Taking Comfort and Instruction from our ancestors after the Tree of Life Massacre

D’var Torah, Chayei Sarah, November 3, 2018, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Exactly one week ago, my world changed. Our world changed. While Jews prayed in synagogues across the U.S., an anti-Semitic gunman, who believed the age-old tropes about Jews and power and who faulted the Jews for bringing in refugees into our country, murdered 11 Jews in cold blood and seriously wounding a handful of others, including both synagogue members and those first responders that tried to come to their aide.

The Jewish community of Pittsburgh has been traumatized and there are friends, family, and those connected to the congregants in Pittsburgh who are grieving the loss of life, including some in our own community who were only one step removed from those who were so ruthlessly killed. The American Jewish community is hurting and on edge, feeling vulnerable and concerned for our safety. And for many, the traumas of the Jewish past also come back and whisper (or perhaps shout) in our ears, causing tension in our bodies and clouding our minds.

Many of us, especially those of us with white skin privilege, have believed that “America was different.” That America was a respite from a tainted past that left Jews unwelcomed, forced out, ghettoized, or killed. After all, George Washington himself assured the Hebrew Congregation of Newport a different future for Jews in this country when he said, “The Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”* Given the past, many of us are struggling to reconcile this horrific attack with the American Jewish narrative of America.

This is especially true given continued reporting of anti-Semitic incidents in the 7 days since the worst attack on the American Jewish community. Swastikas spray-painted on a home in Las Vegas and in California. Two swastikas discovered on a concrete outpost on the Hudson river pathway near 72cd street on Thursday morning. And on Thursday night, the Union Temple of Brooklyn, near Grand army Plaza, was vandalized with anti-Semitic messages, messages too graphic and painful for me to recount on Shabbat. Suddenly, just coming to synagogue feels like an act of defiance, resistance.

While no words are truly adequate for this moment, on this Shabbat, we affirm life and the chain of our tradition by doing what Jews have done for the last 3,800 years — looking to the torah, to the ETZ HAYIM/TREE OF LIFE — for comfort, for guidance and for instruction.

Today we read Parshat Chayei Sarah, which begins with the death of the first biblical matriarch, Sarah and ends with the death of the first patriarch Abraham. In between these two deaths, we learn a great deal about to live — to live lives of holiness and blessing. Today, I share lessons from these two ancestors and their stories that I hope will be balm for our hearts and souls and inspiration for our deeds.

First, let’s consider Sarah. At the start of the parsha, the torah says that Sarah was 127 years old. Yet in the Hebrew, this information is written in an odd way, as the torah says “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” — almost like a math equation. When we look at the torah, we seek meaning through the gaps and inconsistencies of the text. For generations, commentators have been asking: Why would the text write Sarah’s age in such an odd way? Why have the word “years” repeated three different times?

Rashi, the prolific medieval French commentator, interprets this odd language as a teaching about Sarah’s unique personality. He explains: Sarah lived through three stages of her life: youth, adulthood, old age. Each stage of her life was equally good, equal in measure to the rest. What seems like a lovely but incidental teaching is magnified when we think about the course of Sarah’s life. While do not know much about her childhood, we do know that Sarah spent the vast majority of her adulthood pining for a child that she was unable to have. We know that in her old age, Sarah had to endure knowing that her husband Abraham took her son, her only son, to be sacrificed to God. And though it never came to fruition, Sarah had to endure that very possibility. Sarah’s life was filled with difficulty and sorrow. Yet, Rashi teaches us that despite all she had to endure, Sarah was able to find goodness in her life.

In my understanding, Rashi’s comment was witten less as a description for a specific ancestor and rather as an aspiration for all of us — that we may be able to find in our lives goodness, even when there is sorrow, even when there is a justification for despair. In this moment of aching pain and heartbreak, this serves as an important reminder to us. We should aspire to be like Sarah, never surrendering to despair rather seeking goodness even in the painful and hard moments.

Let’s turn now to consider Abraham’s actions in this parsha. From Abraham, we learn to embrace our mourning yet not to sit too long, to get to work at building a better future.

In the beginning of the parsha, we see a different side of the patriarch Abraham; he is a tender and pained husband who has lost his wife. And in this moment, Abraham does not hold back. The torah says that Abraham cries out and eulogizes Sarah; with an unusual word the torah describes Abraham “weeping her.” Based on this and other unusual language in this section, the Portuguese commentator Abarbanel describes Abraham “lying next to sarah, eye to eye, mouth to mouth, screaming and crying.” We see that Abraham gives himself fully over to his grief. He attends with care to bury his dead.

Yet soon after the mourning, crying, and burying, Abraham turns his attention towards what needs to be done — to attending to the future for his son by sending his servant off to find a way for his son from his original clan. As it turns out, Rebecca’s entrance into the family provides a space for healing. The torah says that Isaac loved her — the first time in our torah we hear that one person loves another — and that he found comfort with her after the death of his mother.

By entering into the tent, Isaac and Rebecca are married and start a new life together. The parsha that begins with death and grief ends with love, comfort, light and even joy. Through their marriage and love, we are reminded that as Jews, we follow a legacy of embracing mourning but ultimately choosing life. We are reminded that mourning needs to transform into celebrations; that cries of grief ultimately give way to cries of joy.

Kierkegaard wrote, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” One of the most significant aspects of Jewish history is that no matter how much persecution and tragedy the Jewish people have faced, Jews have never abandoned our call to be joyful, to celebrate the arrival of new life or another turning of the sun, to sing songs of gratitude and joy on shabbat, to dance and to celebrate. While it may seem counterintuitive, in these hard times, we need to double down on joy. It reminds us of our creativity and humanity; it fuels us. It reminds us of who we are.

It is important to note that when Abraham got up from his mourning and back to life and duty, his focus was on cultivating and ensuring a future so the next generations can live and thrive. This past week, we sat shiva, we sat in mourning for the victims. As we begin to rise, when we rise, our attention needs to be the same as Abraham.

We must renew our commitment to fight anti-Semitism and to ask all our neighbors and friends to do the same. We can no longer accept the false notion that the forces and rhetoric of hate leave the Jewish people safe, even those among us who have more relative privilege (racial, economic) than other minority groups.

At the same time, we renew our commitment to fight all hatred. We must remember that anti-Semitism doesn’t come in a vacuum — it is part of a much larger and broader ideology of hate and white supremacy. We must examine the unique role the Jewish community plays in a white supremacist narrative and see how this ideology aims to pit affected groups against each other instead of having us work to dismantle the system.** As we rise, we renew our commitment to solidarity with those who are affected by hate in its various forms. As Abraham built for the future, so do we. We will vote, we will organize, we will educate, we will not give up on our future or the future all of all marginalized groups.

From Sarah, we are reminded: do not give into despair. Make all our days count and all be filled with goodness.

From Abraham, we are reminded: we must mourn, we must grieve. And we must rise, to life and joy, to responsibility for the future.

May it be so.

*George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

**See Eric Ward, “Skin in the Game” https://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/06/29/skin-in-the-game-how-antisemitism-animates-white-nationalism/ and https://jfrej.org/understanding-antisemitism/