By Avidan Halivni

Pizmon prides itself on being an outreach group. One of the slogans I heard when I first joined the group was that Pizmon is not an a cappella group that does musical outreach, but rather that it is an outreach group that uses a cappella music to carry out its mission. Though I have held this message close to my heart for almost four years now, it took a visit to Squirrel Hill in the heart of Pittsburgh three weeks after a communal tragedy to remind me of the essence and significance of true outreach.

Throughout the weekend visit, I was reminded of a teaching I heard from Rabbi Shai Held, chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute. Rabbi Held quotes a Talmudic passage that instructs its readers in the proper method of imitatio dei, in walking in God’s ways: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you” (Sotah 14a). Held learns from this source an important lesson about the importance of our presence with people at their most vulnerable — a lesson that dovetails with what it means to serve God in the world. He writes (emphasis mine):

“Yes, for religious people, study is important, prayer is important, and ritual, too. But what this text, and others like it, suggests is this: If you want to really serve God, and not just go through the motions, then learn to care for people in moments of profound pain. In many ways, it is easier to study, or pray, or build a sukkah—or whatever. In telling us that offering care and comfort to people in pain is the very highest human ideal, Judaism alerts us to the fact that it can be intensely hard work. But it is also the heart of authentic religion and spirituality: To bring a little bit of God’s love and compassion to the widow, the orphan, the Alzheimer’s patient, and the bombing victim.

…Faced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of out vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.”[1]

In the style of the prophets, who preferred justice to any ritual offering, Rabbi Held poignantly illuminates the challenge our tradition poses to the religious person. If we spend years honing our ritual pronunciation of sacred texts but never learn how to pronounce words of comfort and healing, for what was our labor? This is a daunting task, and it was the one that lay ahead of us as we ventured into the Pittsburgh community, armed with nothing more than our harmonies. Though perhaps our natural instincts (and certainly the weather) urged us to run away from that pain, we gathered our collective strength in the hope that we could provide a bit of comfort. This was an opportunity to engage in outreach in its fullest sense, to encounter the raw vulnerability that still permeated the community and the individuals who comprise it, and, in this way, do our best to imitate the Divine.

On Saturday afternoon, Pizmon walked to the street corner where Tree of Life stands. After several minutes of silence, we huddled together and sang one of our newest arrangements, Yaakov Shwekey’s V’hi She’amdah. The text comes from the Passover Seder, a night bursting with themes of Jewish memory. It evokes the imagery of generations of Jewish fortitude in the face of hatred, though in the moment I found no comfort in pondering the question of drawing a link between this latest episode and the ones before it. It was enough to stand on what was otherwise a mundane street corner, with joggers and other passersby around us stopping to listen to our impromptu memorial service, and be present with my friends as we mourned together with these borrowed words.

The words of V’hi She’amdah do not conclude leaving us facing the all-too-long chain of memory of Jewish tragedy, however. The Haggadah adds a second line: that God saves us from the clutches of the surrounding evils, haKadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu m’yadam. The theological import of this final line resonates powerfully with the Talmudic depiction above. In the wake of tragedy, we remember — with all the creative faculty of those memory-acts that constitute the construction of a communal narrative — that God has uplifted God’s people out of the depths of their pain. We assert that God has visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, and buried the dead alongside us, and continues to do so in every generation.

Jewish memory, undergirded by the depiction of God in the Talmud and the Haggadah, charges us to pay it forward. The words of V’hi She’amdah command and beseech us to provide comfort in the face of pain, just as God does and as we remember God doing. As we sang those words in front of the memorial, I saw in our outreach mission the embodiment of God’s work, and shuddered with awe and gratitude for the gravity and the opportunity of our task.

We performed a full concert for the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, alternating between upbeat and intensely emotional songs as we strove to celebrate the vitality at what was not intended to be a memorial concert. At the end of the show, we invited members of the community to join us on stage for one final song, one that Pizmon has been singing for the entirety of the three decades of its existence. This song is called Nachamu, drawing its lyrics from the book of Isaiah, and spoke to the theme of the entire weekend: “Comfort, comfort my people,” God says to the prophet Isaiah. In those moments where God cannot comfort those on Earth, we must do our best to imitate the Divine. As we were joined on stage by clergy and community choirs, including some from the Tree of Life congregation itself, I only hope that we did our best to bring some measure of healing and comfort to those with whom we sang this weekend. Thank you to our hosts, our organizers, and the Pittsburgh community for sharing your sacred spaces with us, and to my friends in Pizmon for enabling me to remember the power of outreach.

[1] [1] Held, Shai. “Why First Responders are Jewish Heroes.” Tablet Magazine, 16 April 2013.

Links to the two songs referenced in the reflection:
Vhi Sheamdah:
Nachamu (with the community):