I write these words midway between two Shabbatot. Several days ago, Parashat Vayera, on the 18th day of the month of Cheshvan, a vicious anti-Semite entered the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He carried four weapons with him, including an assault rifle. He shouted, “All Jews must die!” and then brutally murdered eleven precious Jews who were in the midst of their Shabbat prayers. He wounded several others, including four policemen who selflessly rushed in to the building to save Jewish lives.
Several days from now, on the Shabbat of Parashat Chayei Sarah, the 25th day of the month of Cheshvan, we will commemorate the fourth anniversary of another horrible massacre, this one executed by two Palestinians carrying weapons and shouting the Arab equivalent of, “The Lord is great!” This too occurred in a synagogue during prayer but on a weekday, not on a Shabbat. It took place in Har Nof, a neighborhood in the holy city of Jerusalem, Israel. They killed six people. Four Jews died instantly, and a fifth suffered and eventually died almost a year afterwards. And a Druze policeman selflessly entered the building to save Jewish lives but was tragically killed.
There are no adequate words to express a reaction to these two events and to the innumerable similar events in our history. The terrible Kristallnacht comes immediately to mind, especially since it occurred at this exact time of year, eighty years ago, in 1938.
Our reaction to the events of last Shabbat, and to the ones we commemorate and memorialize this coming Shabbat and so many other times during the year, is one of fear, anguish, pain, and grief.
There is fear. For so many generations, Jews have felt secure in the United States of America. We knew anti-Semitism in the “old countries” from which our parents and grandparents originated. We thought that anti-Semitism was eradicated, or at least suppressed in Europe in the years subsequent to the Second World War and the Holocaust. In recent decades, we have learned that anti-Semitism has again reared its ugly head in Europe but somehow convinced ourselves that “it can’t happen here.” But it now has happened here. We will try to do everything that we can to protect the security of our synagogues and schools. But however well protected they may become, the very fact that we need such protection is itself frightening. We will deal with the fear through prayer and through utilizing any physical means available to us to protect ourselves.
But the real challenge in the wake of this terrifying tragedy is dealing with the anguish and the grief and pain. We will resort to prayer, of course, each of us in our own individual way. We will comfort the mourners, and we will help them heal. We will show our gratitude to those of all faiths who have so valiantly come to our rescue at the time of the shooting and who continue to offer us material and spiritual support.
Yet we know how short-lived our feelings are, especially when we can somehow distance ourselves from tragic events by thinking of the victims as different from ourselves. Here lies the danger. The victims of this latest incident are no different from us. They were all Jews, they were parts of our family, their ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, and they shared in the tribulations of our all-too-long Diaspora. Moreover, they were all children of the Lord Himself.
Our enemies do not distinguish between the Jewish victims. During the Holocaust, Hitler and his henchmen made no distinction among their victims. They threw both agnostics and believers into the same furnaces. They shot and killed, tortured and maimed, those who had gone so far as to become apostates in the same manner that they treated those who remained dedicated to traditional Judaism.
Many of us vividly recall the graphic color photographs taken in Har Nof four years ago, of bloodied siddurim, bloodstained prayer books. The Talmud admonishes us to remember, even in the most extreme circumstances, that no person’s blood is redder than the blood of another person. No one’s life is more precious than the life of the other person. The Master of the Universe cherishes us all, and the loss of any life somehow diminishes Him. Every murder is a desecration of the name of the Lord. And if He, so to speak, grieves and mourns for the victims of both Har Nof and Squirrel Hill, so must we grieve and mourn.
Despite the almost uncanny similarities between the massacre of Har Nof and that of Pittsburgh, there are also differences between them. One of them occurred on a weekday, the other on a Shabbat. The talitot worn by the victims of Har Nof were of a different style and size than the ones which enwrapped the victims in Pittsburgh. The victims of the former were all men, mostly of middle-age. The victims in the latter instance included men and women, mostly aged, two brothers and one married couple, and one 97-year-old woman. the Har Nof martyrs were very learned Torah students, meticulously observant of halacha, and numbered several scholars and Torah teachers. The Pittsburgh martyrs were all lay people who were regular and devout participants in a synagogue in which they found sanctity, fellowship, and religious inspiration.
Yet, despite these differences, the pain, anguish, and grief that we feel are identical in both instances. Every Jewish life is precious and irreplaceable. Every Jew, murdered for no other reason than the fact that he or she is a Jew, has sanctified the name of the Almighty.
As we attempt to move on into a better future, we have no more powerful weapon than the Almighty Himself whom we can address in our prayers. To cope with our fears, I suggest that we especially emphasize the phrase in the “postscript” to our Amidah which reads: “As for all who plan evil against me, swiftly thwart their counsel and frustrate their plans.”
And as we attempt to include all Jews in our heartfelt conclusion to the Amidah, let us especially concentrate on the phrase which I place in bold and italicized letters: “Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, lovingkindness and compassion to us and to all of Israel Your people.” Amen!
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.