The Torah helps us understand events like the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting

Rabbi David Lister unpacks the Jewish attitude to tragedy

October 30, 2018 09:56

The world has been saddened and shocked by the senseless massacre of worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The morning when a baby should have been named in hope and love was turned into a nightmare of hate, killing and maiming.

Our hearts are burdened as we imagine the agony of the wounded, the shattering grief of the bereaved. We despair at the stubborn prevalence of simplistic xenophobia and its bloody outcomes.

The Torah, in its subtle, understated way, takes us a stage further in our understanding of and reaction to such terrible events. To unpack the Jewish attitude to tragedy and indeed all that happens to us, we need to travel back in time and across the world to a quiet encounter by a well in a desert.

In this week’s parsha, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant arrives at Aram Naharayim towards evening, when the girls are coming out to draw water from a well near the city. He stops at the well and prays (Genesis 24:12):

Lord God of Abraham! Cause it to happen to me today!

The Hebrew for ‘cause it to happen’ has unexpected links. The 19th-century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives a deeper explanation of this term. He links the Hebrew k-r-h meaning to ‘happen’ with the Hebrew k-r-‘, meaning to ‘call’. Eliezer wanted something to happen that would constitute a divine call guiding him to make the right choice.

But this term was not just for Eliezer. It was for us too.

In the vocabulary of Torah, no event is just a ‘happening’, and most definitely not ‘chance’. Rather, every event, every mikreh, is a call to us.

A mundane event, the fact of having food on the table or being able to get out of bed, calls us to celebrate the gifts that make our day to day life possible.

Thus, we say blessings every morning for things that most people take for granted: for having clothes, for being able to move, for having a dry and firm surface on which to stand or sit.

A happy event calls us to give thanks and to appreciate how blessed we are. We bless God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach the joy of this moment. If the happiness extends to others, we celebrate God as the source of all goodness.

As evil pours from the keys on a keyboard or the barrel of a gun, we are also called. God calls us most urgently to help the afflicted, the bereft, the needy, the homeless, to do what it takes, even at personal inconvenience or expense, to bring relief and comfort. Feeling sorry or afraid is not enough.

Now, as our hearts reach out over three and a half thousand miles to the broken families in Pittsburgh, we are conscious again that we are being called to do many things.

We are called to write a letter of condolence to the community.

We are called to pray for the wounded, the dead and the heartbroken lost in the fog of mourning and misery that feels like it will never rise.

We are called to assert with pride and strength that we are Jews, and that as Jews we strive to carry out the mission given to our father Abraham, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

For those of us who are able, we are called to volunteer for security duty in our communities, standing firm in the face of hostility and protecting all that is dearest to us.

As Jews across the world are tempted to hesitate to come to shul or to go to learn Torah, to gather as Jews to do good or just to feel good, we are called to assert and celebrate our Jewish identity.

We are called to attend our services and sing loud and strong. We are called to ponder our Torah and the deep messages of goodness it offers to counter the evil that festers in our world. We are called to treat each mitzvah with extra care and appreciation, understanding that they tip the balance of good and evil at a time when evil is on the rise.

We are called.

David Lister is rabbi at Edgware United Synagogue

October 30, 2018 09:56

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