With our havdala candles barely extinguished, we began hearing the reports. Unimaginable tragedy. We were frozen, horrified. And then a torrent of emotions. Sadness. Fear. Confusion.
We have encountered tragedy before. As both Americans and as Jews we are no strangers to mass murder. But, this tragedy in Pittsburgh feels different and we are reacting differently. Because this time the killer’s motive was chilling in its specificity: to kill all Jews. In communities across the country there are thousands attending memorial ceremonies, vigils and recitations of Tehillim. No conversation without a reference to that terrible event.
In Pittsburgh, as in all mass shootings, the victims included parents, siblings and best friends. But what is particularly jarring to me is that they were murdered while at prayer, celebrating Shabbos. We too were praying at that time. So were our children. Just like every other Saturday. How easily we can imagine the victims as our own parents, siblings or friends. As Jews we were the targets, wherever we live.
I, and many others, are scared, our fear borne of confusion. Was this event but another in a succession of horrific mass shootings that have plagued America, in schools and churches, concerts and movie theaters? Or is Pittsburgh the beginning of something different? Was this a mini-pogrom, to be followed by others? Are we Jews entering into yet another era of fear and insecurity, as has been the experience of Jews through the ages? After all, in our minds Squirrel Hill is our neighborhood. Does someone living within blocks of the synagogue we attend also harbor such hatred? And for those of us having these fears and concerns, despite hoping dearly that they are unfounded, dare we express them to each other? And to our children?
We find ourselves gathering as a community, seeking to express the care and concern we have for the victims and their families. But as Americans, many of us also acknowledge that, although we grieved, we did not feel this same fear after other mass shootings here in the U.S. As a Jewish community, we have experienced concern and sadness whenever Jews are murdered, such as when Israelis are killed by suicide bombers in cafes or on buses, or by attackers wielding knives in yeshivas or at shuls or bus stops. But, at least for me, these other attacks – while deeply distressing – seemed to fade from my mind more quickly.
And so the question arises: Is it ok to feel more personally affected when the victims’ lifestyles and identities are more similar to our own, and live in the same country as we do? Is our pain primarily for our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, or are we grieving the loss of our perceived personal safety and security as Jews in America? Are we flawed if a significant portion of our reaction to Pittsburgh is actually about ourselves?
Far from being flawed, my sense is that this reaction is natural. It is human. God created us this way. For example, while we adore our friends’ children, those feelings cannot compare to the love we have for our own children. Similarly, we respond with particular emotion when a relative or close friend experiences joy or pain. We even enjoy a special sense of pride upon learning that a celebrity grew up in our neighborhood or when our hometown team wins a championship.
Why, for many of us, is this our response? Rav Shimon Shkop, ztl, in the introduction to his masterpiece Sha’arei Yoshor, observes that we are by nature inherently self-focused. It is extraordinarily difficult to get beyond ourselves. And though we are focused only on ourselves, God gifted us the ability to expand ourselves by embracing others and making them part of ourselves, as well. By loving and caring about others, we are incorporating others into our very being. The deeper the love, the deeper this integration. Perhaps that is part of what is conveyed by the verse in Chumash that describes Adam and Eve as becoming one.
Rav Shkop thus taught that recognizing our inherent self-focus does not justify being selfish or self-centered. To the contrary, this dimension of our nature presents a wondrous opportunity to ever broaden who we are as individuals. By increasing the spectrum of who we love and care for, we incorporate more and more people into who we are. We thereby grow as individuals, and grow as Jews.
The tragedy in Pittsburgh is, for so many of us, intimately personal and thus we feel it so deeply. Its familiarity to us as Jews and its geo-cultural proximity makes its victims closer to each of us. That is natural and it is ok. But, we aspire to develop further, as individuals and as a community. We can achieve this growth by expanding the spectrum of all whose losses we mourn and whose joys we celebrate. Perhaps we can build upon our current grief and fear by seeking to close the distance between ourselves and others.
God forbid there should be more tragedy, for anyone and in any place. But, with this horrific killing in Pittsburgh still so fresh in our minds, we might take a moment to contemplate more profoundly the pain we feel and consider it as a reference for how we hope to feel when others less familiar to us, and less similar to us in many regards, are suffering. Perhaps this contemplation will allow the souls of the victims in Pittsburgh to remain in our hearts. And, God-willing, make us better, holier Jews.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.