This past Shabbos/end of Pesach I found myself in Bellevue Washington. A good friend from my years in Seattle was getting married over the holiday weekend and lucky for me there was a Chabad within walking distance of the venue (about 4 miles away.) I haven’t spent too much time with Chabad shuls, usually just at times when I need to travel. My experience this time was typical of my previous ones; extraordinarily welcoming, soulful passionate prayer, and meals approaching the level of opulent feasts. The East Side Torah Center’s Rabbi Farkash was no different, hosting me at his home for each of the four meals that one might be lucky enough to enjoy over the two day holiday.
So when I turned my phone on at the wedding Saturday night, it was particularly disturbing to learn about the shooting at the Chabad in Poway, California.
When Will It Be One Time Too Many?
I have to confess that I’ve grown numb to the tragedies of gun violence that seem to happen on a daily basis. Even for the Pittsburg shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue exactly 6 months ago. Though I still pray for the recovery of the survivors to this day, at the time, I down played the decrying of anti semitism. Clearly Pittsburg was a hate crime aimed at the Jewish community, but why was it any worse than Parkland, Virginia Tech, Mandalay Bay, or Sandy Hook? To be honest, my reaction to Pittsburg was, “I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
But Poway hit me harder.
Before I knew of the shooting, I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to Shacharis (morning prayer services) at the Chabad. I was meeting old friends for brunch and I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to check out of the hotel and catch my ride. I figured I could just pray by myself in my hotel room and take the morning to relax.
After the shooting, I felt different. My anxiety about always being on time wasn’t a factor anymore. I just wanted to be there.
I’m not going to say how you can see God in the loss of Lori Gilbert Kaye.
But I do want to point out some things that stuck out to me. This shooting happened during the week that the Torah portion of Acharei Mos is read. And if you were in Israel, it would have actually been the day Acharei Mos was read. Acharei Mos, (in English literally translates to after the death) refers to parsha Shemini, where Aharon’s two oldest son die during the inauguration of the Mishkan. In Acharei Mos, the Torah jumps back to that event as God tells Moses that one may only enter the inner chamber of the Mishkan (known as the Kodesh HaKadoshim) on Yom Kippur. The Torah portion then continues to talk about the Yom Kippur sacrifice of two goats.
It is because of the death of Nadav and Avihu being the introduction to the instructions of Yom Kippur that the Rabbis make a connection. “Because just as Yom Kippur brings atonement, so the death of the righteous brings atonement.” (Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1) According to the Meshech Chochmah, the spirit of a righteous person ascending to heaven arouses a spirit of forgiveness for the recently departed’s survivors on earth. So what does it take to be a survivor of the righteous person?
Being involved in that loss. Being a part of that community.
In short, it takes a person of tremendous faith to keep that faith in a tragedy such as this. It’s easier to be angry. But that’s not bad. It’s apathy that’s the problem. That does nothing. No physical change, no spiritual change. And sadly, it’s getting harder and harder not to feel that way. But we can’t let it. Because otherwise means that loss was in vain.
The other thing that struck me was Yom HaShoah. The holocaust remembrance day was also observed this week. The coincidence is chilling. Could the shooter have knowingly planned his act of hate to coincide with the Torah portion and the memorial holiday? Possibly, but I doubt it. There’s clearly meaning there. Even if I don’t know what that is.
Upon returning home to LA, I attended a community meeting asking the difficult question of, “What do we do now?” Options I never thought I’d be considering were now being honestly discussed and I had no better answers to offer. Is this what it means to “never forget?” Maybe.
In the midst of all this, I am reminded of my experience with the Chabad of Bellevue and Rabbi Farkash’s congregation. Beyond the soulful prayer services and the exceptional meals, there is an unmistakable and inspiring optimism, a joy, that permeates the presence of the Chabad shul. Perhaps it is their approach to Chassidus or their looking forward to the coming of Mashiach. I don’t know.
But between the two feelings, fear for safety, and joyous expectation of the final redemption, I’m reminded of 2014 when I was planning on going on a trip to Israel and two men massacred four worshipers, an officer, and injured eleven others at a shul in Har Nof. I remember talking to my father about canceling the trip as I celebrated my niece’s birthday. Flash forward to 2017 when I’d be back in Jerusalem, staying in the town of Har Nof. I would attend a bar mitzvah at the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue. There was no sign of fear or tragedy. Only joy and rooms of men studying the Torah. They didn’t let fear stop them. So why should I let the actions of a deranged and hateful coward stop me from being apart of the beauty that Rabbi Farkash embodies every day?