In My Own Words: Reflecting on tragedy by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

In July 2019, I took part in a “Lights for Liberty” vigil at Temple Concord after Friday night services. Members of the synagogue were joined by other faith groups in a silent protest against the inhumane treatment of refugees. Earlier that day, I’d suffered another bout of vertigo and asked a synagogue member who lives nearby to drive me to services. I was using my cane and given a chair to sit on during the vigil because it was hard for me to stand. As we all gathered on the lawn outside the building on Riverside Drive, a disturbing thought entered my mind: We made an easy target for a drive-by shooting. One automatic weapon could have mowed us down in minutes – long before we could have run inside for safety. 

Fortunately, there was no violence that night, but reading “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Live Tragedy” edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji revived that memory. The book of essays was published to commemorate the second anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting: 11 members of the three synagogues that met in that building were murdered. It’s thought that the shooter was upset by support offered to refugees and immigrants by one of the congregations. So, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that I wondered if someone might take offense at our vigil. The people who were killed in Pittsburgh, though, were not taking part in a protest at that moment, but getting ready for what was supposed to be an ordinary Shabbat. 

Several writers in the anthology noted that most of us feel that events like that shooting always happen somewhere else – not here, not where we live. I know that feeling except I have to remind myself that’s not true: I know two people who were brutally murdered. Yet, my brain doesn’t want to accept that because it’s too hard to live with that truth. Other writers in “Bound in the Bond of Life” note that, while for some the killings in Pittsburgh seemed an anomaly, for others, it was part of the general pattern of life. They write that even with all the outpouring of love that occurred after the shooting, there was – and is still – hatred in Pittsburgh. But most of the writers aren’t forced to acknowledge that fact daily. That’s true for most of the people reading this column, including me. And while we should count our blessings, we also shouldn’t forget those who do live in fear every day of their lives. 

What was unexpected about the anthology is what it doesn’t contain: There is no list of the 11 people who died. Although people mention a few of them, there are no biographies of each individual. There is a sense that the book doesn’t want to exploit those people’s lives or expose their families to prying eyes. Almost all those who write are a step or two away from the inner circle of grief. They focus on how they felt about the events and learned to deal with them. The book is not about reliving the tragedy, but, as its subtitle notes, reflecting on it as time passes and wounds begin to heal. 

If you are looking for answers about why tragedies like this occur, you won’t find them in these essays. The writers struggle with that because there is no one clear answer. Instead, they look at the ways people can reach out and help each other as a way to create meaning. It’s not enough just to reach out to our own community, though. We must reach out to others, near and far. It’s a daunting task because it is a never-ending one – we will never rid the world of hatred and fear, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As the wise words that appear in Pirke Avot (Words of Our Fathers) note, “You may never complete the task, but you are not free to avoid it.”