In tragic violence, we see again that words have consequences, and so do elections
On Oct. 27, a virulently anti-semitic extremist allegedly gunned down 11 Jews in the Pittsburgh synagogue where they were gathered for Shabbat prayers. It was, by common consensus, the most lethal attack on Jews in our nation’s history, and it sent shockwaves of grief and anxiety through the American Jewish community and most of the U.S., shattering the illusion that our sanctuaries are safe and free of worldly worries. A week later, it still feels like we’ve reverted to an earlier, uglier time and place in our people’s long history of pain and persecution.
I was shocked — but, sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Alas, with hindsight, the massacre in Pittsburgh feels, tragically, almost inevitable. This was a unique event, perpetrated upon a specific Jewish community by someone with a long history of hatred — but it was also just the latest in a long series of hate crimes emerging from the homicidal bigotry lurking on the fringes of American society. It follows an alltoo-familiar pattern: a white man with a semiautomatic assault-style weapon slaughters members of ethnic, religious or cultural minorities. Indeed, it came just days after a shooter tried unsuccessfully to enter a black Baptist church in Kentucky, and then gunned down two African-american men in a nearby supermarket parking lot.
It is no coincidence that the alleged gunman’s final message to the world was a rant against HIAS, the Jewish organization that has sponsored refugees in America for well over a century — for such hatred is fed by the ugly rhetoric spewed by President Donald Trump and his administration, regularly referring to immigrants as rapists, animals, drug dealers and infestations. Indeed, even after the latest atrocity, Trump continues to rile up his base by railing at a caravan of asylum seekers as an “invasion” and encouraging crackpot conspiracy theories that advocate imprisoning his political opponents.
Words have consequences. This was not the first time Trump’s angry, bigoted language has contributed to tragic violence, nor is it likely to be the last.
In the opening of the Hebrew bible, God speaks the world into existence with words. Again and again, God says, “Let there be ... ” and it comes to be: light, firmament, land and sea, plants and animals. Jewish tradition notes that we humans, created in the Divine Image, also create worlds with the words we speak. Loving words beget love. Hateful words beget hate. As the book of Proverbs declares: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
A week after Pittsburgh, we grieve. We mourn the dead, as we Americans have, of late, far too often mourned the victims of hatred. We cry. But even as we weep, we must also actively resist the onslaught of evil words that are like sparks to the gasoline of disturbed minds. We best honor the victims by condemning bigotry, working for justice and celebrating kindness, in language and in deed. Remember.
Words have consequences.
Elections do, too.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.the Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.