Two Things This Week Reminded Me of Our Resilience, Even As We Remember the Tree of Life Tragedy
An interesting juxtaposition of events took place around me this past week.
As the Pittsburgh Jewish community marked the anniversary of the most deadly antisemitic attack in American history, which happened here four years ago, I was reminded of the resilience of the Jewish people and of humanity as a whole: At my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of the South Hills, we blessed 8 children at the beginning of their journey in Jewish education. Shortly after, I helped deliver new life into the world in my role as a birth doula.
On that dreadful October day in 2018, 11 Jewish elders were taken from us. In the Jewish community, it cannot be overstated that elders are very precious to us. They are able to share the stories of another time — Everything they’ve witnessed, everything they’ve survived, and the wisdom that carried them through it. The Jewish people have held tightly to the history and culture passed down by previous generations. To have lost 11 people so precious to our community due to senseless hatred is still devastating.
Though time has passed, the wounds remain deep, and our Pittsburgh synagogues and Jews everywhere are reminded of the reality we face: We are never one hundred percent safe when we come to pray.
But we don’t really focus on that when we’re together. Last Erev Shabbat at Temple Emanuel, even as we prayed and remembered the tragedy that changed the Pittsburgh community forever, we also smiled brightly while watching some of the youngest in our congregation be blessed under a sukkat shalom, a prayer shawl held over them to create a covering of peace and protection.
It was around this time that a young boy yelled out, “I’m so excited to study Torah!” and all of us were laughing (and also maybe crying a little). Rabbi Aaron Meyer affectionately responded, “You’ve come to the right place.”
Shortly after leaving this service, I was throwing together my doula bag in order to join my clients at Magee Womens Hospital to assist them in welcoming their baby boy. In this moment, I couldn’t help but be struck by how amazing and emotional it was to watch life happening all around me in this way during a time when as a community, we were remembering a tragedy.
28 hours later, as my client held her newborn baby in her arms and commented on his teeny, tiny cupid’s bow, I softly told her about the Jewish story that explains the little dent beneath our noses.
In Judaism, many sages, including the great philosopher Maimonides, believed in a place called The World to Come. The World to Come houses the angels, G-d, and many, many souls — all the souls who have ever been, and all the souls who will ever be. In this place, G-d, the angels, and the souls that have lived life on Earth teach new souls just about everything. They teach the new souls about the families chosen for them, about the world they will be born into, and about the entire Torah. Then, just before they descend to Earth in order to be born, these new souls are flicked below the nose — as though they are made of clay, an indent is left behind — and they forget everything that they have learned to be born on Earth with a blank slate.
As I told my non-Jewish client this story, what I wanted to express was my belief in the intentionality of this universe. Even if The World to Come doesn’t feel real to you, even if G-d doesn’t feel real to you, everyone has the power to make meaning out of the things that happen to them. And by sharing this story, what I really wanted to say was: “This baby is yours for a reason. You’ve worked so hard and been so brave today. He is here, sleeping on your chest at this moment, because he was meant to be here with you.”
When I think about that, and I think about blessing the youth at our temple, I’m reminded so much of the resilience of humanity and the beauty of being alive. We experience these fleeting joyful moments, never really knowing what the future holds. We struggle to comprehend hatred and loss. And maybe it’s true that the people we lost four years ago are able to reach us again in ways we didn’t expect. One thing is for sure: despite everything, the Jewish people live, vibrantly and lovingly, here in Pittsburgh.