The Life of Sarah – Responding to Pittsburgh

I imagine many of you are feeling a lot of emotions right now. Sadness, anger, fear, comfort, faith, hope… I pray that we all continue to feel, and that we have the strength to share our pain with our fellow congregants who surround us now.

I imagine many of you came here tonight looking for an answer. How do we respond to the horrific murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in our sister city of Pittsburgh?

I don’t have the answers. However, in times of sorrow and pain, I look to our tradition. To our Tree of Life, our Torah. In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, we are confronted with the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, the matriarch and patriarch of our people, and we learn how to mourn, how to honor the dead, how to comfort the bereaved and perhaps most importantly how to carry on; how to keep living proud Jewish lives.

First, we mourn:

Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan;

ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה

and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:2)

Although often translated as mourn, the Hebrew לספד is translated by the commentator Sforno as eulogize. This week, our community buried 11 righteous martyrs who died while worshiping. We remember them and we eulogize them. The very name of our portion tonight, the Life of Sarah, reminds us, that at a time of mourning, we focus not on how someone died, but in how they lived. I encourage all of you to go online and read about these amazing 11 Jews who brought so much light into this world.

In Judaism, after burial, our tradition teaches that we then turn our attention to the mourner. There are a few prayers in our tradition, most notably, the mourner’s kaddish, that are only said in the presence of a minyan – a group of 10 Jewish adults. Our tradition forces us to be in community at this time. Thank you all for being here tonight.

In comforting our community, we deal with the very real trauma that hangs over our people. The rabbis, in a commentary connecting this week’s portion with last week’s story of the Binding of Isaac, the akeida, when Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, illustrates how trauma can have drastic effects on all of us. Rashi writes, “The death of Sarah follows the Binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the Binding  she received a great shock (literally, her soul flew from her) and she died.”

Trauma is powerful and should not be minimized. Please know that we are here if you want to talk. Our clergy is available and we have therapists in the congregation ready to listen.

It has been almost a week since the deadly attack. We have been sitting shiva this week. We have sat and mourned. We have received condolences calls from so many in our greater community. However, tradition teaches that shabbat takes precedence over shiva. We end shiva tonight to come together as proud Jews and allies, to worship and celebrate Shabbat.

After mourning for his beloved, our Torah portion continues:

ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו וידבר

Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke… (Genesis 23:3)

Tonight, we rise and speak. Everyone one of you that showed up tonight, everyone of you that said fear will not define us, everyone of you that said, “I am proud to be Jewish,” and everyone of you that stands with your Jewish neighbors has affirmed this central message.

The Reform rabbi and post-Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim proposed adding a 614th commandment, “Thou shalt not let Hitler have a posthumous victory.” For Fackenheim this meant living proud Jewish lives in the wake of the Holocaust. This meant not being defined by victimhood. In honor of the martyrs and survivors, on whose shoulders we stand, we proudly stand and say, I am a Jew.

After Sarah’s death, her son Isaac gets married. We read, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 25:67) Although we lose the father and mother of our people, our text reminds us that our people will survive – there is going to be the next generation. Abraham and Sarah’s legacy will continue on after their death. We will survive, we have always survived. And we will not only survive, we will flourish.

This week we saw record numbers of people reaching out to the congregation about membership. Yesterday, a young woman completed her conversion to Judaism. And I, inspired by my friend Len Lipkin, have felt compelled to wear my kippah while out on the street – something I never did before this week. The 11 victims in Pittsburgh died while practicing their Judaism. To honor their memory, let us boldly practice our Judaism.

Living proud Jewish lives also means standing up for our Jewish values of multi-faith dialogue, of protecting the vulnerable in our society, of working to end gun violence, and getting out the vote.

When Abraham dies at the end of this week’s Torah portion, he is laid to rest by his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac, the son who is tasked with carrying forward our Jewish tradition, and Ishmael, the progenitor of the Muslim people. In times of sorrow, our tradition teaches, we need each other.

The Muslim website Launchgood has raised over $200,000 to cover the costs of the funerals. And last Sunday’s vigil brought over 1500 community members from all walks of life into our sanctuary to stand as one, united against hate.

This attack was antisemitic. It was an attack on Jews. And it was also an attack on all the vulnerable communities in our country. This attack did not occur in a vacuum. I remember sitting with many of you at Mother Bethel AME church 3 years ago after another white supremacist attacked an AME church in Charleston. And even last week, Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones, two black Americans, were murdered in a Kentucky grocery store after a white supremacist failed to get into a black church down the road.

Boldly practicing our Judaism in the public square means standing up for the vulnerable in our midst. We are commanded no less than 36 times in the Torah to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Abraham is a stranger in the land Canaan when Sarah died. When seeking her burial plot, Ephron, of the native Hittites offers the land for free. (Genesis 23:11)

Tree of Life synagogue was targeted because they support immigrants. Specifically, HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The recent attacks on immigrants are directly related to antisemitism – both seek to demonize the ‘Other.’ Our country’s leadership needs to stop calling the Central Americans approaching the US border a “migrant caravan”- they are asylum seekers escaping conflicts partly caused by the US. They are us. I remember being at a shiva a couple years ago for a Holocaust survivor and refugee. His son showed me a notebook that his father had brought with him on his journey from Europe to South America and ultimately to the United States. At the back of the notebook was the word HIAS, with a phone number written next to it. That man was named Andres ‘Bandi’ Weisz. His son Philippe is the managing attorney of HIAS PA and will be speaking alongside a panel of other immigration experts here on the evening of November 28th.

A friend recently sent me an article about a gun shop owner in Colorado offering free AR15s to rabbis. Although perhaps coming from a place of love, I am not interested. Our tradition is one of peace, and assault style rifles are partially to blame for the murder of those 11 Jews. Instead of AR15s, another way we can respond to the Pittsburgh shooting is through our continued advocacy for gun safety. Our congregation is part of a national coalition called Do Not Stand Idly By, and I encourage anyone who wants to respond to this tragedy through gun violence prevention advocacy to join us.

Lastly, vote. VOTE. VOTE. It is no coincidence that anti-semitic incidents have been on the rise over the past two years. In 2017, we saw a nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the previous year. Even this week, after the attack in Pittsburgh, synagogues and cemeteries were vandalized. Antisemitism is real.

In a recent interview, George Selim of the Anti-Defamation League said:

There has been a normalization of hate and extremism both online and offline. The normalization of rhetoric – from the highest levels of retweets of individuals like David Duke, from posts and restatements that are associated with white nationalists in this country – has almost become normal or part of a global discourse.

Words matter. Voting can make a difference.

So how do we respond? Although our mourning may never truly end, with Shabbat, our period of shiva comes to a close and we begin to emerge back into the world. Find your path – but don’t remain seated. Stand up. Speak out. Our Torah commands us, “Do not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:3)

They say a ship is safest in its harbor but that’s not what ships were built to do.

Shabbat Shalom