Last Saturday I was in a rather heated conversation in a Facebook messenger group. Then I read a message that was totally unreadable. I had to re-read it more than one time. There had been a shooting in a synagogue in their town, Pittsburgh. The person messaging us was waiting to hear if their relatives were inside, and if they were safe. They were asking all of us for prayers.
A day later a member of my local community posted that none of their relatives who belonged to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had been killed.
The day after that I listened to the pouring of sacred waters and heard spoken the names of the 11 people who died in that synagogue. These were people who had been killed by a man who shouted, “All Jews must die!” These were people who had come together to worship their God.
What does one do as a priest and a human in the face of such things?
I listened when I could. Practice and training kicked in eventually and I remembered to listen to those in crisis, making sure to support those who were more closely connected to the epicenter of the event and leaning on the support of those who were not in crisis. I reached out to those I knew who might have been affected, and provided what support I could.
Honestly, it shocked me how quickly I was on priestly duty. I knew almost before the internet knew. I live two states away, but it didn’t matter. I had work to do. Some days later I’m still reeling from the emotional reality of the most deadly attack on the Jewish community in the United States.
I want to feel angry. Fired up. Ready to go create vast social change. Let’s enact some gun regulations or tear down anti-semitism or go find some Nazis to punch! Mostly, I feel numb. I feel scared. I feel like I’m putting a target on my back as a practicing and public figure in a minority religion, which is a pretty narcissistic feeling in the middle of someone else’s death. I want to be better than that.
So I go back to the basics of my training. I breathe in and out. I tend to my family, and tend to those of my community who need or want tending. It was the Tree of Life congregation where those people died because of some white man’s hatred turned to terrorism. The Tree of Life is one of the sacred images of my religion. We call it the World Tree. There is Yggdrasil is great ash tree, the fifteen sacred trees of the Celtic Ogham, the Gaulish willow in Teutates’ garden, and the golden tree of Dievas that grows on the top of the sacred mountain in Baltic myth.
For us, the Tree of Life is a connection. It is the living land reaching upward to the celestial and downward to the terrestrial. The sacred Tree reaches out to the earth and sky, underworld and upperworld, and the gods and the dead. For us, it is one third of the multiplicity that holds the ways between the world open and recreates the cosmos. It is one of our most sacred things.
As I understand it, the Tree of Life in the Jewish tradition references the tree in the garden of Eden. It is the name is carried by the mystical system of Kabbalah, and it is a name for one of their most sacred things, the Torah: their sacred book read by the learned and the the wise. It is the connection between God and His people.
There is so little difference between us all.
We are in a crisis of dis-connection. When pagans and priests have been asked to stand up and and speak out against hate crimes I have been told their lives are too hard to risk anything for others. I have heard those who tell me they just want to live a quiet life, that they are not the kind of people who speak up. They aren’t brave like that. I have been told that I ought to let them just stay in their quiet neighborhoods and their quiet lives. They say they aren’t harming anyone, and I am asking them to put what small gains they have gotten at risk for others.This happened to me today: three days after a shooting in a synagogue I was in an argument where I was told activism was inappropriate for religion. That we would be putting a target on our collective backs. That if any of us spoke out it would put a target on all of us.
This was the voice of Fear speaking.
I am afraid as well. I want a quiet life, too. I want to spend my time with my family and my children and my own economic wellbeing. But I know there are more important things than my single life or even than my single family. Together we are strong.
My religion tells me this. Ghosti, which is sacred reciprocity at the heart of every offering and every prayer. My religion says the meaning of life is relationship. It is interaction. It is the vast and intricate connections of ecology and it is love in all its forms. It is not desecration and hatred. It is my job as a priest to look to lore and wisdom in order to create connection between people and spirits. One thing we often forget is that people are of Spirit as well, indwelling within us. As pagans all too often we escape into our spirit realms, ritual, and communion with our gods rather than thinking about the very real spirits that inhabit the bodies that live next door to us. I do it too.
As I feel the pain of this unjust death echoing within me, I cannot sit quietly in fear and do nothing. I hope that you can’t do that either. Let us be like the Tree of Life which continues to stand, no matter what assails it. Let us reach outward across the simple distances we seem to find around us and reconnect in our lives. Let us learn the lessons that are being taught with such sorrow and pain.
I sit with these feelings of my own at my kitchen table with the sounds of my beloved children cooking dinner. I imagine many of you are also sitting with your feelings as we swiftly arrive at the time of year when we celebrate our dead. I want to share a prayer I wrote almost exactly a year ago. I decided to copy it down to add to my Ancestor altar this year.
I pray that each of you find ways to rise up against fear and disconnection in your own lives and your own ways. May each of us be a light for the other, and may those who died three days ago in a the Tree of Life Synagogue go peacefully to the arms of their God and their Ancestors.
A Prayer for Sitting With The Unjustly Killed:
I call to those who died in raging war.
Those who only wanted simple things: the joy of day, the calm of night.
Blessed is your memory
I call to those who died from hate.
Those who were hurt by belief, from fueled fear twisted tight, unleashed upon those seen as different.
Blessed is your memory
I call to those who died by the power of the Mother.
The winds and storm, the fueled fire, the sweeping strength of the Earth out of balance.
Blessed is your memory
I call to those who died from hunger, from preventable disease, unneeded harm.
I call to those who died poverty stricken, struggling just to exist.
Blessed is your memory.
I remember you. I see you. I will not forget you.
I will let the knowledge of this truth pass over and through me.
I will remain, ready to to the work I am called to do.
Blessed is your memory.