Mythos & The Meanings of Pittsburgh

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 2, 2018 / 24 Cheshvan 5779 

Each one of us has been affected by the horrible murders of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh this past week. An attack in a synagogue just feels way too close. 

Whether grief, anger, a combination of both….or the myriad of other emotions that have grabbed us…..we know that we need to come together and be with one another.

We invite our entire Neveh Shalom family and our communal friends to join us at 11:00am this Saturday, November 3, following the conclusion of our Shabbat morning prayers, for songs, words and the comforting embrace of our congregational community.

For those seeking a more intimate gathering and one that provides our young children a chance to take concrete action, Rabbi Eve is hosting a Healing Havdallah on Saturday evening from 6:15-7:30pm at her family’s home. Click here to register.

We are here for you – we are here for each other


Rabbi David Kosak
Rabbi Eve Posen
Cantor Eyal Bitton
Jason Kaufman, President
Fred Rothstein, Executive Director



Summary: Rabbi Kosak considers Pittsburgh from a spiritual perspective. He dwells on the purpose of grief and reflects on the difference between ephemeral and enduring anger. Finally, he talks for a moment about some important social action work the synagogue is engaged in.

Mythos & The Meanings of Pittsburgh

It’s already begun. The dead are barely in the ground, and the sparring to explain what led to Pittsburgh is underway. Fear of the other. Lax gun control laws. Insufficient money invested in mental health. White supremacists and nationalists. An increasingly polarized and therefore more violent and intolerant society. Feel free to add your own reason here. After all, a conversation of recriminations has already begun between certain elements in the Israeli and the American Jewish community over this. Haven’t we been here already?

I’ll grapple with these phenomena in a moment. But before going there, let’s just say that personally, it’s been a very painful week. Deep weeping at unexpected moments.

Why is that? It’s not exactly like there is a shortage of massacres in our nation. America has become pretty adept at producing the sort of people who take their advanced weaponry into our churches, our schools, our nightclubs and now our synagogues. There’s nothing new here, and while each of these mass shootings has pained me, this one hurts more.

Simple answers are at hand. Because they are Jews. Because you can identify more deeply with the tragedy. Because your entire family spent a Shabbos in Squirrel Hill. Because a rabbinical school friend used to be a rabbi there. Because it could have been your shul…

I am tempted to say that in addition to the lost souls, what the American Jewish community has lost is our innocence. But even that may not be true. One Jewish friend with whom I spoke has approached this latest shooting from a place of dispassion. He hasn’t experienced this any differently than the countless other tragedies that blacken our nation. A very religious friend, meanwhile, told me she wasn’t really surprised. If you are sensitive to anti-semitism, you are aware that there’s been a real uptick in recent years. It was just a matter of time…

There’s some truth to all of those explanations, all of these meanings of Pittsburgh. Just not enough to explain the world of hurt I have experienced. Great loss is like that. It defies ready explanation. Great loss is an uprooting storm that takes down tall trees. And quick explanations are like trying to plant a new tree before clearing out what went down. It won’t take root till the ground is ready. Grief is a preparation for the new life that must grow in the place of what is lost.

Grief can’t be rushed. It’s safe to say, however, that our national temperament is to do just that. Grief hurts, and we don’t like pain. We run away from it any way we can. We explain it away. We medicate it away. We stuff it away. We anger it away. We fear it away. Basically, we “action” it away in the misguided belief that we can control the path it takes. We get so busy reacting precisely because then we don’t have to feel the enormity of what these deaths mean to us. And they mean a great deal.

There’s a cost to all this. When delayed grief returns, it demands interest, except that the interest becomes a recurring expense to our emotional health that we don’t easily see. You know, like that monthly ding you get from an online music service, or cell-phone bill…it quickly becomes invisible, even as it extracts ongoing pain from us. But the pain of delayed grief is even harder to identify than fresh grief. It might surface as diminished joy or trust or zest for life. It might bubble up more surprisingly when you suddenly have a nervous breakdown for no known reason.

There’s a more tangible price to be paid also. We are rarely rational in the midst of loss. Clergy, social workers and wealth managers all advise a mourning spouse not to make any sudden or rash financial decisions; such choices rarely are to the person’s benefit. Yet across the nation, that is exactly what is happening as hundreds of Jewish institutions harden our security protocols. All of those choices cost money. Many of those moves diminish an organization’s ability to fulfill its primary mission.

It’s also true that not all of those decisions can offer a reasonable payback in a real security gain. On the one hand, we have to be responsive and take reasonable precautions. Even in the realm of security, however, rational actors are right to demand a reasonable return on investment. On the other hand, all the expenditures in the world can’t make us feel any safer. We have to invest in our psychological well-being to achieve that.

And that’s why we also need the wisdom of Judaism on the personal level to operate on the communal level. Our tradition wisely asks of us to set aside an entire week for shivah. A week where we do nothing but grieve our dead. From my vantage, I don’t think our collective has done that. Thus the active blogosphere and newspaper articles and op-eds, and letters from agency heads.

After that first week of shivah, we enter into a sustained but lesser period of mourning, shloshim or the thirty days that follow a death. The entire goal is to help us move through some of our reactive grief, precisely because grief is one of our most profound teachers. If we pay attention to it.

For example, at the community service at Beth Israel, over 1200 people were in attendance. Hundreds of them were not Jewish. They were there in our grief to remind us that we are not alone. This is not November 1938. This is not an American Kristallnacht. The average German did not gather with us in solidarity then. That is certainly one of the lessons of this grief.

Then there’s Chuck. On Halloween, Laura and Shayah did their neighborhood rounds. They went up to one home where an obviously new sign was planted on the lawn. NEVER AGAIN it read. They knocked, and a sheepish gentleman answered the door. “I apologize, but I literally just gave away my last bag of candy.” “That’s ok,” said Shayah, who is always polite with adults. “Also, thank you for the sign. We are Jews.” At that, the man who was in his eighties teared up. “I’m so sorry,” he exclaimed. “It shouldn’t be this way. I’m Presbyterian and we are all the same.” With that, he began to tell them about his life, and the volunteer work he does with children of all backgrounds and races. Finally, he went back into his house and grabbed a granola bar. He just needed to give something. As Shayah and Laura prepared to go away, he told them that if there was anything he could do, please let him know. That’s another lesson of attentive grief. People want to help.

It’s true that many of us aren’t comfortable experiencing grief. It’s obvious that our society struggles with creating time and space in which that deeply human work can occur. In this case, there’s also a sense of anxiety. That things will get worse for the Jews unless we act immediately. Or that if we allow ourselves this inward phase, our anger might dissipate.

That shouldn’t concern us.

If our anger is real, we don’t have to worry about it disappearing. We don’t have to worry about Pittsburgh being just another headline if our anger is real. By this I mean that as we move through our grief, the proper course of action for each of us will become clear. Real anger is not a passing feeling. It is a sustained emotion that we nurture and focus in the face of injustice. Like grief, when properly channelled, anger is also a potent teacher. On the flip side, if our anger is merely reactive, it won’t endure the challenges that face all change-makers. It will burn too brightly too soon, then flicker out.

Here’s a reveal, a secret made public. All my efforts emphasizing civility, dialogue, encountering the other and interfaith work are fueled by anger at the face of my country, the state of my nation. It’s not about being “nice” or “bourgeoise” or “complacent.” It’s a pathway to restore the building blocks of democracy—love and trust and meaningful unity—before it’s too late, before the tipping point sends us into civil war or worse. That’s the big war and it overrides the smaller battles of injustice. It’s a righteous fury that has been tamed by rational focus. Such an anger is self-sustaining. No need for anxiety.

Here’s another reveal. In honor of our 150th anniversary, we are going to build one or two tiny homes to provide shelter for the unhoused—for the homeless of our city. We are going to invite neighboring communities to do the same. As we strengthen our home for the next 150 years, it seemed an appropriate requirement that we do the same for some of our least fortunate neighbors. While we are just beginning to discuss this in different synagogue groups and wider, that’s not the reveal (more on this plan at a later date).

No, the reveal is that a city which allows its citizens to remain unhoused is a community that condones violence against the other. By allowing those in the greatest need to remain without homes, our nation publicly advertises in every downtown center across the country that it has a cheapened view of human life.

When life is cheap, be sure of this—a Jew isn’t worth a pound of flesh. Nor a black man, an Asian woman, or even the white man.

Sending you all my love and support,

Rav D


Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What has your experience of Pittsburgh been like? Did you take it personally, or was it just another national tragedy?
  2. Do you find it difficult to “sit” with your grief? Do you allow yourself time to move through painful moments of loss or do you believe you need to stand tall and keep moving? What do you think explains your personal approach?
  3. Before Pittsburgh, did you normally feel safe? Has your perception of safety changed? If it has, what accounts for that change? Do you believe your feeling (of being safe or not being safe) matches the risks?

Elections are coming. Please be an informed voter.

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