Triggers and Twisters

Earlier this week, the first anniversary of the catastrophe of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 innocent lives were snuffed out and 7 sustained injuries ought to have resonated more deeply with Jews of Dallas than with Jews anywhere else in this world. With last week’s tornado touching down and wreaking havoc in various neighborhoods in the city, particularly the neighborhood surrounding Tiferet, those who witnessed devastation and those who suffered devastation would do well to consider the following.

The catastrophe at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year occurred because the assailant specifically targeted Jews. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers set out to murder Jews. Neither worshipers at any church or the faithful at any mosque were in his cross hairs. It’s highly doubtful, that it would have mattered to the murderer, if the site he chose to attack was a Reform Temple, a Conservative Synagogue, an Orthodox Shul or a Chabad House. Unlike so many of us, anti-Semites rarely distinguish or differentiate. In their eyes, one Jew is as worthless and as expendable as another.

Not so, last week’s tornado. Other than zeroing in on specific neighborhoods, it made no difference to the tornado, whether its victims were Jew or Christian,  Hindu or Moslem or any other group. Similarly, it mattered not to the tornado whether it destroyed a business or a private home, a nursery school or a senior living residence. One could perhaps even argue that not only were neighborhoods chosen at random, but homes and buildings were either hit or missed in the most haphazard of ways. One house sustained severe damage, while the house right next to it, was minimally affected. Put differently, the destruction in Pittsburgh came about, because they were Jews; the destruction in Dallas came about, (thankfully and miraculously) just because.

Pittsburgh was yet another example of human cruelty. One can argue whether such attacks are perpetrated as copycat crimes; one can take a stance either for or against gun control. All will agree however, that what took place in Pittsburgh was the result of man’s inhumanity against man.  Driven by unrestrained hatred anger and intolerance, the assailant in his twisted mind, made a concerted effort to improve society by snuffing out the lives of Jews, whose only “crime” was attending Shabbat services at a synagogue.

The Dallas tornado was the exact opposite. I believe that the insurance companies are spot on when they categorize tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and wildfires as acts of G-d. With Yom Kippur a mere three weeks behind us, let us recall a medieval acrostic (among the many ark openings prior to Kedusha) where each stanza begins with the words “Ma’aseh Elohim” or “it is the work of HaShem.” A tornado is no different. It too, is Ma’aseh Elohim. As such, tornadoes not only defy understanding and explanation as to why they occurred, but they serve as reminders that human ingenuity and strength are laughable, or perhaps better stated lamentable.

Last but in no way least,  our response to Pittsburgh and our response to the tornado revealed a great deal about us. From coast to coast, synagogues as well as other Jewish buildings in this country have adopted strict security measures. The synagogue I attended last week had a parked police vehicle replete with flashing lights, two uniformed officers, as well as plain clothed security, standing at the door of the building. Congregants insisted on feeling secure and knowing that they are secure as they offered up prayers that pretty much indicated that they placed their faith in HaShem.

Human response to last week’s tornado, as well as other acts of G-d, evokes a far different response. We rebuild and continue as before, with an implicit resolve that no act of G-d is going to change or interrupt the way we live. Perhaps, we humans have greater faith in HaShem than in our fellow man; perhaps we humans fear our fellow man more than we fear HaShem. Perhaps the words of the prayer prior to removing the Torah from the ark say it best: “Not in any human do I put trust … only in the G-d of heaven.” Something to think about.

I Did Not Cry When My Mother Died

Think of me what you will, but I did not cry at my mother’s funeral.  Perhaps it was because I had time to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, or perhaps that’s just the way I am.  It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me well, but from the very beginning to the very end, when it came to escorting my mother to her final resting place, I was forever the Rabbi.

But I did cry.  The day after the funeral when I began to sit shiva at my sister’s house in Chicago, I read a note that the flight attendant had handed me.  We were late leaving DFW and I feared missing my connection in Minneapolis to the G-d forsaken city, Winnipeg (which ultimately did happen.)  Because I was seated in practically the last row of the aircraft, I explained my plight to the flight attendant.  Not only did she move me to the front of the plane, but as I bolted from the aircraft, she handed me a handwritten note on a napkin.  It read:  “Dear Mr. Zell, I’m very sorry to hear about your recent loss, and I’m sorry that our unexpected delay has added more stress to your already difficult situation.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.  I wish I could do more.  She’lo teida od tza’ar (may you know of no more sorrow.)”

I cried the day of the funeral, when I greeted two cousins of mine.  It’s been thirty years since I’ve seen one of them. One flew in from Edmonton and the other turned his car around 120 miles west of Winnipeg as he was heading home to Banff.  There was no doubt in his mind that he would be present to bury his Aunt Ida.  Together, with four others, these two cousins from different sides of the family met to escort my mother’s casket to the hearse, as we made our way to the cemetery for the service.  Upon arriving at the cemetery, I was nearly brought to tears as I looked out and saw thirty-five people, who had come to pay their respects. Some of them family, some of them friends – going all the way back to grade school.  And there I was, having been of little faith, doubting very much that a minyan would be present so that my sisters and I could recite kaddish.

I cried when I met Harlene and Jay Pine, neighbors of my sister, who two weeks earlier, were on an odyssey to visit a grave of a great grandfather buried in the G-d forsaken city.  While there, they made it a point to visit with my mother and spend over an hour with her looking at photographs.  I cried at the daily phone calls that my mother would receive from her friend, Miriam Diamond, checking in to see if everything was okay.  I cried at the visits my cousins would make from time to time coming over to the house to spend precious moments with their Aunt Ida.

I cried at the outpouring of concern and support, the trays of food, the text messages, emails, and phone calls from Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, Israel, and of course, Dallas.  They mean more to me than anyone can possibly imagine.  They will be remembered and cherished for many years to come.

In all likelihood, I will continue to cry from time to time, not because my mother died but because my mother lived, imbuing me with priceless, as well as timeless, lessons of life that no institution of education could ever offer, and precious memories that will be cherished increasingly with the passage of time.

It is the prophet Isaiah who reminds us that Hashem will wipe away the tears from all faces.  My tears of blessing and gratitude however will remain in my heart for as long as I live.