This week’s attack in Jerusalem hit a particularly deep nerve.
If you haven’t heard by now, two cousins, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, entered a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday morning with guns and knives, attacking the people who were there in prayer. Five people were killed in the attack: four rabbis who were there for morning prayer services, and the police officer who responded to the scene. Several others were injured and the attackers were killed.
Three of the four rabbis were American-born, one was British. The police officer was a member of the Druze community in Israel. And one of the rabbis killed was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, who was a grandson of the very influential American Orthodox Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
This attack strikes a particularly deep nerve not just because of its brutality, and some of the images circulating from the scene were indeed wrenching. And not just because it is an attack on civilians, something we see all too often across the world in the many conflicts raging. But it strikes a particularly deep nerve because it took place in a synagogue, during a time of prayer.
On the one hand, an attack upon people during a prayer service should not be any more tragic than an attack on people at the grocery store, or at the bus stop, or walking down the street.
On the other hand, an attack at a house of worship feels different, a violation of a sacred space. But not only because it is a space we dedicate as holy—set aside for a special and divine purpose, but because as a sacred space it is a place that we hope to feel particularly safe since it is a place we make ourselves feel vulnerable.
Imagine your own experience in services, in prayer. We take our minds elsewhere. Usually we are not focused on the affairs of the world outside the doors of the synagogue; we attend services as a break from the mundane and day-to-day. Services are a time to be with our community. They are a time to sing and be in silence. They are a time to offer up our deepest wishes and hopes, express our most profound gratitude, give voice to our apprehensions and fears. The time spent in prayer is a time to access our deepest humility.
So to have this attack occur in a time and place in which the victims were in a state of spiritual vulnerability feels especially tragic.
We all pray for a world of peace, but we also pray for a world of safety. We wish to feel safe in our homes, our schools (which makes each and every school shooting all the more terrifying) and in our houses of worship. When that safety is violated in one place, it is violated in all places. With this attack we are reminded of our own vulnerability perhaps, and our own feeling of lack of security. We recognize what it is to be targeted as Jews. And we may feel maybe a little less comfortable the next time we attend services.
Seeing images of tallitot (prayer shawls) and siddurim (prayer books) stained in blood makes this particular attack a part of our story. Those are our sacred objects, sacred words, sacred space violated. We offer up our condolences on the tragic deaths of the worshippers, who were speaking words that we speak when they died. And we offer up our condolences to the police officer, who sought to protect those who were targeted.
This Shabbat, in the wake of this attack, I will seek to honor the victims by once again offering up my most fervent prayers for peace—that all will recognize the futility of hatred and violence, and look upon each other as we all should, as created in the image of God. And at the same time I will seek to reclaim the synagogue for what it must be—a space of safety and comfort where spiritual vulnerability is encouraged but physical vulnerability is absent.