This week’s sermon on Chayei Sarah and the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh
Undo it, take it Back
Undo it, take it back, make every day the previous one
until I am returned to the day before the one that made
you gone. Or set me on an airplane traveling west,
crossing the date line again and again, losing this day,
then that, until the day of loss still lies ahead, and you
are here instead of sorrow.
I am not a person who is typically at a loss for words, or songs, or ideas for action. But last Shabbat, as we prepared to leave after services, we learned that a gunman had entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and murdered 11 people during their Shabbat worship. While we were shocked by this news, it does not surprise us that he was spewing words of hatred towards Jews and immigrants, carrying a military-grade weapon. This was an act of terrorism towards our people that is unprecedented in the history of the United States. And this is also an example of the violence and hatred that are now the norm in our country.
Suddenly, I found myself at a complete loss, as I’m sure many of us did. What do we say when that happens? What do we do? How can we help this community in the wake of their great loss? How do we go on living, and praying, and singing, in the face of such a tragedy?
It feels like no accident that the Torah portion we read this week is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. Though it also centers on Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, really, the entire portion is about how we mourn our dead.
“And Sarah lived to be 127 years old—such was the span of Sarah’s life. Sara died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (Gen. 23: 1-2).
Two verbs are used for how Abraham responds to the death of his beloved wife. Lispod means to mourn, but also to eulogize, to share stories of our loved ones. Livkot means to wail. The word for wailing, livkotah, is written with one letter smaller than the others. We, like Abraham, stand diminished by our grief.
Often, these two modes of grieving are mixed. We need to give voice to the rawness of our grief, the tragedy of our loss, the fear and anger that rose up in us in response to this act of terror. We need to express this pain as those who are left behind.
And we need to tell the stories of those whose lives were so abruptly ended.
Reading the stories, and seeing the pictures, of the people who died in Pittsburgh, it struck me how, wherever we go, there are the same types of people in every synagogue, like playing cards in a deck. The middle-aged brothers who came to synagogue together. The enthusiastic greeter who made sure everyone had a seat, and a prayer book opened to the right page. The elderly matriarch who still hosted holiday dinners in her nineties. The man in an interfaith marriage who led workshops for other interfaith couples. The couple that still davenned together in the synagogue where they had married decades ago. The widows and widowers who came to shul alone. These people could so easily have been our people. They were our people.
These are stories of ordinary synagogue-goers, the people who showed up every week and knew everyone in the community. And these are also stories of unique individuals who displayed remarkable courage. Among them was Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a primary care physician who treated HIV patients back when the stigma still prevented many from accessing care. He died running towards the gunman, not away, his last act an attempt to attend to the wounded.
The story of the gunman will, no doubt, be prevalent in the news media in the weeks to come. But we are tasked with the mitzvah of hesped: to tell and retell the stories of those who lost their lives, so that we might drown out the gunman’s words of hate with stories of kindness and courage.
Once Abraham has completed these acts of mourning, he proceeds to seek out a burial plot in the land of Canaan. At first glance, this passage seems overly detailed. We literally overhear the negotiations that Abraham makes with a local leader. We know how many times they went back and forth. We know what he paid for the cave of Machpelah. Why do we need so much detail?
On a normal week, we might read this passage as Abraham staking a claim in the land of Canaan. This burial cave is the first spot that Abraham truly owns in the land that God promised to him. He doesn’t want it to be a gift or a loan. He wants to own it outright, and pass it on to his children.
But this Shabbat, I am reading it in a different way. As we bury our dead in a country we have lived in for generations, we are also saying, as Abraham once did: I am not a guest here. I am not a stranger. Your giving me space to live and work, to raise my children and bury my dead—that is not a kindness you are doing to me. That is not something you can give to me one day, considering yourself to be generous, and take away the next, when you’ve changed your mind. That is my right. This is my country. I am not going anywhere. And I will not be made to feel like I do not belong. I will not be made to live in fear, or diminish myself, or lock myself away.
In purchasing the burial cave, Abraham is not only mourning his loss. He is thinking about the future. He has purchased the cave where the majority of our biblical ancestors will be buried. He is rooting himself firmly in the land. Which is why it is no coincidence that the very next chapter shows Abraham seeking out a wife for his son, Isaac. Having mourned and buried his wife, he turns to ensuring his legacy.
He sends a servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac. And that servant, Eliezar, finds Rebecca. While the family she will join is still in mourning, Rebecca is so full of life that she practically jumps off the page. She is strong—drawing water for all ten of Eliezar’s camels. She is generous—inviting him to enjoy food and lodging in her family’s home. She is courageous—agreeing to leave her home and family to face a new destiny with a single word elech, I will go.
But perhaps most importantly, she is a source of comfort to Isaac. Soon after they meet, we learn that “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and she became his wife and he loved her. Thus did Isaac take comfort after the death of his mother” (Genesis 24:67).
We wail. We remember. We bury. We look to the future. We love. We comfort. And the last act of mourning our Torah portion teaches us? We come together.
Abraham’s burial comes at the end of this parasha, almost as an afterthought. And who buries him? Isaac and Ishmael, brothers who had presumably been estranged from one another for years. In this moment, there is no animosity between them. In this moment, they are not divided. In this moment, they are united in their grief, and in their love.
If anything has brought me hope in this dark week, it has been the love and support of our neighbors from other faiths. The first people to contact me with messages of support, before I even realized that I needed to be supported, were my minister friends. We received a beautiful letter from Pastor Rossi, well-wishes from our Christian and Muslim friends at One America. A friend of mine from high school, a practicing Catholic in North Carolina, had her young boys make signs for the local synagogue, saying “Hate has no home here,” “May your Shabbat be filled with peace,” and simply, “Love.” We now know that in our people’s darkest days, our neighbors will stand beside us. And we also know that when hatred and violence darken the lives of our neighbors, it is our responsibility to stand beside them in solidarity and love. We will be called to provide comfort. We will be called upon to demand action. Yes, this happened to us. But it doesn’t only happen to us.
Chayei Sarah is about the death of Sarah. But its title actually means “the life of Sarah.” When we read this portion, let us consider not only how we will mourn our dead, but how we will live our lives going forward.
Will we allow ourselves to be consumed by hatred, or will we continue to build our world from love?
Will we have the courage to live proudly as Jews, or will we let this terrorist win by making us afraid?
Will we accept hatred and violence as the norm in our society, or will we demand change from our nation’s leaders?
In the wake of the shootings, we pledged to Show Up for Shabbat. Where will we show up when Shabbat is over? I pray that we, and those who love us, will show up in the voting booth, choosing our nation’s leaders. I pray that we will show up in public spaces and in the media, speaking out against gun violence and fearmongering and white supremacy. And I pray that, whenever there is suffering in our world, we will run to show up for those who are suffering, as our neighbors have shown up for us.