On Shabbat, I was sitting with my mother at our table–the table of the festive Shabbat meal, of reading, schmoozing, of late-in-the-day-headache coffee. One foot was on the chair and the other dangled down, for both of us. And the sun was setting through the western window without any flare, because of the clouds. Even the leaves, the orange ones and the red ones, and the green ones, still holding on, bouncing around in the wind, were dimmed. All against the backdrop of this purple, muting sky.
We were talking about… what was it? Maybe about my classes, how college is really only fine so far, how friends are hard to make. Maybe about her new life in New York City, her broken toe, my older brothers. Maybe I said something about living in Rocky, or something a little more serious, that I was scared about radical right-wing nationalists taking over Israeli politics, what the country might look like in five years. Or maybe a little more tame, about dreary Newton Center, or the synagogue (shul is the Yiddish) my parents are checking out on the Lower East Side, the rain, my dirty sweatshirt from last night’s soup. There are infinite possibilities for things that we talked about. Conversations that happen on Shabbat, the Jewish day of Rest, might matter, or they might not. They matter because they don’t have to.
When my father walked in the front door, which is on the other side of the house, the trees I was looking at were darker than they had been. Crisp only describes fall when it’s light outside. But at night, there are no colors, only silhouettes. Leaves seem strange when it’s cold outside and you can’t see their colors. They are not shady or beautiful or luscious. My father had not been watching the color fade. He was on the other side, where the sun had gone down much sooner.
He was coming home from the afternoon prayer, which is a modest but important prayer on the Sabbath. Jews get a hint of the upcoming Torah portion, which can and does function as a sort of inspiration for thought and (sometimes) being in the upcoming week. This week it was about a burial cave, 400 shekels of silver, men standing at a gate, how to treat strangers whom you don’t wish to know.
But shul, as any good Jew knows, is never only about worship or liturgy. It is also a social scene, a community gathering, just like it was in the Temple days of antiquity when men and women would schmooze around the sacrifices that were being offered in the Jerusalem Temple. Or at least that is how I imagine it. I imagine some wheat-farmer from the Jordan Valley joking to his friend about biblical criticism, and his friend might, or might not, give a shit, and change the conversation to something a little more suburban, maybe about the meek Priest who is heaving the meat into the sacrificial fire–or, in these days, the frazzled Rabbi preparing his short words. Rabbis are always frazzled because they have to work on Shabbat, but other Jews don’t, at least if they don’t want to and can afford it. Shul is not a place to be thinking about work, Shabbat not a time to be worried about weekday problems. Everyone is resting, breathing as God did on the Seventh Day, talking, eating, sharing words with God in prayer, yes, but with others too. It is a moment of ease that we take very seriously. You can only daven (pray) properly if you have a quorum of Ten and you can only rest properly if you aren’t thinking about your wheat harvest, or your email.
And so as I was sitting at that table with my mother, and my Dad came in unusually distressed (perhaps, given the ideal mood of the day, sinfully distressed), my rest escaped me. I saw that his was gone too. And when I learned that he had somehow learned (How were people getting the news? I go to a shul where people do not use electricity the whole day) that a neo-Nazi terrorist had shot up a shul in Pittsburgh, I thought about what the Congregationalists were doing before he had walked in, what sort of rest they were partaking in. Were they reading from the Torah, about Abraham welcoming strangers into his tent? Or perhaps about the prophet Elisha resurrecting the Shunamite’s son? Maybe they were schmoozing, or eating, or the children were playing Set when they were really supposed to be learning something about Jewish liturgy, the gregarious woman in charge of distributing candy certainly chuckling in the background at the edge of the pew. Or maybe they were just thanking God for their one day of Rest.
My father wasn’t speaking complete sentences, but he knew that 11 Jews had been murdered by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs. I could already see the mugshot, but I wondered then, and still wonder, how he stood, how he walks. Somehow I feel like that could tell me more, assuming there is more to know that, whatever it is, is worth knowing.
The last hour or so of Shabbat always has a twinge of sadness. The food is always cold and the songs melancholy. We mourn losing this restful world, what the ancient Rabbis called a taste “of the World to Come.” But of course, it is an agony of what is slipping away from us, as the sun sets, as the trees grow darker. You are not supposed to look toward the end of Shabbat or make preparations for what you might do after it. I remember my parents scolding me when I was in elementary school for sneaking upstairs to pack my overnight bag. On Saturday nights I would go to Jeremy’s, or Dan’s, where I could play video games and eat Oreos or gummy bears without any problems from my parents. As I grew older and my weekdays became a little harder, I began to appreciate Shabbat more. And so the week seeping into the end of Shabbat became a thing to resist. Of course, in this case, there was no use.
These types of things warp time, as some close friends of mine can attest to better than I can. Shabbat warps time, too. It is, as Heschel calls it, a “palace in time.” How much time do we have? How are we using it, being in it? Shabbat always begs these questions, for me at least. I sat for that last hour of Shabbat feeling dizzy, twice warped. I couldn’t check my phone or call my friends, but I didn’t want to be pretending to rest anymore. This had physiological implications. I was in my favorite chair but I couldn’t sit still; my eyes read words without my mind, or my spirit; my rest had turned into lethargy. I can’t remember anything from that hour except for where my mind was going, what I was imagining. I am remembering my imagination–that is how far I was from the palace in time.
For them, their day of Rest ended as that man walked in. He had a gun, they had a Torah, what Kafka called an “old doll without a head.” The Torah, in Jewish tradition, is referred to as “Etz hayyim”–the tree of life. This is also the name of the shul that was terrorized. This was a community that gave life. The people he killed, they gave life to that community. Shabbat gave life to them because it gave them Rest. The people he murdered will never have a day of Rest again, and perhaps the survivors, maybe even the sanctuary. Eleven dead. Hundreds of mourners. No Rest. How deep has this man cut the roots? And I, in my rest, had only been thinking about the leaves.
What I am trying to say is that a strong community would feel this strongly, and I, in my kitchen on that very day, in Boston and not Pittsburgh, as the trees grew dark and our kitchen more yellow–I felt some part of it too; Shabbat, being a sort of telepathic temporality, makes space and time for everyone to see everyone just a little clearer, with a little more patience, a wider smile, a little more space for God–this holy day of Rest. But when something bad like this happens, it rides on that same interconnecting wavelength and hits with the same precision. Directly at the (resting) soul, just as much. All the more so for the people there.
How can one person cling to this much hatred? There are structural and political problems that need to be urgently talked about and addressed. But I would also like to (perhaps naively) think that this man needed a community of life-givers, a force of Rest—some type of Shabbat. Clinging to Hatred is the opposite of Resting.
I spend the Shabbat after in New York City, where it can already be sort of compromised by the business of the streets, strange smells, and constant images of people struggling, pushing hard, to do one thing or another. In both of the shuls I went to on the day, the attack in Pittsburgh was explicitly present. At one of them, there was a police car out front and a “WE STAND WITH PITTSBURGH” sign draped over the front door. At the other, before we welcomed the Shabbat Queen (a spectral presence, formally brought in by a specific prayer whose physicality mimics welcoming a guest) into our midst, we heard a speech from the leader of the Muslim Student Union about how if it was going to take bravery for us to be Jewish, then they would make sure to help us be brave, this was powerful, and I was tearing up. Solidarity is about overcoming vulnerability, and I was certainly grateful to be offered such a hand. But I was also sad for that reason. What world is this, where Saturday morning schmoozing requires a police car, where the Shabbat Queen needs a bodyguard? I know that many different communities (including Jewish ones) have been asking iterations of those questions for many years now in this country. I knew that it was always an upsetting question, a tiresome experience. But, because of my fortune and privilege, it is my first time, and it is agonizing. And I can’t help but feel that the initiation into these politics will change, for a while at least, the very thing we yearn for.