Searching for Light after Terror

This has been a trying time for the Jewish People. Eleven innocent Jews were savagely murdered while attending services on Shabbat morning. What is there to say in the face of such sadness, darkness and gloom?

This past week’s Torah portion begins with the death of Sarah. Just a few paragraphs earlier we read about Abraham’s binding of Isaac on the altar. The great biblical commentator, Rashi, explains:

“The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the “binding,” that her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered her soul flew out of her, and she died.”

There is only one problem. Isaac didn’t die. He was absolutely fine. Why did Sarah pass away from this news?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that although Isaac was not physically sacrificed on the altar he was profoundly transformed by the experience. Sarah understood that this traumatic event would forever change her son and she was overwhelmed with sadness. Her feelings of anguish were ultimately too much to bear and she passed away.

Like Sarah and Isaac, we are at risk of feeling as though our lives will never be the same. The feeling of safety that we enjoy in America was shattered by a lone gunman in Pittsburgh. There are dizzying thoughts running through our minds; Is it still safe to go to attend synagogue services? Where will the ugly face of anti-Semitism rear its head next? Should armed guards be a permanent fixture in synagogues across the country?

In Sheryl Sandberg’s powerful book, Option B, she notes that the famous psychologist, Martin Seligman, explained that people suffering from loss and trauma struggle to climb out of their grief because of three “P’s”: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.

People tend to blame themselves – personalization. People tend to think that their feelings of sadness will creep into every facet of their life – pervasiveness. People tend to think their grief will never go away – permanence.

It is easy at these moments to relate to the last two “P”s. Anti-Semitism and radical forms of Islam seem to be everywhere we look. Evil feels both pervasive and permanent.

I personally felt this acutely when I was talking to my two older children (9 and 6 years old) about the attack. My wife and I were unsure whether to share with them what happened. However, we felt that it was likely they were going to hear about it from their friends, so we decided to inform our children first. At least we could assuage some of their fears.

I found myself reassuring my children that their school is safe by telling them that the windows in their school are bulletproof and that two armed guards protect their campus.

As I was speaking with my children, my heart was throbbing. How truly sad that schoolchildren must be protected by armed guards!

It is easy to fall into a trap of despair.

However, Sandberg also writes that it is possible rise above the grief of trauma. She writes that it all boils down to one word, Gratitude.

At a commencement speech a few years ago, Sandberg echoed the same sentiments:

“People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings. My New Year’s resolution this year is to write down three moments of joy before I go to bed each night. This simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to sleep thinking of something cheerful.”

Despite the terrible loss we suffered this week, despite the vulnerabilities we now feel, there is much to be thankful for. In fact, last week’s attack has allowed us to see firsthand how much good there is in this world.

There are three areas in particular for which we can be grateful.

Number One: We live in a country that is overwhelming welcoming and tolerant of Jews. On November 9, 1938, when synagogues throughout Germany were burned and ransacked, the German police stood idly by. On Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018, moments after news of the shooting took place, our local police department dispatched an officer to ensure our synagogue was protected.

I was heartened to read how the Pittsburgh Penguins, put the Star of David on their uniforms in a symbol of unity. The Pittsburgh Steelers observed a moment of silence before they began their game on Sunday to mark the loss of the 11 Jews who were killed the day before.

We cannot let the evil of the few turn into a pervasive feeling that we are hated and despised. It is simply not true. We remain blessed to live in a kind, supportive and secure country.

Number Two:  I am thankful to be part of the incredible Jewish People that unite when it counts. If our enemies don’t care about our denomination, neither should we. Thousands of Jews from across the religious spectrum gathered at vigils throughout the country to express solidarity.

A Jew is a Jew. It is unfortunate that it takes massacres to be reminded of this fact, but at very least we can show our gratitude for the privilege to be a member of our eternal nation where a deep feeling of family permeates to the outermost link of our chain.

Number Three: Lastly I am thankful to live at a time in Jewish History when our nation is pulsating with vigor and strength as never before. Yes, it’s true; it’s awful that armed security personnel must protect my children’s Jewish day school. Yet, at the same time, these guards are protecting a school of over 1000 students! 1000 boys and girls who spend their day immersed in Torah study – and this is just one of many many Jewish day schools in the region.

Despite our very real frailties and vulnerabilities, the Jewish People have never been stronger. We have a thriving country to call our own. We have a Jewish army filled with brave and passionate men and women serving their People, and we have more people studying Torah today than ever before. What a privilege it is to live during these exciting times!

Was this a terrible week for the Jewish People? Absolutely.

Will I allow one gunman to traumatize me so that I see the world as pervasively and permanently evil? Absolutely not.

I have too much gratitude to our fellow citizens of the United States of America.

I have too much gratitude for the privilege of being a member of the Jewish People at this particular moment in the Jewish saga.

And I have too much gratitude to the Almighty for showering me, my family, my community and my People with so many blessings.

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi at Young Israel of Fort Lee in Fort Lee, NJ.