We must reach through the darkness

This was one of the darkest Shabbatot I can remember. Far from bringing a sense of Shalom, this Shabbat brought hate and evil wreaking death and destruction. In a place of sanctuary, a synagogue where a community had gathered to celebrate life’s blessings, and God’s myriad gifts, including the gift of a new baby boy, the joy and gratitude were shattered. So too were the lives of eleven worshippers, countless others including First Responders, and in truth, a community, a nation, the Jewish People, and a world. I know of few in my various circles, both within the Jewish community and beyond, who are not shaken to their core by the brutality and evil wrought upon the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on an otherwise calm Shabbat morning. Much has been written about this horrific chapter and more surely will be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead. For me, there was some comfort to be found in the outpouring of consolation and support —  or the Jewish community in Pittsburgh; for Jews throughout our community here in the Boston area; and in the gatherings which took place in so many places as people of different faiths and no faith, gathered to stand together in the face of this brutal act of evil.

It was only late in the day on Sunday that I had a chance to catch up on the news reports. There are so many facets of this horror on which to focus. In the midst of the grief, I could not help but feel that the darkness intensified as I learned of reports that Rabbi David Lau, one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis could not bring himself to identify the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh as a synagogue. This struck yet another blow at the heart. In our collective darkness as a people, one Jewish leader, a prominent leader, cannot transcend his narrow views to see his Jewish brothers and sisters, and their sacred sanctuary, for what it is, a synagogue? This cut deeply, as I read in the Israeli Press that “It is impossible for Haredim to recognize a Conservative or Reform synagogue as a real synagogue,” said Israel Cohen, a journalist, and host on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama. “They can’t call the place where the attack happened a synagogue; it can only be a Jewish center.”

I had felt numb all day. In truth, I had felt numb since I first heard of the horrors on Saturday. But this news further cut through that numbness. At the same time, I was reminded of a story that Rabbi Avi Weiss relates in his book, Principles of Spiritual Activism: In the days of King Solomon there lived a two-headed man. Upon the death of his father, the two-headed man became embroiled in a bitter dispute with his siblings over the inheritance. “Since I have two heads,” reasoned the man, “I deserve twice as much of father’s money as the rest of you.” His siblings protested, “Perhaps you have two heads, but you have just one body. Therefore, you deserve only one share.” As you can guess, the dispute was brought before the wise King Solomon who said: “Pour boiling water over one of the man’s two heads. If the second head screams in pain, then we will know he is one person. If not, it will have been determined that the two-headed person is, in fact, two separate individuals.” wherein he concludes, “so it is with our Jewish people. If one in our extended Jewish family anywhere in the world is in pain – in effect, has boiling water poured over his or her head – and if we feel it and scream in pain, then we have proven that we are truly one. If not, we show that we are nothing more than a fragmented and discordant [people.]” As he concludes his retelling of the story, Rabbi Avi Weiss adds: May we always feel the suffering of our fellow Jews – and of all people.”

Sadly, in this time of darkness, some in our Jewish community, including the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, seem not to know this teaching. Perhaps we can link this with a teaching of the early 19th century Rebbe, Chanoch of Alexander, who in commenting on the plague of darkness brought upon Egypt teaches: ”And there was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt. (Exodus 10:21)” Rabbi Chanoch teaches that this darkness is unlike typical darkness. It refers to a period of spiritual darkness. He notes that when the Torah says, ”They could not see one another” (Exodus 10:23)” that the Torah is referring to the case when someone cares only about himself and ignores the plight of others. Such a person cannot see even his brother or sister, let alone his or her neighbor. Hence it is written, ”nor could any person rise from his place (ibid).” Because of this, the Rebbe teaches, such individuals are unable to rise from his or her low spiritual state.”

We are in a time of pain and deep darkness. If, as Jews, we cannot see one another, we need to poke holes in that darkness and let the light in. Beyond our community, we must see our fellow human beings, irrespective of ethnic, racial, religious or denominational differences. If we cannot, then the darkness is even deeper than we know. This is a time of deep pain. Leaders such as those who hold the position of Chief Rabbi must learn to look beyond their narrow perspective. They need to feel the pain of their Jewish brothers and sisters. If they cannot, they should have no standing as authorities for our people! We are a people who must feel one another’s pain. Now is a good time to break through the darkness that divides us.

About the Author
Rabbi Eric Gurvis is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany, with a BA in Sociology and Judaic Studies, and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Eric has served congregations in New York City; Jackson, Mississippi; Teaneck, New Jersey; Massachusetts; and Ashland, MA. He facilitates Mussar groups in congregations throughout the greater Boston area as well as in Western Massachusetts. He is a Faculty member for Hebrew College's Open Circle Jewish Learning program; a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and is a member of the staff and faculty of The Mussar Institute. Eric lives in Sherborn, Massachusetts with his wife, Laura Kizner Gurvis. Eric and Laura have four children, and four grandchildren in whom they take great delight.