Pittsburgh: reassurance and reality

What to tell our kids?  Everything will be ok. You’ll be safe. And yet, as much as we want to reassure them, what shall we tell them about the reality?

Incitement is on the rise. Hate is being activated. Uncontrollable Jew-hatred was the motivation of the mass-murderer last Shabbat in Pittsburgh. We should take killers at their word. Anti-Semitism is vivid. And also hatred is violently targeting those who are of a different race, gender, ethnicity, identity, nationality, ideology, theology. And yet…respecting the dignity of difference is also on the rise.  Witness the heartfelt support coming from Pittsburgh’s civic, faith-based, and public leaders.

This is not the first time we are dealing with contradictory forces related to belonging.  In this week’s portion of Torah, Abraham self-describes as a resident-alien (ger v’toshav) when he tends to the burial of his wife Sarah (Gen. 23:4).  The locals reassure him, but he isn’t sure about the reality.   Does he truly belong or is merely being tolerated.  Moreover, the identity of resident-alien remains prominent in Torah law (Lev. 25:35, 47).  But what is astonishing is that it never goes away.  At the height of our biblical sovereignty, King David declares that we remain resident-aliens (gerim v’toshavim) in the Bible’s closing books (I Cron. 29:15).  Precarious belonging never ends.

Contempt for Jews also, alas, appears endless.  But there is something new today.  All around we feel a deepening engagement and affection coming from those who are not Jewish.  This dramatically different trend is also part of the reality we should share with our kids.   It is a life-force that is fresh and faith-warming. 

It was a privilege to be in Pittsburgh this week to help bury those whose lives were cut short and to embrace mourners.  I was particularly moved by the loving presence of those who practice different faiths, originate from different lands, and live in very different neighborhoods.  A Pittsburgh police officer came to Shiva to console the parents and sisters of Cecil and David Rosenthal.  This moving encounter has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times over the past week.  It too is the reality of the world in which we live.

Our kids need to know reality and reassurance.  They need to know that the lives of eleven precious souls were cruelly ended last Shabbat.  They also deserve to know just how pervasive goodness and generosity and caring are in our world.  May we lend our willing hearts and hands to activating this source of promise and hope in the days ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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