CHAYEY SARAH 5779
I begin this morning as I began Thursday night with the words of Psalm 19: Eyn omer v’eyn davarim (There is no speech, there are no words). What can we say? We’re all heartbroken, devastated by the massacre at the Etz Chaim, Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’ve been walking in a fog all week—not unlike after the deaths of my parents. At 1st I wanted it all to go away, to go on with my life as if nothing had happened. But it did happen and it would not let go of me.
This Shabbat is not just another Shabbat. It’s the Shabbat during the week of shiva for our 11 brothers and sisters who were brutally murdered while praying. On Shabbos! The killer’s bullets were aimed at us all. “All JEWS must die,” he shouted as he opened fire. The Etz Chaim synagogue is in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood—not much different than right here in Toco Hills. As I mentioned Thursday night, I’m a student of American Jewish history and I can tell you that nothing like this has ever happened in America before. We thought America was different—that this could and did happen in Europe, India or Israel, but not here!!! They were murdered while in shul on Shabbos—our day of rest! What safer place is there than in shul?
The Jews of Pittsburgh and their neighbors feel this massacre as an assault on their home, on their people. The victims were good, upstanding people—the backbone of their shul. They were the people who welcomed you at the front door—joyful participants and leaders.
And Jews, wherever we are on this Shabbat—from Jerusalem to New York, from Paris to Miami, from Sidney Australia to LA—wherever Jews are gathering in large numbers, we feel the pain, we feel the anger, and we feel the loss of our fellow Jews for kol Yisrael areyvim zeh bazeh (All Jews are tied to one another and responsible for each other’s welfare).
In this week’s Torah portion we see Abraham—a wealthy and influential man—traumatized by the death of a loved one. He becomes unsure, uncertain of his place in the world as he says to the Hittites around him (Gen. 23:4): Geyr v’toshav anochi imachem (I am a resident but a stranger in your midst). At a moment of terrible personal crisis, Abraham seems to lose his footing, thinking himself a stranger.
Now we, as American Jews, are unsure of our place, confronting the reality that we dreaded—that it could happen here. We are mourning the loss of American Jewish innocence. So this is a Shabbat of sadness and mourning as well as a Shabbat of gratitude and thanksgiving for all the support we have received from our fellow Americans reassuring us that we are not strangers!
But it must also be a Shabbat of defiance and continuity. And so Synagogues all over the world are today more filled, rather than less filled. We will not run away. We will not cower. I suggest each of us should find a way to show our Jewish pride—more than ever. Put a mezuzah on all your doors. Wear a kipah proudly this week wherever you go. Add a mitzvah you’re not currently doing in memory of the victims—whether it’s wrapping Tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles, refraining from non-kosher foods. If you’re not a “regular” at shul, resolve to come to shul at least once a month and show the world that your shul is filled with vibrancy, love and life. Be a proud Jew!
Right after Shabbos last week, I turned on the TV to hear reports of this attack. It took more than ½ hour for me to get the story straight as I turned from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC. What I did hear right away was that it was all Donald Trump’s fault! Trump did not do this. I heard Donald Trump described by Danny Danon—Israel’s ambassador to America—as the best friend the Jews ever had in an American president. It was offensive to me to hear this tragedy politicized for political advantage, and sadly many Jews were doing it as well.
Hatred of Jews comes from both the right and the left. Jews are too left-wing; Jews are too right-wing; Jews assimilate too much; Jews don’t mix enough with others. Some say Jews are behind capitalism: “Remember Rothschild.” Others say Jews are behind socialism and communism: “Remember Marx,” they insist.
For 2,000 years, Jews were enslaved, oppressed, expelled, burned and gassed, all the while being told to go back to where they came from. Today, those who hate Jews tell those who returned to Israel, to their homeland, to leave and give it to the Arabs.
We Jews are frequently told that we are white. Obviously they haven’t been to Shaarei Shamayim. It’s almost always as an accusation; yet no other people in the history of man has been targeted for so long, and in such numbers, by those who stand for white supremacy. Anti-Semitism knows no logic. The Pittsburgh 11 were slaughtered simply because Robert Bowers hated Jews!
There was some good that has come out of Pittsburgh this week of shiva. After Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass pogrom in 1938 that began the Holocaust, where the glass was broken in Jewish owned stores, synagogues and Jewish homes vandalized, which will we commemorate next week—Germans did not come to help the Jews clean up. Quite the contrary, the Jews were forced to pay for all the damage the Nazi hoodlums caused…the Germans claimed they brought it on themselves! But look what happened this week:
- A Persian immigrant, Shay Khatiri, with no connection to the Jewish community started an on-line GoFundMe to help the Jewish families in Pittsburgh. He hoped to raise $50,000. To date, he had raised over a million dollars!
- A group called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue had a fundraiser. Listen to the words of Wasi Mohamed, from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh: “We just wanna know what you need. You know, if it’s more money, let us know. If it’s people outside your next service protecting you, let us know, we’ll be there. If you need organizers on the ground, we will provide them. If you need anything at all, if you need food for the families…we’ll be there.” That’s America at its best!
-I passed by a Post Office and a Federal building this week and all the flags were flying at half-staff. I asked why and was told, “Because the President of the U.S. and the governor of the State of Georgia issued a decree to do so.” That’s America at its best!
Pittsburgh also reminded us of Jews at their best. All of the Jews killed were over 50. They were that synagogue’s minyonaires. Every shul has people like that—who help insure there’s a minyan…people who live by the words: Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh bazeh (All Jews are responsible one for another).
Yes, we take care of our own. But not only our own! Robert Bowers, the killer who cried, “I want to kill all the Jews…” was kept alive at the Allegheny General Hospital where at least 3 of the doctors and nurses who cared for him were Jews. The President of the hospital, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, who happens to be a member of the Tree of Life Congregation, told the media: “We are here to take care of sick people. We’re not here to judge you…we’re here to take care of people who need our help.”
We are a remarkable people, and we live in a remarkable country. Sure, there are anti-Semites—always were and always will be! Anywhere and everywhere! As we read in the Haggadah: B’chol dor vador omdim aleynu l’chaloteynu (In every generation they rise up to destroy us). But there has never been a country that has been as good to our people as the United States of America—the greatest country on Gd’s green earth as Michael Medved is fond of saying. So we as a people must stay strong; we as a country must remain optimistic. We dare not give into despair.
The Etz Chaim Tree of Life synagogue takes its name from the passage from the Book of Proverbs we sing as we put the Torah away. It contains the passage: drachecha darchey no-am v’chol n’tivoteha shalom (its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace). May Gd bless our people and our country with pleasantness, civility and peace. Amen!