What Can I Control? Reflections on Pittsburgh and Ourselves

D’var Torah by Rabbi Aaron Weininger
November 3, 2018—25 Cheshvan 5779

Etz hayim he l’mahazikim bah v’tomkheha me’ushar…“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed. Its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”

Each time we return the Torah to the ark, as we just did, we chant these words from the third chapter of Proverbs. But this week, reeling from the terror attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, how do we proclaim the tree of life, for those who grasp it, are blessed? Its ways are pleasant? All its paths are peace?

Maybe it is not so much a statement of reality but a challenge to become blessing ourselves. Those of us whose limbs are shaking, feeling raw and bare. Devastated by Pittsburgh. Numb. Angry.

We throw up our hands, reaching skyward, like branches shrugging toward the sky. Enough already.

“If I can’t control everything,” we might say in despair, “then I control nothing.” The sad thing is not that we don’t have control. The sad thing is when we’ve dumped any control we do have into the trash can of despair. We’ve hauled it to the corner for the next pick up. “Take it away!” The pile starts to gather and smell again. Rot and repeat.

If we are lucky to sleep at night, we trade in the peacefulness of dreams for the overdose of nightmares that fear-mongers prescribe as medicine in Twitter fits. Others stay up, unable to rest at all. We wonder what to tell our children when we cannot imagine a better world on our Facebook feed, as if social media has become the latest canvas of Creation – or destruction.

In a culture that doubts authority, loathes hierarchy, and loves transparency, many nonetheless expect a reincarnation of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King to appear and sweep us off our feet. We wonder why a prophet of sorts has not arrived to work wonders; meanwhile, she has spent the night toiling by the trash. Making do with the scraps at the bottom, she tries to salvage what humanity has dumped. While we complain of the stench, she is gathering what remains. As the sun rises, she tries to piece back our world for us to live another day.

This morning I ask: will you recognize in her yourself and your neighbor, will you recognize in her your kids and your partner and your fellow congregant and your congregation? In such a prophetic presence, how will you see your role? Before the garbage truck comes. Before we go back to our vicious cycle. Before the tree falls.

Etz hayim he l’mahazikim bah… It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed…

Because we have it in us to rise to the challenge and become blessing ourselves. We have it in us to be rooted like the tree. Yes, to endure the howling wind and still to stand strong. I believe we have it in us to return to the trash heap and collect the parts of ourselves that we have tossed in despair. Because we had it in us to decide to get out of bed and come here and celebrate Shabbat. To fill this sanctuary, to celebrate Lexi’s Bat Mitzvah, to make room at Kiddush lunch as congregants chose to step up anonymously to sponsor extra food. Not with extraordinary courage, but with control. We have it in us to be here on the Shabbat after a white supremacist, enraged at the very thought of Jewish people and refugees in this country, attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We have it in us to be like the tree; to never lose our roots no matter how many times the winds of cynicism, anger, and fear try to knock us down. To shake in that wind, to even snap, but to trust amidst so little in our control we do have power to exercise. We don’t despair. We come together.

“If I can’t control everything,” we tell ourselves, “then I control nothing.” We might ask instead with curiosity, “If I can’t control everything, what can I control?”

I imagine it was the same for our patriarch Abraham who mourned for his wife, our matriarch Sarah in this week’s parasha, Hayyei Sarah. We read that Abraham bewails her. He then rises from beside his dead and declares as an immigrant to Canaan, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site that I may remove my dead for burial.” Abraham is close to the ground in his mourning and also decides to rise from it. In his grief, he takes on the arrangements for burial. Not certain the Hittites will grant his request, Abraham still reveals his identity as an immigrant and is met with acceptance, not fear. He arranges a plan to bury his dead. Abraham surely names the limits of his control over the passing of his wife and risks the consequences. He nonetheless acts, aware of the control he does have. Determined as ever, Abraham is not prepared to throw what remains in the trash bin. He refuses to push it aside for a more convenient time or wait for a more prophetic voice to save the day.

“If I can’t control everything, what can I control?”

It is the question I come back to again and again in my mind. If I cannot control everything, Abraham might have thought, what can I do to mourn Sarah, to honor her name, and to dignify my people?

“If I can’t control everything, what can I control?”

It is the question I sat with for much of this week after the devastation in Pittsburgh. I sat with it as I decided to be enveloped by the warmth of our minyan and pray for those who lost their lives and for the first responders who sustain life. I sat with the question as I met with staff and students at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School to process the horror. I sat with it here Monday morning with my colleagues as our kids in Gan Shelanu and their families filled our library and classrooms for Special Person’s Day. I sat with it as I took in the beauty of nature and watched the leaves change color, fall to the ground, and mimic the fleeting nature of our own lives. I even sat with it at the service department of my car dealership, when a damaged side mirror needed repair this week. It was not the detour I planned or wanted, but I could decide to go and make the most of it. The mechanic, Dan, who makes every repair look easy, asked how my week was. We talked about Pittsburgh and the responsibility we have to decide what kind of world we want to see and act toward it. Not shouting about what we’re against or vilifying somebody else, but building toward what we know is possible. Even in a repair shop off 394 and Louisiana.

“If I can’t control everything, what can I control?”

I found my answer, as I sat with the question. I can control what leaves my lips and rises from my hands. I can control whether what I say or what I do adds more hesed, more kindness, or diminishes it.

Does my Facebook post add or diminish kindness?

Does my conversation at Kiddush add or diminish kindness?

Do my conversations at work or school, the yoga studio or grocery store, add or diminish kindness?

Do my commitments of time and resources, volunteer hours and political activism, add or diminish kindness?

When tragedy hits we might not struggle as much modeling for our kids how to treat one another because we’re already doing it. We’re already kind. Much like we brush our teeth or shower or do anything else with regularity, we practice kindness. When we have a routine like that, the routine can hold us with a familiar embrace as we deal with the uncertainty of crisis.

Kindness doesn’t keep the wind from shaking the branches, but it does give roots to secure the tree. Much like it does for Abraham at a difficult time. In fact he performs its highest expression, hesed shel emet, a kindness that can never be repaid—by ensuring Sarah is buried properly. In building a world founded on kindness, hesed, we might move through life with greater purpose.

I can control whether I pick up my phone and call somebody out of the blue to check in and make sure they’re ok.

I can control whether I surprise somebody with an unexpected treat or handwritten note this week. Just because.

I can control whether I make a donation to HIAS, a vital organization that supports refugee resettlement, and was one of the targets of the Pittsburgh shooter’s hate. Bob Aronson, our congregant and the incoming national chair of HIAS, spoke from this bimah two weeks ago for National Refugee Shabbat.

I can control whether I prioritize strengthening the good works of our congregation and larger Jewish community and be counted on to show up through thick and thin.

I can control whether I get involved with our synagogue’s Chevra Kavod Hamet, learn such beautiful rituals that honor the dead in our community, and apply them with loving hands.

I can control whether I exercise my right to vote on Tuesday and whether I go out of my way, especially when it is personally inconvenient, to help my fellow congregants vote. Our members Eric Hausman and Jordan Geller, under the auspices of Yad Sima Tova (Caring Community), will arrange rides for anybody who may have difficulty getting to the polls for Election Day. Please see them at kiddush.

I can control whether I gather scraps with the prophetic voice within me and around me, and not dump them or wait for a more convenient time or character to sweep me off my feet.

Etz hayim he l’mahazikim bah v’tomkheha me’ushar

“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed. Its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”

Our chanting of etz hayim closes finally with a plea: hasheveinu Adonai eilekha v’nashuva, turn us toward You, God, and we will return to You. Hadeish yameinu k’kedem, renew our days as they once were. These final verses are taken from Eicha, the book of Lamentations that we read every Tisha B’Av. It is the day when Jewish people across the globe mourn the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. We ask God to turn us toward God. It is the ultimate recognition of human vulnerability. We are in physical or emotional or spiritual anguish. Sometimes we don’t have the strength to turn ourselves to begin the path of renewal. Our prayer rises from the ashes of destruction but it does not leave us burning on the fire. Our prayer is the humble recognition that we are not in complete control. But our prayer is also the acknowledgment that throwing up our hands in despair or coasting on the fumes of “thoughts and prayers” is also not enough. God may guide us, but we have the ability to become God’s partners to amplify God’s kindness in our world.

So we add to our prayer this Shabbat. We hope it echoes from the joy in our sanctuary into the classrooms of our children, into our neighborhoods where trees lose their leaves but hold onto their roots. We hope our prayer echoes into the halls of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, into the hearts of refugees, into every crevice where our world is breaking, and into every trash bin where discarded scraps are waiting to be transformed by healing hands. Hashiveinu Adonai eilekha v’nashuva – Yes turn us toward You, Adonai, and we will return to You.

But also turn us toward one another in kindness, and we will return to our humanity. And let us say: Amen.