The night after my husband narrowly avoided being shot in the Pittsburgh synagogue where he is a rabbi I couldn’t sleep. I needed something to read, to keep my mind occupied — to keep it away from the panicked thought about how closely he missed death, and what if my daughter and I had gone to synagogue earlier in the morning or the shooter had come later, and what could have happened to all of us, and how would our older two daughters and our parents and siblings have coped? At 2 AM, I could not pick up a novel or magazine.
I decided the simplest course of action was to read a text that would ground me, that was familiar, that I have been studying for most of my life. I turned to the the Torah portion for the week to come, Genesis 23:1- 25:18.
“And it was the lives of Sarah, one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, these years are the lives of Sarah.”
In my sleepless state, I grasped the second word of the portion, “life.”
The report of Sarah’s death opens with her life and what it was, rather than dwelling on the details of her death. That word, “life,” was a gift to me. In that moment, in the middle of the night, I found a guide to how to speak about the three congregants who had been cruelly taken from this world: to focus on who they were, how they lived their lives and what they believed.
Then and now, I realized I needed a guide, an anchor, a direction and that Torah portion provided for my urgent needs.
A few hours later, on Sunday morning, my high school age daughter and her friends gathered in front of a local Holocaust memorial to reflect on what had just happened in our community. At the small gathering, I spoke about our murdered congregants – Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Richard Gottfried, may God avenge their deaths – emphasizing that we need to speak about their lives and not their deaths: “All the years of the lives of Daniel Stein, Richard Gottfried, and Melvin Wax were filled with goodness and devotion to Judaism,” I said, and later published on the 929 siteng/en/author/36663), a site dedicated to Torah study. “May their memories be for a blessing and may the occasion of their tragic deaths help us all ‘increase devotion,’ in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, so their deaths shall not have been in vain.”
After that, though many editors I have written for over the years asked me to write pieces for them in the wake of the massacre in our synagogue, I was unable to. Trauma scrambles the mind and disorganizes it. As Bessel van der Kolk says, “The nature of trauma, is that you have no recollection of it as a story. The nature of traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created.”
For the first week after, I was overwhelmed by what was going on: I was helping my husband get to his interviews with bereaved families, going to funerals, helping my adult kids figure out how to return to Pittsburgh from their lives in New York and Israel, fending off the press, answering the phone, trying to get my high school-aged daughter to school when she was not at a funeral or a shiva, making sure congregants had information they needed about shivas and funerals, going to the next funeral, the next shiva. I got up and put on a different black outfit for an entire week.
And in the evenings, I would write a sentence in my diary, but I would have another thought and go to another page to write it and before I could finish, I was on to another. My racing mind made the completion of any single idea impossible.
I was searching for a way to anchor myself — and I found myself turning to the Bible. I asked the editors of 929 if I could continue to write on the Torah portion of the week for a few weeks, both because it was meaningful to me and it was a way to find a focus that would enable me to finish a thought and actually write a unified composition.
The week after that was Toldot, which had been my bat mitzvah portion. Opening the text of the Torah, I was struck by how God communicated directly with Rebecca, in response to her seeking Him out about her difficult pregnancy. Though the Divine answer Rebecca received appears to be clearer than answers given to Moses and Job later — it is equally mysterious. “Two peoples are in your belly; two nations shall branch off from each other as they separate from your womb. One people shall prevail over the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”(Genesis 25:23)
Though we wish we were able to comprehend better, humans must always accept that our knowledge of any divine plan is entirely incomplete. And even when understanding of a situation seems apparent, it is still never clear — as mortals there are things beyond our comprehension. Through Rebecca’s story, I tried to help comfort those thrown into mourning, to help myself, my family and my community cope.
In those first weeks, it took me a month to be able to go back to the JCC to swim because the last time I saw Dan Stein was there at the JCC. I saw him there regularly — it just didn’t seem right to be there if he was not. Walking on the street or going to synagogue was ridden with fear – if a shooting happened once, couldn’t it happen again? That sense of bleakness was not unique to me at all — I think most Squirrel Hill residents felt the anxiety and unease to some degree.
But throughout those dark weeks, I continued to turn to the Torah — finding meanings in the text that I hadn’t seen before, such as room to express doubt and discomfort.
On the portion of Beshalach, my eyes lingered over the verse: “Is God in our midst or not?”(Exodus 17:7)https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.17.7?lang=bi&aliyot=0 Perhaps belief is not compelled but developed, unfolding gradually, I thought. “Uncertainty is as central as the miraculous in this portion,” I wrote.
And some weeks later, in the portion of Shemini, the sons of Aaron die by a strange fire and his reaction was of silence. That silence, in the wake of our communal tragedy, felt ever so real to me. To my mind — it made sense. Aaron’s silence created room for the range of emotions he was feeling in response to tragedy. “The mourner feels a loss of control over the desolation of grief,” I mused in 929https://www.929.org.il/lang/en/author/36663/post/52355. “Allowing the mourner to decide how to react – silence or speech, withdrawal or engagement – is part of enabling the mourner to control at least this one small aspect of his or her life.”
After the ineffable happened in our community, it was the exercise of writing about the Torah portion which held me up — it was that study process which gave me the ability to find a way to create meaning out of an event that was and will always remain utterly inexplicable. The words of Torah can serve as a scaffolding for how we as Jews are able to construct meaning for our lives. I look at many things differently now. Knowing that there is a text that will give me a framework for grappling with the difficult times of human life, that catalogues lives full of challenges but also of great significance, has been of great assistance.
Soon after the shooting, I called my teacher Avivah Zornberg in Israel. She told me that in the portion of Noah (this week’s portion, coincidentally), it seems as though the world is coming to an end, but it is not. “You should remember that,” she told me.
Indeed. A terrible thing happened in my neighborhood, in my husband’s synagogue, but the world is not coming to an end. It was our ancient texts which offered that contemporary, powerful, and ultimately healing, reminder.
Beth Kissileff is a Pittsburgh-based journalist and writer. She is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” and “Reading Exodus: Journeys” (forthcoming 2020). Visit her online.