When There Are No Words, There is Always Action

A Reflection by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Scholar-in-Residence

It doesn’t matter how many days, weeks, months go by after the Pittsburgh tragedy. In the face of such a horror, there really are no words. When Aaron, the High Priest, witnessed the death of his children before his own eyes, the Torah merely says, “Vayidom Aharon,” “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). What words can possibly issue from our lips when we bear witness to the betrayal of all we hope and pray for in this life, in this world?

And yet…

Somehow our tradition, and our people, carries on – through the days, weeks, months, years, and centuries. In the Sim Shalom prayer book, we find the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, praying for the ability to pray:

Ruler of the universe, Master of prayer,
Open your lips within me, for I cannot speak…
Too often the world has stifled
all words of blessing within me.
So much has threatened to break my spirit.
Help me, O God, for I have been so very low,
and you heal the broken in spirit with love…
Transform my sorrow, O God.
Help me to renew my faith, my hopes,
as I raise my soul toward You.
Open Your lips within me, O God,
that I may speak Your praises.

Something within our Jewish spirit cannot be silenced. There is a force within our hearts and souls that never accepts a world of injustice, that moves toward light and compassion. This has always been our way, to pray for words of prayer, even as prayer fails us.

It is true that Pittsburgh was the worst anti-Semitic attack in North American Jewish history, but this attack stands in a long line of murderous hatred that has befallen our people through countless centuries. Even as the Pittsburgh murderer shouted, “All Jews must die,” it is haters like him who die off, not our people. It has always been this way, because what we stand for, what we live for, can never die: that this world has infinite potential for the good, that life is a blessing, that justice is possible.

The great stumbling block of faith for so many Jewish people is the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? Why, indeed, is there evil in this world? As limited human beings, we can only guess the answer to these questions. At first, when evil befalls us, there may be silence. But silence is not the end.

There is, in fact, one clear answer to the problem of evil in this world, and in proper Jewish form, we answer the question with another question: What do we do now? This is the only answer. Even if there are no words, only silence, there is always action. Words matter, but we believe that the purpose of words is to lead to action in this life. Even if words fail us, we must act for justice. We must continue to show up to our synagogues and JCCs and schools and Jewish programs. We must support our community and do what we can to help us thrive in defiance of all the haters.

And we must never give up on the wisdom that our every action, no matter how small, matters infinitely. Many people have quoted the famous resident of Squirrel Hill, Mr. Rogers, when he told the story of how his mother told him to “look for the helpers” when faced with the aftermath of evil. In this, Fred Rogers taught, we find the seeds of hope that justice can and will return again. Indeed, in every act of evil, there is a greater reaction of love and support – of first responders who risk their lives, and of loving community members who reach out to the bereaved and affirm who we are by coming together in mourning and in support.

Mr. Rogers’ wisdom lives in the Torah as well. In the story of Elijah, the prophet travels to Mount Sinai to find the presence of God as Moses and the Israelites had once found God. There, he heard the howling of a wind, but not God’s voice. He heard the rumble of an earthquake, but not the voice of God. He heard the roar of a fire, but not the voice of God. Only in the “Kol d’mamah dakah,” “the still, voice of silence” did he hear the voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). The Hebrew word “d’mamah,” or “silence” is the same root as “Vayidom” in the phrase and Aaron was “silent.” One silence is the silence of shock, betrayal, and grief. The other silence is the fullness of God’s loving presence. Somehow, in the stillness, both silences merge. Even in the shock and betrayal, even in the feeling of abandonment we may know: God is not absent. God is present. You just have to listen and look harder – for the helpers, for the welling up of the Jewish yearning to find blessing in this life restored. And from that silence, all the infinite possibility for the good, for justice and for renewal is born.

In our wordless silence, God calls to us. God calls us to help, to give, to act, to love, to effect justice and holiness for all the world. In our silence, may we be moved to act. May we eradicate all hatred once and for all and make this world a blessing for all generations to come.