Friday, November 9, 2018

After the Massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

These are the thoughts I shared with the community on Saturday, November 3, one week after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.


In the Torah reading this shabbat, Abraham suffers the loss of his wife Sarah.
We read ויבוא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה - Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and cry for her.
But then Abraham has to begin negotiations to find a burial plot for his wife Sarah.
And so he approaches his neighbors, the Hittites, and says גר ותושב אנכי עמכם ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem - I am a stranger and resident alien in your midst. Will you sell me a grave so I can bury my wife?
And they respond to him -- נשיא אלקים אתה בתוכנו -- nesi elokim atah be-tokheinu - Abraham, you may think of yourself as a stranger and resident alien, but to us, you are a leader. In fact, you are נשיא אלקים- you are raised up by God! We hold you in high esteem!
Well, if you read to the end of this passage, it turns out that the Hittites don’t end up holding him in high esteem - but Rabbi Harold Kushner has long used these two phrases to describe two different ways that Jews and others understand the Jewish community.
Sometimes, Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as גר ותושב ger ve-toshav. As strangers and resident aliens, not really belonging, not really accepted. And often persecuted and oppressed.
And sometimes Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as נשיא אלקים בתוכנו nesi elokim be-tokheinu - as leaders, those raised up, even respected for having a special relationship with God, fully welcomed into the societies in which we live, and having a responsibility to shape those societies.
And here’s the challenge: both were true about Abraham, and both are true about every Jewish community in Jewish history.
The assailant on Shabbat thought of Jews as interlopers who don’t belong, who are pulling the strings to create every disadvantage for the people he regards as authentic Americans; who are even perpetrating a genocide against European-Americans.
And his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with thousands of years of antisemitic words and acts of violence -- because this is nothing new.
When we had discussions with our older Learning Center students about this incident, we said ‘this is not the first time you are hearing about this sad fact that some people don’t like Jews. You know about this from as far back as the stories of Passover and Purim and Hanukkah.’
And just as his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with the history of antisemitism,
they are ALSO in sad continuity with hundreds of years of American home-grown racism and nativism, that labels various people INCLUDING Jews as dangerous outsiders.
Just confining ourselves to attacks on people at prayer: In recent years we have seen hate-filled murderous attacks on African-American Christians at prayer in Charleston; on Muslims at prayer in Quebec City; on Sikhs at prayer in Wisconsin -- all perpetrated by white supremacists. And had the Pittsburgh attack not happened, we would all be talking more about the Petersburg Kentucky attack, in which two people were murdered by yet another white supremacist solely because they are African-American -- and because the gunman was not able to get into the African-American church that was his real target.
And even THIS WEEK -- since this terrible incident - there are hateful slogans painted on a synagogue in Irvine CA; there are swastikas painted on a synagogue on Thursday in Brooklyn Heights, when there is a dramatic escalation of antisemitic chatter on social media celebrating last shabbat’s attack -- and the result is that many of us can feel flashbacks to earlier times in Jewish history.
How painful it is for me to hear more than one person say to me: “I am just glad that my {parent; grandparent; other relative} did not survive to see this happen in the United States.”
One of my friends asked: “Will the American Jewish community come to look back at this event as our Kristallnacht?
As you may know, this week we commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, referred to in German as Reichspogromnacht, the terrible Night of Broken Glass in 1938 that marked the beginning of the Shoah period.
Tor many German Jews, Kristallnacht was a wake-up call that the Jewish experience under the Nazis would be just as bad or worse than they had feared.
So my friend asks: is this Kristallnacht?
My answer is clear. Let’s look at some of the differences.
During Kristallnacht, the police were on the side of the assailants, providing no protection to the Jewish homes, synagogues, institutions and businesses that were destroyed.
And this week, four police officers are still in the hospital because of the bullets that they took as they subdued the assailant.
This week, even before the incident had been reported on the news, our own Chief of Police in Hoboken was informed and sent officers immediately to protect our synagogue and to send a message that they are standing by us.
During Kristallnacht, the Jews were isolated.
And this week, hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths and no faith came out to stand by the Jewish community in communities around the country - plus many more this shabbat.
On Monday night, less than 72 hours after the incident, our sanctuary was full to overflowing -- we had political leaders, as well as religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Sikh communities, standing with us, standing up to hate, proclaiming that what happened in Pittsburgh is the opposite of what is supposed to happen in a sanctuary, in a house of worship.
And that they treasure us for the ways we are different -
As we treasure them for the ways they are different.
And they know that in similar circumstances we have stood up for them.
(By the way: when people ask me why I spend so much of my time focused on interfaith cooperation activities -- part of the answer is that I feel that Jewish ethics and values demand this of me, but part of the answer is that there’s an element of self-interest. Truly, planning Monday night’s event did not take just 2 days -- it took several years of building and nurturing relationships.)
And you should see - - the bouquets of flowers, the bundles of roses,
The envelopes of letters and notes from our neighbors’ churches, some of which I have reprinted on the sheets that have been distributed;
The posters outside our neighboring houses of worship that announce prayers for the Jewish community -
The Pittsburgh Gazette front page headline that reads in Aramaic in Hebrew letters - יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא - the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. (That’s the kind of ‘dog whistle’ that I can get behind.).
I do long for a time when it could simply be expected that all political leaders would have the agenda of uniting the nation, especially at times of tragedy - helping us to come together and sense a common purpose rather than to sow division.
Not all political leaders today are interested in or capable of doing this, and we could use some help in forging more unity.
But apparently, when necessary, we know how to make the unity ourselves.
Sometimes we feel like the גר ותושב ger ve-toshav- the stranger or alien - but at other times we realize that in this society we are נשיא אלהים בתוכנו - nesi elohim be-tokheinu - we are treasured and raised up. We are a proud part of the mosaic of this country, sharing in the responsibility for its present and future.
And if we are both the strangers and the treasured ones -- it means we need to be vigilant but not afraid.
It means that we will NOT stop gathering in synagogues,
We will NOT stop practicing Jewish values as we understand them.
We will NOT stop emulating Abraham who welcomed strangers into his tent.
We will NOT stop fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
We will NOT stop emulating Joseph and Esther and Daniel who ascended to leadership roles in their lands and then sought to make wise decisions that would benefit EVERYONE.
We will NOT stop emulating the prophets Isaiah and Micah who preached a message of peace for ALL nations.
And….
We will NOT stop emulating Cecil and David of blessed memory, who would invite people every week into their spiritual home.
We will NOT stop emulating Jerry and and Richard and Bernice and Joyce of blessed memory, generous healers and sensitive teachers.
We will NOT stop emulating Rose and Sylvan and Daniel and Melvin and Irving of blessed memory, who built and sustained families and communities where the traditions of their ancestors could be passed on.
Each shabbat, when we recite the Mi Sheberakh le-holim, the prayer for people who are ill, we add six extra words, essentially to apologize to God that we are disturbing Shabbat by crying out on this day. We say: שבת היא מלזעוק ורפואה קרובה לבוא Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok, ur’fuah kerovah lavo. “Today is Shabbat, when one is not supposed to cry out in agony - and but we pray for healing soon.”
And this is our prayer today:
שבת היא מלזעוק Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok.
Today is Shabbat, when one should never have to cry out in agony - though we are crying out anyway.
May this and every future shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace, the peace that was tragically absent last week in Pittsburgh.
May it be a Shabbat of security, of community, of gratitude even at a terrible time.
ורפואה קרובה לבוא ur’fuah kerovah lavo.
And may healing come soon --
To those who are injured and remain hospitalized,
To those who are bereaved,
To those who are traumatized,
To those who are terrified,
To those who are sad and angry and exhausted.
May we find healing soon - because we have urgent work to do.

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