We are All Sitting Shiva Now

This has been a paralyzing week. I was getting ready for our own Shabbat gathering last Saturday–we have a rotating set of study groups that meet on Shabbat morning; that Shabbat was Talmud study–when Yohanna texted me the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It was a bit surreal. One the one hand, I was on edge (I dropped and broke a coffee mug!). I put in calls to the police department and was extra cautious about the door and people coming in. At the same time, we had a lively, engaged, deep study of one of our most sacred texts.  The morning made stark the reality of contemporary Judaism: A commitment to Jewish life, tradition, and community–but the need to do that on the defensive, mindful of those who would seek to do us harm.

Later that day I send off a message to the congregation and on my blog, and decided that once Sunday school ended the next day we would open up our doors to be together. (If I didn’t have a wedding that night, I probably would have invited everyone to come then for havdalah.)

The gathering on Sunday was moving and healing. The sanctuary was full. We sang songs, recited prayers, shared some words, and we built community by turning to our neighbors our stories, our hopes, and our fears. I apologize to those who did not hear of it in time, and I thank those who joined us. Now, though, we continue the mourning process.

As Jews, we bury our dead as soon as we can, and the burial ushers in the formal period of mourning. The first seven days of mourning–shiva–are the most intense, and it is during this period that a mourner traditionally does not leave the house but rather accepts visitors at home.

While those killed in Pittsburgh do have their immediate families, the funerals were community affairs. And as the burials are completed and shiva begins, there is a feeling that we are all sitting shiva–all feeling the intensity of the loss, all wanting to remove ourselves from our daily activities, all wanting to just be in contact–and supported–by others.

The outpouring of support has been tremendous. And at the same time, the first few days back in the office I felt like I was going through the motions. I was obsessed with the news. I was not concentrating on my to-do list, which included responding to all those who sent me messages. I felt drained.

But this is what shiva is all about. Perhaps we were all going to work but feeling “off,” running errands yet weighted down by a heavy sadness.

Shiva does not end the mourning process; indeed, in Jewish tradition we never fully “end” mourning. We go from shiva to shloshim (the 30-day mark) to yahrtzeit (the yearly anniversary). We are continually in a state of remembrance. But because of time, the mourning process changes. We mourn lost lives but we celebrate life itself. We remember the past, but note how that past informs our present and future.

The events in Pittsburgh will reverberate for us for time to come. Now we are mourning. But the time will come when we will look upon these events that will have become a part of who we are. What will be the result? Perhaps there will be a deeper understanding of anti-Semitism–its existence and how it operates–by us and our allies. That the familiar trope of a people more powerful than their numbers manipulating society is being echoed publicly in political discourse, sanctioned in a way we have not seen in recent history. And that anti-Semitism is a fuel for white supremacy, which also has people of color, immigrants, Muslims and others as its target, and thus our oppression is tied to the oppression of others.

And perhaps the events will reevaluate how we commit to Judaism and Jewish community. For as history has shown, while individual Jewish communities have been threatened, Judaism itself has survived.

If you hadn’t had a chance to see my previous comments, you can read them on my blog here. I read them again on Sunday, yet added a few more observations.

The first is, because of the killer’s professed anger at HIAS, a Jewish organization that works with immigrants and refugees, the members of Tree of Life synagogue were attacked not only for being Jews but for being Jews who supported immigrant justice. The commitment to tikkun olam, to a better world, to the dignity of each human being–this was anathema to the killer.

And the second is while we mourn the attacks on the Jewish community, a community with which we identify, we also note that it was not the only act of violence last week. Two African-Americans were killed in an supermarket in Kentucky after the killer was unable to get into a black church, and a man in Florida allegedly mailed pipe bombs to top Democratic targets. We are thus connected to other targets of violence and hate.

Witnessing what happened in Pittsburgh also brought me back to my summer social justice-themed road trip. During our driving in the south, we stopped in Birmingham, AL to pay our respects at the 16th Street Baptist Church where, in 1963 four young girls were murdered when a member of the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb on a Sunday morning. A previous instance of terror during sacred time at sacred space.

A few days after the bombing a joint funeral service was held, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King offered a eulogy. He shared these important words:

And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.…They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

This, too, we learn from Pittsburgh. Vitriol and invective has turned to violence. A system is at hand that is producing murderers. We can not stop at rooting out those who would commit such acts of terror. We need to root out the conditions that make this possible. We need to substitute courage for caution: courage in living as Jews in the face of anti-Semitism, courage in reaching out to our neighbors, courage in standing up against the forces of hate.

This week we mourn for the loss of 11 Jewish lives. We mourn for the violent demonstration of anti-Semitism. We mourn for a shattered sense of comfort and acceptance. And we mourn for all victims of hate.

This week we sit shiva.

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