I had intended on writing about a different subject but a profound experience Wednesday morning has led my mind in a different direction. We are in Pittsburgh because my close friend and colleague Rabbi Alisar Admon is being honored at a dinner this evening. I can’t remember the last time I went to an institutional dinner with honorees, speeches, and the rest of the accompanying rituals I like to avoid but this one’s different. Rabbi Admon was the first civilian responder after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few months ago. Due to his years of experience in the Israeli army ZAKA unit (mass casualty and victim identification) and with the Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) in various cities in the U.S., he is an expert in the elaborate burial procedures involved when a person has been murdered and that is why the FBI permitted him and another Rabbi, the head of the burial society, to enter the crime scene-i.e. synagogue-even though the entire area for a few blocks had been cordoned off to the public. The synagogue is still closed but Sara and I were given a special tour this morning and it was quite moving.
A vice-president of Tree of Life of the synagogue led our private tour, which began with a wooden board with framed pictures of the victims. He told us he didn’t know where it came from; someone left it in front of the building. This was one of hundreds of meaningful items people left there anonymously. There were medium sizes stones, each one engraved with a victim’s name, under the picture board; these too were also an anonymous gift. The tragedy became humanized when he spoke about each of the 11 people shot to death. These were real people with rich life experiences; some were known for their kindness, others for their participating in any volunteer opportunity offered to them, and one couple was known to have been so much in love that they always did things together; they were inseparable in life-and even in death. Hearing each person’s story had the intended effect of having us realize on a greater level how tragic this shooting was.
No one knows for sure exactly whom the shooter saw first or what his exact route was but we went on the FBI’s conclusion of his movements. This hateful person went throughout the building looking for people to kill. He went into the main sanctuary, he went into the kitchen, where people were making coffee, he went to a smaller sanctuary where a different congregation worshipped (The huge building houses three different Jewish houses of worship. Seeing siddurim (prayer books), benches, walls in the hallways, and even the Ark housing the Torah scrolls riddled with holes, made it all so real but the most meaningful part of the tour was Rabbi Admon’s account of how the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) handled the situation.
Jewish burial procedure places great value in treating a corpse with great respect, however in the case where a Jew is murdered because he is a Jew, then even more attention to detail is given. There is no cleaning the body and purification process, (s)he is buried in whatever was worn at the time because every drop of blood must be collected and buried. Bear in mind that every time a blood vessel bursts there is a cascade of blood; they use special materials to help them absorb this blood for burial. If it is known for certain to whom the blood (or body parts, in the case of a bombing) belong, it is put in a plastic bag for burial. When the blood of several victims is combined, it is buried in one of the graves or in a separate grave called kever achim, the ‘grave of (our) brothers’. Finally, from the time of death until burial there is an obligation to guard the body. This guarding, called shmira, is performed by individuals who read passages from the Book of Psalms as they sit with the deceased.
Each segment of our tour was accompanied by Rabbi Admon showing us what the Chevra Kadisha had to do to ensure that everything was done properly. A team of 35 volunteers worked around the clock for 40 hours cleaning every drop of blood from ceilings, walls, floors, benches, and anywhere else there was blood. In some cases, because the bodies had been there so long (before the FBI released them), blood had dripped between the cracks of the floor. Rabbi Admon showed us benches that had to be shaven and planed due to blood absorption. One woman volunteered and really wanted to take part in this mitzvah but she asked Rabbi Admon if she could do something that didn’t involved working with the pools of blood found everywhere. He gave her the job of carefully wiping off and saving the blood that had splattered in pictures in the hallways. Even those who didn’t work at the scene directly helped and gave resources in any way they could; the community outpouring of love and support was overwhelming.
There is so much more to talk about, but as I was leaving, I was thinking about this week’s Parsha (Torah portion). It describes in great detail the architectural design and materials used for building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Jews during their desert sojourn. It was placed in the middle of the camp; it was G-d’s ‘residence’ and was a uniting force for the 12 tribes. It was a symbol of the fact that the nascent Jewish nation revolved around G-d and the mitzvot He gave at Mount Sinai. The Mishkan was eventually dismantled and replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem and after it’s destruction by the Romans, our synagogues have been the places in which we pray and unite. This very institution was attacked but the values represented by it were the motivating force of the community.
For centuries, Jews have relied in individuals, not governments nor corporations, to help during our hour of need. The man who carried out this atrocity acted in exactly the opposite manner of the centuries old institution he attacked. He was cruel; his victims were kind. He calculated how to do harm; the Chevra Kadisha and community members calculated how to be benevolent. He wanted to destroy; they wanted to sustain the legacy of thousands of years. He hated for no reason; they (the community) loved and were charitable to total strangers (victims) for no reason. He had no financial or social benefit from his actions; they had no ulterior motives for their kindness. No one would ever pay them back, and most of families of those who were killed would never know who these kind people were.
G-d was nowhere in this man’s life, if He had been, the shooter would have realized that every human is created in the image of G-d and that alone entitles him or her to life. Some religions over the centuries have done atrocities in the name of G-d but far more atrocities have been carried out in the absence of G-d. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other oppressors in recent times weren’t G-d based, they were based on the premise that there is no G-d.
The beauty of the human spirit came alive after the Pittsburgh massacre. The tedious and detailed work of the Chevra Kadisha done for no reason other than it being a mitzvah and opportunity to help total strangers, is testimony to the Divine spark in all of us.
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