this is not a reflection of humanity, but an aberration. And they are right.
All people across the globe desire the same things for themselves and their families: a safe place to live, work and worship; sufficient food and clothing; access to good medical care; the opportunity to be the best they can be without restrictions; a government that has their best interests at heart, that acts upon those interests; and joyous moments of celebration. This is just the short list. We are all far more alike than different, and the outpouring of global love has reassured me that we are good, and that the scales of life cannot be severely tilted towards the bad because of the heinous acts of one person.
Unfortunately, the pain cannot be eliminated, as we sadly have learned from Parkland and Newtown and now Christchurch. There are times when I just cannot drive by the Tree of Life. (We are currently worshipping in a different synagogue.) I find myself detouring to avoid seeing the building. The process of healing is not a constant upward line on a graph, but more like the peaks and valleys of an oscilloscope.
Yet musicians send me beautiful compositions that they say they were inspired to compose so that they could both speak to their grief and offer their solace. Artists have created, and continue to create, moving tributes and beautiful works that defy words. The good and decent people continue to appear on a daily basis, reminding me that they, too, want to help in the healing process, that the tarnish can be removed with gentle buffing, that the community of mourners extends far beyond Pittsburgh.
Although the timetable is uncertain, the Tree of Life will reopen. We must reopen, for if we do not, then H wins. To paraphrase former Senator Alan Simpson’s eulogy for President George H. W. Bush, H corrodes from the inside. It can overcome you until you don’t even recognize it. We cannot allow that to happen. The Tree of Life has been in Pittsburgh for 155 years, and we will be here for 155 years more — shining, as people have done for us, a beacon of love to all.
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