Last Friday morning I sat quietly in the sanctuary by myself for some time. As I looked at the bimah I wondered what I would have done had a gunman confronted our community. I then turned toward the seats and thought about where each of our Shabbat morning regulars sit — God forbid, had the attack occurred at the Center, who would have been hit? When the shooter began his deadly spree of violence at Tree of Life on October 27th in Pittsburgh it was 9:54 AM: here we were finishing shaharit (morning service) and preparing to take the Torah from the ark. And then it occurred to me that if the assailant had known anything about synagogue attendance patterns, he would have postponed his attack for 45 minutes, since that’s when the bulk of the congregation arrives. Thank God, he didn’t . . .
Anti-Semitism is as old as Western civilization. We’d feel better if we could offer a tidy and credible explanation for the hatred of Jews and the myriad self-contradictions it entails. How can otherwise rational people believe we are capitalist and communists? How can Jews be despised for being weak . . . and then feared for secretly controlling the world? We are accused for being rootless globalists, yet are excoriated for our tribalism. Israel acts like Nazi Germany in its treatment of Palestinians, but then again, the Holocaust is a Jewish fabrication, which never happened. There is no simple explanation of a phenomenon that is as enduring as it is pernicious.
We are all God’s children. Yet to be equal is not to shun variety and diversity. We are unique and celebrate our differences; we have long refused to assimilate and disappear into the majority culture. Jews are proud that they’ve thrived for thousands of years, long after other ancient peoples became extinct.
But there are some who fear difference; individuals who cannot feel good about themselves unless they’re tearing down others. To such persons the Jew is a red flag, a reminder of their own insecure smallness. Anti-Semitism thrives in places and times of cultural upheaval, in societies where suspicion runs rampant about those who look differently, love differently, speak differently, or pray differently. The us-versus-them mentality, which suffuses so much of our social and political discourse today, nourishes prejudice of all kinds. When a white supremacist goes on a shooting spree of a Sikh temple, it is only a matter of time before an African-American church is attacked. When a mosque becomes the target of a hate crime, you can be a synagogue is next.
This is hardly a new lesson. In the wee hours of an April morning in 1958, a bomb exploded at the entrance of the Jacksonville Jewish Center in its old location in Springfield at 3rd and Silver. Not five minutes later, another explosion rocked James Weldon Johnson Junior High, an a segregated, African-American school four miles away. A call just minutes before the bombs went off claimed responsibility for both. Should anyone be surprised?
The name of this week’s Torah portion is Hayye Sarah, which means “The life of Sarah.” Yet ironically, the reading begins with the announcement of her death! In honoring the stories of the dead, we not only keep them alive, but we add layers of additional meaning to our own lives. Inveterate optimists, Judaism forbids us to engage in despair and perpetual sorrow. No matter how bleak the situation, the Psalmist finds his way from darkness to light: “You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that my whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly; O Lord my God, I will praise You forever” (Psalm 30:12-13).
This Shabbat and for countless more after that, an anti-Semite in an orange jump suit will languish in a prison cell, and perhaps after that, on death row. But even now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning services are being held at synagogues throughout Pittsburgh and, indeed, around the world. Tree of Life will be restored. We are resilient. Push us back and we spring forward.
When the shooter was brought to the ER, he shouted, “I want to kill all the Jews.” Unbeknownst to him, three of the doctors and a nurse who cared for him at Allegheny General were Jewish, one of them the son of a rabbi. Despite his horrific crime, he was treated fairly and impartially by the very people he wished to destroy. It reminds me how physicians at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, time and again, have saved the lives of terrorists apprehended while committing acts of mayhem and murder.
In an era marked by naked partisanship and tribalism, we overcome hatred with radical demonstrations of humanity. Rabbi Noah Shalom Barzovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, who lost nearly all of his family members to the Holocaust, observed, “Loving kindness builds the world; it is the very foundation of the universe because the Holy One created all things from hesed — is it not the way of the source of the good to produce good? Conversely, that which removes loving kindness from the world destroys the world. The path to draw divine hesed toward humanity is through performance of acts of loving-kindness, as the Talmud states (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b): “All who have compassion on God’s creatures merits God’s compassion” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Hayye Sarah).
We are neither pacifists nor polyannas. We defend ourselves when necessary, we take security and safety seriously. But our task in this world is to overwhelm evil with goodness, to quench the fire of hatred with kindness. We respond to loss with life. In this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham dies his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together to bury their father. Though separated by destiny, they seek comfort and unity in each other’s presence. On Monday evening, hundreds of non-Jewish residents of Jacksonville, joined our community to show unity and seek comfort with us. The phone calls I have received from other faith leaders; the letter I received from the Bishop of St. Augustine; the donations and cards from non-Jewish neighbors in our community; the $150,000 raised by the Muslim community for Tree of Life and its members; and, of course, those who are in attendance at services this morning to show solidarity. Countless acts of kindness flow together to form a mighty river of humanity to extinguish the flames of intolerance.
The American Jewish poet, Charles Reznikoff, once wrote: “Out of the Jewish dead, out of the greatly wronged, a people teaching and doing justice; out of the plundered a generous people; out of the wounded a people of physicians; and out of those who met only hate, a people of love, a compassionate people.” In the face of those who seek to divide Americans, we unite; in the presence of death we look for life; confronted by hate, we practice kindness. Where there is darkness we kindle light, where suffering exists we practice empathy. Truth crushed to the earth will rise again. And so will we. Am Yisrael Hai — the people Israel lives!