October 26, 2019 — 27 Tishri 5780
Do you remember where you were when you first learned of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, a year ago tomorrow, October 27, 2018? I remember exactly where I was. I was right here. It was Shabbat morning, in the middle of services, and from the bimah I could see a restless energy, an edge, in the people in the pews that I had never seen before. Soon enough I would learn that people’s cell phones were going off, telling them that the massacre had happened, during Shabbat morning services, at a sister Conservative shul, in Pittsburgh. Here we are, a year later. We are on the eve of the first yahrtzeit of the Pittsburgh massacre, the worst bloodshed of American Jews in American Jewish history.
One year later, how do we think about Pittsburgh, and what do we do? In his book The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held makes a stunning point about the Jewish story. Namely, for reasons that we can never understand, in God’s cosmic order, the deepest suffering and the greatest blessing are intertwined. We would not pick this. We do not like this. If we had a choice, we would say no to this. But in the Torah, and in life, suffering and blessing for the Jewish people have always gone hand in hand.
At the very beginning of our story, in the Book of Genesis, as Rabbi Held puts it, God gives Abraham both good news and bad news. The good news is that Abraham you are going to be the father of a people. This will be a covenanted people. I, God, will be in sacred covenant with your descendants. They will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. I am going to give you the land of Israel. Here is the bad news, quoting God to Abraham in Genesis 15:13: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” The Jewish people here are heir to a dubious trifecta of suffering: strangers, enslaved, and oppressed, for four hundred years.
Now, if we could, if we had a choice, we might have said to God: God, thank you for this covenant. Thank you for the land of Israel and for allowing us to be as numerous as the stars. But the slavery part does not work for us. We are going to rsvp no to the 400 years of slavery.
Unfortunately, it does not work that way. We don’t get to choose. In the Torah, the story of the descent into slavery for those 400 years is totally core to the story of biblical Israel. We are constantly being reminded that we were slaves in Egypt until God took us out. Why does it have to be that way? Why do we have to have the suffering part, the slavery part? Rabbi Held quotes the teaching of a great Bible scholar named Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Her answer is that that “remains an unexplained aspect of God’s behavior in the world.” In other words, it just is. We don’t like it. We would never choose it. But for reasons known only to God, suffering is interwoven in the divine cosmos with blessing. First comes slavery, then comes freedom. First comes darkness, then comes light.
This troubling pattern is not only the pattern in the Torah. It is also the pattern of Jewish history. The very worst thing that ever happened to the Jewish people is followed up three years later by the very best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. The Shoah, the murder of the Six Million, takes place from 1941-1945. Three years later, in 1948, after 2,000 years, our beloved eretz yisrael, the State of Israel, is reborn in our ancestral homeland. We chafe at a causal connection. We resist it. Indeed it feels obscene. The murder of Six Million can never ever be justified, for any reason. And yet, we cannot doubt that there is a causal connection. The undeniable fact is that the Shoah did influence the UN vote which did lead to the creation of the Jewish state. The deepest suffering, and greatest blessing, are inexplicably intertwined.
And in the 71 years of Israel’s existence, the same pattern holds. Israel marks Yom Hazikaron, the infinite sadness felt for its soldiers who fought and died so that the Jewish state can live. Yom Hazikaron flows directly into Yom Haatzmaut, the jubilant celebration of Israel’s independence. The deepest suffering, and greatest blessing, are inexplicably intertwined.
If the painful intertwining of suffering and blessing in Jewish history teaches us anything, it is this. We don’t have a choice about the suffering. It is baked into the cosmos and has been since Genesis 15. But the Jewish people has always responded to this by not letting our suffering go to waste; by resolving that our suffering, which we did not choose, do not want, but are stuck with, is going to make us better, stronger, deeper, richer. Both the Torah and the modern State of Israel do this spiritual alchemy, turning our suffering into redemptive learning.
The Torah’s most frequent command is: you were slaves in the land of Egypt, you know what it is to suffer, therefore show compassion to the strangers in your midst. As Rabbi Held puts it, we are to convert memory into empathy.
So too the State of Israel, after the Shoah, is trying, as Micah Goodman shows in his book The Final Speech of Moses, to learn two lessons from our slavery and from the Shoah. Number one, never again be victims, never again be slaves, never again be led to slaughter. And, number two, never become Egyptians, never become a people that oppresses another people.
Our history is to make us better, richer, deeper.
What does all this mean to Pittsburgh as we think about the massacre one year later? What does all this mean to what we are supposed to do now?
I’ll never forget a sermon by our beloved departed teacher, Rabbi Chiel, who told the story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who had wanted to meet somebody from the Polish town of Piaseczno because there had been a great rabbi named Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro who was known as the Piaseczno Rebbe. Tragically the vast majority of the Jews of Piaseczno, like the Rebbe himself, were murdered in the Shoah, and Rabbi Carlebach had not been able to meet even one survivor from that town.
One day, Rabbi Carlebach is in Israel, in Tel Aviv, on Dizengoff Street. His attention is drawn towards a street cleaner, a man sweeping the streets, who had a handsome face and a deformed back. Rabbi Carlebach goes up to the street cleaner and strikes up a conversation.
Where are you from?
I am from a small village in Poland no one has heard of.
What is the name of your village?
Piaseczno? Rabbi Carlebach can hardly believe it. By any chance, did you know the Piaseczno Rebbe?
Did I know him? Of course I knew him. He was my rebbe.
Oh my God, says Rabbi Carlebach, I have been waiting my whole life to meet you. I have wanted to meet anyone who studied with the great Rebbe. Please, share with me one of his teachings.
There are no more teachings, said the street cleaner.
No please, I am begging you, please just share one teaching of the Piaseczno Rebbe.
At last the street cleaner continued: The Piaseczno Rebbe loved to teach young children. He would always end his stories to children the same way: Remember children, the most important thing in the world is to do somebody a favor.
When the Nazis came, I was in the camps. You have no idea what the camps were like.
At night people were howling and weeping. I often thought of taking my own life, but then I heard the words of the Rebbe: Remember children, the most important thing in the world is to do somebody a favor. Do you know how many favors I could do in the camps?
Somehow I survived the camps and came to Tel Aviv and got this job as a street cleaner. I could see other people getting on with their lives. Married. Children. Families would stroll down Dizengoff Street. The Nazis did experiments on my back, which left me deformed. Once I went to the ocean, and walked in, prepared to end my life. Just as the water was about to overwhelm me, I heard the voice of my Rebbe: Remember children, the most important thing in the world is to do somebody a favor. Do you know how many favors I can do on the streets of this world?
Which brings us back to Pittsburgh. How should we think about Pittsburgh, what do we do about Pittsburgh, one year later?
Go out from here, go out from here and do favors for people in the streets of our world.