Post Pittsburgh, Pre-midterm Elections: Parashat Chaye Sarah (November 2, 2018)


I found out about the killing at the Pittsburgh synagogue last Shabbat shortly after it hit the news. A Christian clergy friend of mine called me from out of state to offer condolences. Thinking it quite odd for him to call me at all, let alone on Shabbat, I answered the phone. He didn’t know he’d be breaking the news to me. And all week I received more condolences and hugs — by text, by email, by phone, in person at the various vigils — from Christian & Muslim colleagues reaching out to their Jewish friends. I am so grateful.

And last Saturday afternoon, as the news of the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue percolated through our community, Juval sent me a text. Maybe we should have a havdalah gathering tonight at BCC. Yes, I said, and he immediately sent out an announcement to our various lists. With about 2 hours notice, a minyan or so of people came. I reminded us that night of the many times through the years our community has gathered on short notice to grieve and mourn, to stand in solidarity, or vigil, to rally or march in protest. Those days are far from over. One of the guests who attended last Saturday night, a straight ally rabbi friend to BCC, said he wanted to come to BCC that night because he wanted to go someplace where people wouldn’t be shocked at what happened. A powerful comment, a poignant reminder or perhaps wake up call.

So many in our community know what it feels like to be threatened, to be attacked. Oddly, to be not seen, then when seen to be chased, to be threatened with erasure. To be unseen, chased, erased…
And yet we are a people who don’t always see each other for who we are or why we’re here. That is why this Shabbat of solidarity, or coming together — a call that went out to Jews all over our country this week — has extra meaning for our community. We need come together not just in prayer and song, though that may bring us comfort, but in commitment to one another not just to stand or sit beside each other, but to help hold each other up, to come with the intent of learning about each other, and a true desire to want to know the joys and sorrows, the needs and desires of each other.
Who needs our help? And how can we be helpful — as individuals and as a community?

This week in Torah — Parashat Chaye Sarah — we read of the deaths of Sarah and of Abraham (and also Ishmael). And we read about the coming together of Isaac and Rebekah — and how their coming together made possible the future of the Jewish people.

We read about how Abraham came to weep for Sarah when she died at age 127 (he was 137 when she died and would live another 38 years), and then purchased from the Hittite’s the Cave of Machpelah, which exists today in Hevron. If you are a frequent traveler to Israel, chances are you’ve been escorted to the sites of many biblical places, but two such places that get the most visitors are the burial places of our ancestors — the tomb of Rachel and the Cave of Machpelah where, as recorded in Genesis, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, are buried. Hebron is mentioned 87 times in the Bible, and is the world’s oldest Jewish community, and also one of the saddest for the ongoing conflict there between Muslims and Jews, since both traditions make pilgrimage to grave of their shared patriarch Abraham there.

In fact on this Shabbat Chaye Sarah it is a tradition for some religious Jews to make pilgrimage to Hevron — thousands of people are expected this year again (last year the crowd estimate was 35,000). “An invasion,” some might call it, and indeed there are many soldiers sent there to keep order, for almost always there are skirmishes, outbreaks of violence between Muslims and Jews, who live near each other in that small city of Hebron, near each other but hardly together.

One of the tenderest legends of the Cave of Machpelah — Judaism’s first Jewish cemetery — is the midrash that the cave is also the burial place of Adam & Eve, and inside the cave itself is the entry to the Garden of Eden.

Let me read you, as I have often over the years, a passage from Yossi Klein Halevi’s 2001 book: At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
Here is Halevi’s heartbreaking description of this place that had been his “favorite place of pilgrimage,” but in more recent years, because of the more recent violence there between Jews and Muslims, had become for him “no longer an entrance into the Garden [of Eden], but only its exit.” [excerpts on p.37-39]

We are living in a time when our own country often feels like an exit from the Garden of Eden.

The alleged shooter in Pittsburgh [Robert Bowers], apparently called out in particular the Jewish non-profit organization, founded in 1881, known as HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) an organization with a long proud history of helping settle Jewish refugees and immigrants to this country (and elsewhere in the world) and then more recently immigrants, refugees from other places in the world — helping them get a foothold in the United States, setting them on the path to becoming citizens. I love their more recent motto: “we used to help refugees because THEY were Jews; today we help refugees because WE are Jews.”
Last week when I heard that the synagogue where the killings took place was called Eitz Chayim, I thought about the likely origin of the synagogue’s name:
Tree of Life. Our liturgy includes these two verses from the book of Proverbs as the song we sing when we return the Torah to the ark after reading from it. It’s also the verses our Torah study group reads each week as we begin our Torah study (liturgy reverses the order of the Proverbs verses):

יז דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

יח עֵץ-חַיִּים הִיא, לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ; וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר.
18 She is a tree of life to them that hold fast to her, and happy is every one that holds her tight.

When we sing it in shul or recite it in Torah study, we consider the “it” or the “she” to be Torah itself, but in Proverbs it refers to wisdom and to understanding. And these two verses are surrounded by verses that we would also do well to consider and to follow in these days and weeks post Pittsburgh and post election, in the months and years to come when we, like our ancestors before us, would do well to hold fast to our tradition, to the teachings of Judaism if we are to stand fast against the many threats facing our queer community, our Jewish community, our communities of color, our country, and our world. (I want to note tonight that even as our congregations all week have been discussing and acting on how to make our synagogues safer, we have painfully made them less safe for our members and visitors of color who have been stopped and questioned more often than others wanting to enter our synagogues — we need to figure out how to make our home safe for everyone who would enter with good intention).

Here are those verses from Proverbs:

Happy is the one who finds wisdom, The one who attains understanding.
Her value in trade is better than silver, Her yield, greater than gold.
She is more precious than rubies; All of your goods cannot equal her.
In her right hand is length of days, In her left, riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful.
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.
God founded the earth by wisdom; and established the heavens by understanding;

My child, do not lose sight of them; Hold on to resourcefulness and foresight.
They will give life to your spirit And grace to your throat.
Then you will go your way safely And not injure your feet.
When you lie down you will be unafraid; You will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.
Do not withhold good from one who deserves it When you have the power to do it [for them].
Do not say to your friend/acquaintance, “Come back again; I’ll give it to you tomorrow,” when you have it with you [today].
Do not devise harm against your neighbor Who lives trustfully with you.
Do not quarrel with a person for no cause, When they have done you no harm.
Do not envy a lawless person, Or choose any of their ways…
[Proverbs 3 ]
Judaism and Jewish community — in all its diversity — this place, this congregation — is our tree of life, our house of new life, let us hold fast to it and in so doing, let us hold each other up.
Shabbat shalom


In this week’s Torah portion Chaye Sarah, we read that when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, he came upon Rebekah whose kindness and strength (she was able single handedly to water his many camels — camels drink a lot of water, Rebekah was very butch) led Abraham’s servant to know she was the one for Isaac. He convinced her family of this as well. But before he could escort her from her own family and birthplace to go make a family with Isaac, she was asked if she was willing. “They called Rebekah and said to her: ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said: ‘Ailech — I will go.’” [Genesis 24:58]

It is a question I often ask couples on the eve of their weddings, but Rebekah’s answer is one that we might often have cause to answer. Ailech — I will go.

At this time in our country’s history, we have so many choices to make. And so little time to decide. Most immediately many of us have a choice placed in front of us of whether to vote or not. And whether to help others vote or not. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I like going in person to the polls on election day, as i did all through my childhood with my parents, and our friend Murray Aaronson wrote to me about his childhood memories:

Boker Tov Rabbi Lisa,
Something you said Friday about voting in person
that you like. I share that. I like voting in person and should
there be a line, it adds to the drama and importance of the act.
I remember clearly as a little boy going with my Mother to the
polling place and seeing my Mommy draw a curtain and pull various
levers. It was called voting and I got the impression that it was important.
Also in my elementary school in Jersey City during assembly we sang
a song about Election Day I guess around Election Day. I remember the
melody, but not all the words: Election Day, Election Day, the best day of the year
We love it in the USA where freedom is so dear…

Though Smith may win and Jones may lose…

We’re loyal to the one we choose – till next Election Day!

I wish I still knew all the words, but this is from before 1960. More importantly the point of the song made sense to me then and still makes sense to me now.

As soon as I turned 21 I registered to vote and sought it out. I’ve voted in every single election since then, except for one primary in the early 70’s.
All the best and in nature,
P.S. I’m sure my Father voted too, I just never went with him. My Father said to me once that he never voted for bond issues in New Jersey because too much of the money ended up in the pols’ pockets.

ON TUESDAY next (Nov. 6), we are asking you: will you go? Will you help?
Instead of Amen to this “not quite a prayer for our country,” can we all say, AI-LECH!