Shabbat Shalom: What If?

May 26, 2022 | Article

Shabbat Shalom: What If?

May 26, 2022

What if?

How many times have we wondered those words aloud or in our hearts? This looming “what if” is certainly circulating in my head as I reflect on the horrific tragedies of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and last week’s shooting in Buffalo. What if these criminal perpetrators had a different education or life experiences that had taken them down an alternate path, one that cultivated love instead of hate? What if as a community or country we had made different choices? What if…

As a historian, I was trained not to ask “What if” about the past. (The fancy word for that strain of historical inquiry is allohistory, and it’s a somewhat maligned type of questioning within the academy). But it is hard to steer away from what ifs because at their core is an impulse toward wanting to see ourselves as having agency to make a difference, especially in times of tragedy when we feel powerless: If only I or we had done X, things might have been different.

These sentiments are reflected in this week’s Torah portion, which begins with the word Ve’Im, “And if you…” The phrase is peppered 25 times throughout this relatively short portion of less than 80 verses. And notably, the commandments that are so often presented in an equally commanding voice are, in this case, preceded by the phrase “And if you,” which has the effect of presenting each commandment as a choice: If you do X, then Y will follow. If you don’t do X, then Y will follow.

In times of tragedy, we can feel overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. The issues at hand seem so big, and we feel so small in the face of any attempt to solve them. The what ifs in our heads, in our lives, and in this Torah portion remind and encourage us to recognize our own power.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, who speaks to the human impulse, often in times of tragedy, to aspire to big change alongside a countervailing sense of What can I as one person do to take this on?, has written: 

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

We all have the choice to turn our what ifs into actions, small or big, that may indeed have the power to change the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Julie Lieber
Chief Jewish Life & Engagement Officer

Please email Rabbi Strear at with comments or questions.