If you have been to a synagogue in Morristown, Warren, the Oranges, or Franklin, then you’ve been to the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Like many of the synagogues that are familiar to us, Tree of Life has a sanctuary that seats more people than typically come on a Saturday morning. It has a library filled with books that have grown lonely in the internet age. It has classrooms where generations of students have learned the difference between a “dalet” and a “resh.” And it has a bimah upon which countless weddings, b’nei mitzvah, and baby-namings have been celebrated.
On the one hand, Tree of Life is every synagogue. On the other hand, it is now THAT synagogue — the site of the worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of this country.
For six years, my family and I spent our Shabbat mornings at Tree of Life, where I served first as assistant rabbi and then eventually as rabbi. My daughter was named on the bimah where a baby was supposed to be named this past Saturday. My connection to Tree of Life is a reminder that when someone attacks Jews anywhere, he is attacking Jews everywhere. While nothing can compare to the acute pain of the Pittsburgh Jewish community right now, Jews across this country are suffering.
In truth, this is nothing new. Centuries ago — long before Twitter or FaceTime — the Talmud taught that one can speak in Syria and kill in Rome. In other words, words have power. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that God created the world through words and God’s greatest gift to us was a collection of words through which we organize our lives.
These past few years, we have seen words get twisted and weaponized until people like Robert Bowers perpetrate unthinkable acts upon innocent people. It’s got to stop.
As a rabbi, I put a lot of words out into the public in the form of sermons, blog posts, newsletter articles, email blasts, and more. My sphere of influence is small, but I know that once those words leave my mouth or my computer, they’re no longer under my control. No matter what my original intent was, listeners or readers get to interpret my words for themselves. If, however, I found out that someone had misunderstood and misused my words to justify violence, I would be beside myself. I would do everything in my power to somehow undo the wrong that had been done. I would feel responsible.
Your words can travel from here to there in an instant. And they have power.
When campers put out a fire inadequately and it leads to a larger fire, we don’t absolve them of responsibility just because their intention was to extinguish the fire. Similarly, with words, even if our intentions are noble, if someone uses our words as the basis for doing harm, we need to re-evaluate our use of language. We need to take responsibility. One can speak in Syria and kill in Rome.
However, there is good news too. This power of words can be used for good. I can speak in Summit and bring comfort to Pittsburgh.
This past Saturday night, I was exchanging text messages with one of my Tree of Life congregants, trying to find out more details while also trying to console. She told me that the Tree is broken, but I’m still a part of that Tree. She thanked me for still caring. In other words, at moments like this, 13 years and 350 miles don’t make a difference.
So, perhaps, you haven’t been to Pittsburgh and you haven’t visited the synagogue at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues. But you’ve been there. And perhaps you don’t have plans to travel to Pittsburgh this week. But your words can travel from here to there in an instant. And they have power.
So, please, let’s all keep using that power for good. Let’s keep telling the story on social media. Let’s reach out to anyone we know in Pittsburgh and let them know we care. Let’s support the Jewish organizations of Pittsburgh that will help Tree of Life sprout anew after this act of terror. Let’s call on our leaders to use their words wisely. Let’s remember that words spoken here have power in places far away.
Rabbi Avi Friedman is spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center.