Tending the Tree of Life in the Valley of the Shadow


How do we even begin to talk about last Shabbat in Pittsburgh?  Just one week ago today, as we were gathered here in our holy Sanctuary, the holiness of the Tree of Life sanctuary was shattered.

Just one week ago, as we concluded our service, which was wall-to-wall joy and blessing, the news slowly began to filter into our congregation.  What happened?  Are you sure?  In a synagogue?  In America?

How do we take that in?

How do we take in that in 2018, in a community just like our own, an anti-Semite committed the most vile murders of innocents, of grandparents and beloved friends?  Of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.

How do we take in the enormity of that loss?  That last Shabbat in America, eleven Jews at prayer were gunned down in a hail of bullets; that first responders rushed in to find such horror that even world-weary police officers could not take it in; and that those who came for a baby naming were turned into mourners?  That today, our bar mitzvah Aaron, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, must face the resurgent evils of anti-Semitism?

As our Jewish world has marched through a heartsick week of funeral after funeral, of sitting shiva, there have been many expressions of pain, anger, heartbreak, shock.

That shock is one we all feel.  We have had reason for so many years to take for granted the shining beacon of America, a land of freedom, possibility, and safety.  Our ancestors fled anti-Semitism “over there” in Europe.  Over there in Europe they needed guards around synagogues and had to be concerned wearing kippot on the street.  Over there in Europe Jews were threatened.  Over there in Europe was the valley of the shadow.  Here in America, we planted our tree of life – thriving, proud.  Today, in the wake of Pittsburgh, we feel, viscerally, that our tree of life is in the valley of the shadow.

Chillingly, next Shabbat will mark the 80-year anniversary of Kristallnacht, the moment a hostile country exploded into the horrors of the Holocaust.  We can look at that confluence of history and say that no matter how far we come, we will always be re-living Kristallnacht.  As we have learned all too well, the scourge of anti-Semitism flourishes wherever it is let in.

Where hate is accepted and endorsed, it creeps into the soul of a society until the flywheel of history is turned, and suddenly what was abhorrent and inconceivable becomes conceivable.  The massacre last Shabbat confirmed: it can happen here.

And yet, every moment in the week since has shown that it does not have to.

On Kristallnacht, when people were beaten, the police protected the attackers.  Last Shabbat, four officers were wounded rushing in at great risk.

On Kristallnacht, the German community turned on their Jewish neighbors.  In Squirrel Hill and around the country, our non-Jewish neighbors and our politicians on both sides of the aisle have come and reached out in steadfast support.

On Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish communities were torn down.  This past week, Muslim organizations raised over $125,000 to go to supporting and sustaining the Tree of Life community.

Across our nation, coalitions have come together to stand up against anti-Semitism.

On Sunday I was in Washington, D.C., at a service with the Adas Israel congregation in a synagogue just like this with standing room only – a show of strength – as Jews and Christians and people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds came together.  At the end of a profoundly moving service, they invited the over one hundred clergy in attendance to the bimah.  Clergy wearing kippot and clergy wearing collars stood shoulder to shoulder.  An African-American pastor embraced me and the Sikh leader in front of me.  We wrapped our arms around each other and sang, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” “We will build a world of love.”  And in that moment, it really felt that we could.

It is easy, in the valley of the shadow, to lose sight of the tree of life.  But in this past week here at the shul, we received multiple messages from local priests and pastors reaching out to remind us: We are not alone.

One particularly powerful message came from Pastoral Coordinator Brian Romer Niemiec from the Sacred Heart Church in Newton: “At our 4PM Mass,” he wrote, “we will be remembering all those from the Sacred Heart community who have died in this last year by lighting a candle in the sanctuary as each name is read aloud.  This year we will add eleven more candles and read eleven more names as we remember these men and women who died practicing their faith.”

In the face of loss, it is easy to feel lost and alone.  In fact, in our parasha today, Abraham feels lost and alone.  Bereaved, he feels alien in a land he is no longer sure is home. “Ger v’Toshav Anochi,” he says, “I am a stranger and a sojourner.”   But the parasha ends with him finding a place, finding love again, and finding resilience, bringing into the world six more children, the hope and faith of a new commitment to a new generation.

Indeed, this morning’s parasha is the parasha of resilience.  In this parasha, Sarah dies, but it is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah.  And that is what today is all about: the life that we bring back into a broken world.

Our parasha begins with Isaac bereft and ends with him comforted because he can open up his tent to Rebecca, who carries Sarah’s legacy forward.

Those were our ancestors.  That is us.  As your presence here today affirms, we will not cower, we will not be afraid, we will rise up and we will show up to affirm life.

And yet, even this moment seems not to be immune from the polarization that has gripped our nation.  In the past few days since it was announced that I would be delivering this sermon, members have reached out to me to ask that I make sure to point out that this is no time for politics, or that I make sure to say that this is exactly the time for politics – go straight from shul to the ballot box.

One member asked that I emphasize that this was anti-Semitism pure and simple, isolated to one ideology which affects us uniquely as Jews.  Another, that I make sure to say that this is the natural consequence of hate speech emboldening the ugliest parts of our society to step out from the shadows.  Another, that I be careful – because to say either is to speak in coded language, and make no mistake, even in our mourning of this massacre, people are taking sides.

But here is what I want to say. We must not break into sides.  This is anti-Semitism.  And this is hatred.  One does not exclude the other.

This past week, I went to a conference for rabbis called the Peacemakers Scholars Conference.  It began with sobering examples of societies who collapsed under the weight of violence and hatred.   After two days, the entire point of the conference could be summed up in one sentence: Societies survive tumultuous times when, instead of turning on each other, they turn toward each other.

In the valley of the shadow, for the tree of life to bloom again, we face our greatest test – will we be torn apart or will we come together?

In the valley of the shadow, will we elevate what makes us strongest, which is not our hatred or even our righteous anger, but our love?

In the valley of the shadow, will we find points of connection to stitch the significant tears in the fabric of the American soul, of our own Jewish communal soul, together?

The murderer did not care if the early-morning daveners at Tree of Life were Republicans or Democrats.

Isn’t there enough hate in this world?

There is already too much darkness.  Let us, here today, bring light.

There is already too much division.  Let us come together, not because we agree, but because we can love each other even though we don’t always agree.  The world needs us now.

There is already too much fear.  Let us respond with resilience: We are not going to be beaten down.  We are not going to be torn apart.  That is not what we stand for.  That is not who we are.

Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear.  Our tree of life is stronger than hate.  May we tend it, together.