Chayeh Sarah 2018 – Reflecting on Pittsburgh

A week ago today, we gathered in synagogue, and we read in our sacred torah, the birth and bris of on of our patriarchs, Isaac. We recalled an ancient tradition that evokes power and faith in the most meaningful of ways. Hundreds of miles away, without us knowing it, a bris, on the 8th day of a Jewish baby’s life, was taking place, and simultaneously, in that sacred building, there was a tragedy of epic proportions. Over the past several days, funerals, another step on the lifecycle of our people have occurred, with the same reverence offered, with tears of sorrow, not tears of joy.

Today, we come together to celebrate a bar mitzvah, and as you already learned from Adam’s wisdom, people whom we love are sometimes gone in an instant, so we must feel and display gratitude.

So what is it that we, as a Jewish community, can be grateful for, this week-a week in which our people, were killed.

On one hand, it feels like very little. Instead of focusing on what extraordinary programs we can offer and classes we should have and rituals we should create, conversations have been about security and preparadeness, and anti semitism.

And yet, there were moments this week that I was grateful for, and though I would give anything for last week to not have taken place, this morning, in the context of our parasha, Chaye Sarah, I want to reflect and focus on three things:

I want to focus on those who were killed. I want to to focus on the communal response. And i want to focus on the baby that was having a bris.

As mentioned, this week’s parasha is about the death of sarah, but it is called Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah. As harold alper taught us last year during Men’s club shabbat, when one speaks about the death of someone the true test of a person is actually what people say about their life.

In thinking about the 11 people that were murdered in shul, it was they and their lives and their values that we must reflect on, so that their murders aren’t in vain.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald wrote: How incredible is our community, that when eleven of our members are killed, the whole Jewish world completely stops? Stops like the world has stopped turning. And mourns, not just with “thoughts and prayers,” but really really mourns. For people we never met, but recognize in our guts and bones are family. And, not just the Jewish world, but our interfaith sisters and brothers as well, who show up in the thousands to vigils, who leave flowers at synagogue gates, who cry and rage and sit in silence with us. Remarkable.

And, in particular, I can’t help but dwell on the fact that these eleven were mostly from groups that are so often treated as invisible. The very old. The intellectually disabled. The early shul goers who sit in the back, who form the beloved-but-cantankerous backdrop of every shul in America, who object whenever the rabbi changes the tunes and who don’t have their names on the wall. These people, so often at the margins, are the ones who bring us all together.

The 2nd set of lives we must reflect on are those who are living. Certainly the survivors-the clergy that were in the building, the other people around, the police, the medical professionals, everyone who helped.

Then we must think abou the greater pittsburgh community and how they came together-the political leadership, the sports teams, the religious organizations-for example, the Muslim community raised over $120k to offset all the funeral expenses for the families.

And then we must thinkg about those of us in our communities and how we responded. How our interfaith community responded.

Dov Ben Shimon, the CEO of the Metrowest Federation, wrote the following reflection this week when thking about the communtiy-

I spent a significant amount of time today talking with representatives of national Jewish organizations about security issues.

We talked about how we are now looking at the end of the age of innocence for American Jewish life, in many respects. About how this must be a sustained effort.

On my way to the briefings my Uber driver was Emile, a Haitian. He came to the US as an immigrant many years ago, but his family had received food and medicine from the Israeli field hospital that had been paid for and funded by emergency funds donated by our United Jewish Appeal, our Jewish Federations. When he heard me on a phone call talking about Pittsburgh and the attack, he told me how he and his children had cried when they heard about the attack.

And when he dropped me off he gave me a hug goodbye.

When I left the briefings my driver’s name was Tariq. And he was Syrian.

And he asked me if I’d heard the news. Yes, I said. I’m Jewish. It’s heartbreaking and awful. And I told him about Emile, because we had a long conversation in the Manhattan traffic.

“Get out of the car,” he said, as we stopped at a light at Lexington and 50th.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Come on, get out,” he said.

Somewhat nervously, I got out of the car.

And he got out too. And gave me a hug.

And then we got back in his car, together, and he drove me back to Jersey.

At then End of Chayeh Sarah-Isaac and Ishmael, brothers lost because of conflict, came together to bury their father Abraham. This week, we saw people who, might disagree on many things, come together, to try to mourn, together.

Maybe we can come together not just for mourning…

Maybe we can come together, for living.

And that brings me to the final reflection, that of the baby who was having a bris last week.

Zev Steinberg wrote the following poem this week: In it, his use of hebrew is profund, as we see how the name we might be given, can give us motivation for our role in the world:

What is your name by Zev Steinberg

Dedicated to the baby who was to be named at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018.

Little boy, what’s your name – do you have one?

Sweet baby, just eight days, what should we call you?

I have heard the sacred circumcision postponed for jaundiced yellow, but never before for bloodshed red.

Is your name Shalom? We long for peace in this troubled world. I hope you are Shalom.

Is your name Nachum? Oh, how we need to be comforted in our grief. I hope you are Nachum.

Is your name Raphael? Our broken hearts and bleeding souls need healing. I hope you are Raphael.

You should have been carried high into the congregation on Shabbat morning – passed from loving hands to loving hands – on a cushioned pillow to receive your Jewish name. Instead your elders fell and were carried out on stretchers in plastic bags. Their names on tags.

Is your name Moshe? Our unbearable anguish and rage demands justice. I hope you are Moshe.

Is your name Ariel? We need the ferocious strength of lions to protect our people. I hope you are Ariel.

Is your name Barak? We need courageous warriors to vanquish our enemies. I hope you are Barak.

The blood on Shabbat morning was supposed to be covenantal not sacrilegious, sacramental not sacrificial, sacred not unholy. The tears were supposed to be of boundless joy not bottomless sorrow. The cries were supposed to be “mazel tov” not the mourner’s kaddish.

Is your name Simcha? We need an end to sadness by bringing joy into our world. I hope you are Simcha.

Is your name Yaron? We need an end to mourning by bringing song into our lives . I hope you are Yaron.

Is your name Matan? We need the gift of children who will bring a better tomorrow. I hope you are Matan.

So little boy, what’s your name? Take them all if you will. Take a thousand names. Be Peace and Comfort and Healing. Be

Justice and Strength and Courage. Be Joy and Song and a Gift to the world. Be every good name and every good thing.

And, Sweet baby, take one more name if you will – because I hope you will be blessed with a long, blissful, beautiful and meaningful life…

I hope you are Chaim.


So here is what I am grateful for:

I am grateful for all of you who come here to SPS, day in and day out. Week in and week out. Making sure that we are able to pray. Making sure that we can celebrate each lifecycle event. The brises and the namings. The bar and bat mitzvahs. The aufrufs. Your presence weekly allows our community to thrive.

I am grateful for the larger community. For those that shed tears with us. For those that showed up. For those who wanted to do something.

And I am grateful for life. I don’t take my role here lightly and I can’t imagine what the rabbi is feeling in Pittsburgh right now, and god willing, i will never need to. But I a grateful for our lives-that we can live and breathe. That we can walk around. That we can love and hope and dream. That we can cry and we can celebrate.

And so, on this week of parashat chaye sarah, the parasha where we see death and life, love and loss, I am grateful for being Jewish. Because it is my faith and my communities that provides the framework for how to understand the incomprehensible.

May we all know better days ahead. Shabbat shalom.