Tree of Life Massacre: One Year Later

I once knew someone who, in every Jewish gathering, no matter what the context, would pose the question, “But what about the Holocaust?”

One might respond to such a refrain with a certain degree of tired cynicism, but the more I think about it, the more relevant her question becomes. 20th century German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously asserted, “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” — “following Auschwitz, writing poetry is an act of barbarism.” There is something to be said for this.

Indeed, as we advance down the long corridor of Jewish history, the question, “but what about the Holocaust?” which is really code for, “But what of the suffering of the righteous?” remains all too relevant. Buried deep within even our happiest moments, is always the question of the seemingly inexplicable vicissitudes that our people have suffered throughout history. Today, especially, we recall the horrors of this time last year.

This week marks one year since the murderous rampage at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh put a violent and horrific end to the lives of eleven innocent Jews who were gathered together to worship G-d.

And so even, on the heels of the joy completing the reading of the book of Devarim and beginning our Torah cycle anew, we must contemplate this all-important query following a year which, as American Jews, was so difficult, with the tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway, reciting Hazzak, Hazzak at the end of our completion of the Torah should remind us that to continue living, praying, and worshiping as a Jewish community is truly an act of courage and commitment. We need to – and must – find strength and inspiration, amidst the seemingly absurdist and cruel chaos of our times.

From where can we draw this strength and inspiration? Certainly, from each other. And I would argue that our portion this morning actually has much to say on the subject of the cruel, senseless torture of the righteous. As we begin our annual Torah reading cycle anew, we can find hints of these tragedies buried in our biblical source material.

In this morning’s Torah portion, we read of the first instance of homicide – a fratricide, no less. This first recorded homicide in the Torah was, in fact,  occasioned by the first-ever recorded, well-intentioned act of worship. Upon perceiving G-d’s more positive response to his brother Abel’s sacrifice to the Divine, Cain, beset by jealousy and rage, sets upon his brother and cruelly extinguishes his corporeal life.

The homicide of Abel by Cain – the first homicide in the history of mankind as presented in the Bible, is, sadly, not something unfamiliar to those of us living so many thousands of years later.  Reading of this quite senseless and violent snuffing out of life immediately calls to mind accounts of seemingly countless other murderous attacks carried out across the world, and especially those which have occurred close to home in north America, many  taking place specifically in houses of worship.   And certainly for us in particular, we are reminded of the horrific slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue which tore at our hearts just one year ago and continue to haunt us.

A deranged gunman charged into the back of the sanctuary of the Tree of Life synagogue. He was furious at the assembled group of Jews and wanted only to end their lives. What was their offense? Serving their G-d as Jews and supporting HIAS, championing the stranger, the countless immigrants and refugees among us.

Last year, Sylvie Anderson, one of the extraordinary bnei mitzvah students with whom I had the pleasure to work in my previous community in Halifax, filled our community’s hearts with much-needed inspiration and encouragement when she embarked upon a tremendous undertaking to improve the conditions of refugee camps through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Sylvie was inspired to take action when she learned, via a translator the heartbreaking story of a classmate of hers who was a newly-arrived Syrian refugee to Canada and was brutally taunted for being different by some of her new Canadian classmates.  Sylvie’s work was too special not to celebrate and share before her bat mitzvah day proper.  I invited her to be our guest darshanit (to deliver the Shabbat morning sermon) on November 3, 2018, a month prior to her scheduled bat mitzvah date.

November 3 arrived, and it could not have been a more appropriate time to heed Sylvie’s prophetic call to action. Little did we know at the time of our planning that November 3, 2018 would come to be known as “Show Up for Shabbat,” or “Solidarity Shabbat,” in the aftermath of the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue, just a week later.  Our normally modestly-full, large sanctuary was packed to capacity; Jews alongside non-Jewish neighbours; community members who never feel drawn to attend services – they were all there, listening to the words of this incredible young woman, eyes welling with tears.

Upon delivering her talk, Sylvie’s words were met with a thundering applause. Normally, I cringe at applause during Shabbat or holiday services, as applause implies a more passive stance, relegating those in attendance to the status of mere audience members. But that morning, I understood completely what each person felt hearing Sylvie’s words. I did not applaud, but I offered her our traditional words of congratulations upon completing a ritual honour or teaching words of Torah, “yasher kocheykh,” which could be translated literally as “may your strength be firm!”  In these times, we could all use some more strength, and we pray for those at the forefront of these efforts, such as Sylvie, that their inspiration and strength should be renewed and increased.

We have on-the-ground work to do in this world, healing the infinity of broken hearts, trying to spread justice.  But we return again to the source of this suffering – how can we explain G-d’s role in the hurt of the Divine creation?

Our sages teach that although G-d is the omniscient and omnipotent Master of the Universe, humankind is given free will.  In the timeless words of Ethics of the Fathers 3:15, “All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted.”

In Gen. 4:7, one of the most of those perplexing and difficult to understand verses of the Torah (as affirmed by BT Yoma 52a-b), G-d seems to remind Cain that the opportunity to do right is in his hands, but that the opportunity to sin remains ever-present before him.

From the second half of the 20th century, the number one reason for embracing atheism given by Jews who have lost faith is the Holocaust. But in truth, the Holocaust, or any other atrocity across the world, is a magnified version of Cain killing Abel.  We’ve always known that G-d gives people free will, and with their G-d-granted free will, they will do the wrong thing at some time.

We are humans, not angels; angels are pure agents of the Divine will, but we are our own agents. Our  divinely granted,  uniquely human free will means that when we do the right thing, we have ample occasion to rejoice and take pride, but we will also inevitably falter in our decision-making and misread our moral compass from time to time. So many of these moral misfires can be traced back to the core vices of greed and jealousy.

We  are even and especially jealous with our love.  Which brings us to another example of intentional cruelty against the innocent from this morning’s Torah portion: the devious scheme of the serpent against Adam and Eve.

If you carefully read the second account of the creation of humanity, you will notice that the creation of Eve, the first woman mentioned in the Torah, happens only after the creation of all of the animals.  The second account of the creation of mankind, as noted by Certain commentators, including later German-American-Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod in his provocative essay, “Revenge of the Animals,” implies that Adam, the first man, had long been searching for a fitting life-partner. In other words, by the time Eve entered the scene, Adam had already “done the rounds,” so to speak, co-habiting with every other living creature and finding no satisfaction in any of them.  Upon encountering Eve, Adam loses no time in declaring, that this “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” is the one. Read this way, the serpent’s cunning and ill-intentioned plot, specifically targeted to harm innocent Eve, can be understood as fueled by her tremendous jealousy at being spurned by Adam. Perhaps without coincidence, in Aramaic, the name for the serpent is Chiva, not too dissimilar from Chava, the Hebrew name for Eve.

While the serpent did not directly kill Adam and Eve, she certainly contributed to their (and their descendants’) fate to become mortal beings, with a definitive expiration date on this physical earth. She is also, according to the story, responsible for the onus of our knowing too much as human beings. Unlike Cain, who is sentenced to a life of endless wandering, the serpent is punished by limited mobility, losing her imagined original legs and slithering across the earth on her belly for the rest of time. In harming others, both Cain and the serpent are harmed, but never nearly as much as their victims who will never again be safe.

And so, this morning’s Torah portion has everything to say about the timeless question of the righteous suffering. We learn that the very first humans are fated to exile, and we continue to inherit this exilic status with each passing generation, not only as Jews, but as also and especially as mortal humans. How painfully ironic that our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life synagogue were targeted specifically because they were championing the plight of the refugees among us.

Only (possibly) second to the current, exploding climate crisis, I would argue, is our current global refugee crisis. We inhabit a world with more displaced people than ever before in recorded human history.   Specifically, there are presently over 40 million internally displaced people, 25.4 million refugees, and 3.1 million asylum seekers. Additionally, there are 10 million stateless people, 128 countries who need help, 102, 800 people resettled, and 44,400 people forced to flee their home a day.  Our world is rent asunder by unprecedented rates of domestic homicide, war-ravaged regions, and government-sponsored mass-killings all over the world. Next week, we hope to read from the portion of Noach, where we read of the earth “filling with violence.” One must wonder if we’re already there.

Our protest will be showing up to pray. Our protest will be applying our Jewish values and protecting those displaced from their homes. You can start by donating to HIAS and/or volunteering to help refugees.

Remarks from my Torah introduction to Parashat Bereshit, October 26, 2019.

About the Author
Raysh Weiss, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County, PA. (Author photo by Ann Silver)
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