After Death—A Tree of Life ~ 3 November 2018 ~ 25 Heshvan 5779
Nov 4th 2018

My colleague Rabbi Ethan Linden of Camp Ramah in Berkshires wrote:

It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy. I have been holding, clinging, but this week, I have not been happy. I’ve been saddened. I’ve been broken. Branches of our Tree of Life have been broken. They have been snapped off of the tree. There has been no happiness.

We have been grieving, trying to find a way forward.

Thank you for being here today. By coming here and to other synagogues in the GTA, across Canada and throughout the United States, people of all faiths have made a declaration that the terror that killed eleven innocent people at Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Life congregations will not deter us from entering places of spiritual assembly.

When the sons of Aharon the High Priest died, the Torah tells us Va’yidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Sometimes silence is the response to tragedy. Let us be silent as we contemplate the names of those murdered last Shabbat.

Joyce Fienberg – Yehudit Bultcha bat Abba Menahem
Jerry Rabinowitz – Yehudah ben Yehezkel
David Rosenthal – David ben Eliezer
Cecil Rosenthal – Chaim ben Eliezer
Irving Younger – Yitzhak Hayyim ben Menahem
Dan Stein – Daniel Avraham ben Barukh
Rose Mallinger – Raizel bat Avraham
Richard Gottfried – Yosef ben Hayyim
Bernice Simon – Beila Rahel bat Moshe
Sylvan Simon – Zalman Shakhna ben Menahem Mendel
Mel Wax – Moshe Gadol ben Yosef

The late Robert Wistrich described anti-Semitism as the “longest hatred” and a “lethal obsession.” It is pernicious, persistent, and viral. It mutates, even through its own contradictions. Jews have been hated because we were communists and capitalists, cosmopolitan and clannish, elitists and unworthies, different and too similar. Jews once were hated for being weak and stateless; now, Jews are hated because Zionism created a powerful state. Whatever the rationale, the result has been the same: anti-Semitism.

In a climate in which xenophobic attacks have caused deaths in an African-American church in South Carolina, a mosque in Quebec City, and a gurdwara in Wisconsin, it was shocking but not surprising to have white-extremist violence directed against Jews. We had already witnessed, in a climate stoked by extremism masquerading as Islam, or by left-wing anti-colonialism and anti-Zionism, Jews killed in Toulouse, Paris, and Marseilles, following earlier acts of terror in Rome and Istanbul. 

Mark Libman, whose cousin, Joyce Fienberg, was killed, wrote these simple, yet very profound words to me: “We live in Jewish history.”

On the cusp of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi riots against Jews, Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues, Robert Bowers attacked Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh. “Jews are the children of Satan. There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k--e infestation,” he wrote in his post on a social network favoured by white nationalists. During the shootout at Tree of Life Congregation, Bowers told police, "They're committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.”

Hatred seething at the margins of society has become mainstream in a post-Holocaust world. Yesterday, an historic synagogue in Brooklyn was defaced with anti-Semitic slurs and a call to “Kill all Jews.” On Wednesday a synagogue in California was spray-painted with the words “f—- Jews” on the white facade of the building. Online anti-Semitism flourished last week, on websites popular with white supremacists. The operator of Stormfront, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, said traffic has increased about 45 percent since the shooting. The anti-Semitic rhetoric was just as bad on The Daily Stormer, where a headline said: “Just go, Jews. You’re not welcome.”

What might we do in addition to grieving for the eleven innocents who went to their synagogue to celebrate life, to celebrate Shabbat, and were murdered in the name of hatred?

Certainly, we should look for ways to offer condolences to the families of the 11 victims, including Joyce Fienberg, who grew up in Toronto. Some Canadians went to Pittsburgh for the funerals; others will be there during the seven-day mourning period, and more will visit at the end of the first month.

Certainly, we should pray for healing for the wounded congregants, Daniel Leger and Andrea Wedman, whose mother was killed in the attack.

Certainly we should pray for the police officers wounded by gunshots: Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga,  Anthony Burke, Timothy Matson; and for Tyler Pashel and John Persin, two other officers also injured. We are grateful to those who seek to protect us there and here.

Certainly we can offer financial support for them and the bereaved, as well as for the restoration of the sacred space described by one official as “the worst crime scene I’ve seen.”

But we can do more, in response to such hatred.

We must remain vigilant. Review personal and communal security, speak against expressions of hate, and call upon political leaders and media to oppose and marginalize expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Islamic behaviour and xenophobia.

Beware of allowing fear to define our lives. We want to remain an open society, with religious institutions as exemplars of welcoming communities. The attack took place on the Sabbath when the synagogue scriptural reading recounted how Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers. Hospitality is an essential aspect of spiritual life. We must keep safety and shelter in balance.

We must stand together. Memorial vigils throughout North America have been heartening expressions of solidarity.

Calls and letters from various faith leaders expressing revulsion at the violation of prayer space and time help to renew a commitment to a society respectful of difference.

At this moment, Muslims are forming Rings of Peace around eight synagogues this morning. In today’s Torah selection, we read that Yitzhak and Yisham’el united in unity when their father, Avraham died. So too, the Muslim and Jewish communities have come together after the shooting in the Quebec City mosque and the murders in Pittsburgh. The children of Abraham share much in common.  Following services, our Muslim friends will join us for kiddush. Please welcome them and express appreciation for their support.

It is important to say that this is not 1938. During Kristallnacht, Nazi planned riots had the support of the government, military and police. In Canada and the States, Jews have the support of our governments.  We witnessed the political leadership of many municipalities, provinces and states step up to stand with the Jewish community.

Whatever one might think of his timing or rhetoric, the President of the United States showed up. Mayor John Tory, who is in Portugal with a business mission, wrote me to express his sorrow and sympathy.  Michael Levitt, our congregant and Member of Parliament just returned from Israel and is walking with Minister Carolyn Bennett in the Ring of Peace in front of our synagogue. So are Jill Andrew of Provincial Parliament and Councillors Joe Mihevc and Josh Matlow.

Prime Minister Trudeau wrote a strong and inspiring letter of support.

I've had the chance to work with you on many occasions over the past few years, and I know the incredibly important role that your leadership plays in protecting everything that makes us who we are as a country. Jewish values are Canadian values, and Canada would not be Canada without the many, many contributions of the Jewish community. You and your families and communities are in our hearts.

Good people and government leaders must create a “coalition of conscience” to marginalise hate.

We must demonstrate pride in our religious identities. Wear a head covering: a kippah, a turban, a scarf. Even in Quebec. Place the lights of Sabbath, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas in your windows. Take time away from work to observe Sabbath or other spiritual times in a non-commercial way. And do not be afraid to do so.

We must respond to hatred with love. Fulfil the Biblical mandate to “love thy neighbour.” Reach out to someone marginalised: a refugee, an individual you haven’t spoken with in a while, perhaps even someone with whom you haven’t gotten along.

Indeed, the Pittsburgh shooter was treated by a medical team, some of whom were Jews. Allegheny General Hospital President Jeffrey J. Cohen lives across from the synagogue and worships there. “I stopped [at the hospital] to see him, I just asked him how he was doing. Was he in pain, and he said no, he was fine….He asked me who I was. I said ‘I’m Dr. Cohen, I’m the president of the hospital.’ I turned around and left.”

We must go on. In “The Unnamable,” Samuel Beckett writes "I can't go on, I'll go on.” Avraham has gone through two traumatic experiences—the command to sacrifice the son for which he and Sarah yearned; and then the loss of his life partner, Sarah. We sometimes feel we can't go on, and yet we go on, as we have always gone on despite the many, many tragedies that have befallen our people.

We must build a kinder, less hurtful society. When Avraham’s servant was on the lookout for a possible match for his master’s son, he prayed that he find someone who would fulfil the criteria of Avraham — someone in the extended clan. He then added his own hope:

Make me successful today. Be kind to my master Abraham. I’m standing beside this spring. The daughters of the people who live here are coming to get water. I will speak to a young woman. I’ll say to her, ‘Please lower your jar so I can have a drink.’ If she says, ‘Have a drink of water, and I’ll get some for your camels too.’ then let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Yitzhak. That’s how I’ll know.…

He looks for a person of kindness. As my teacher, Rabbi Heschel once observed, “When I was young, I admired clever people, Now, I admire kind people. “

We must not lose hope. The song by Yonatan Geffen and David Broza, “ יהיה טוב ~ Things will be better”, reminds us “לפעמים אני נשבר. At times I feel broken”.  The most recent iteration of the song ends with “Me'ah shanim shel helem; ve'lo avdah hatikvah ~ One hundred years of chaos, but we have not lost hope.” We are, as the Psalms tell us, “Prisoners of hope.”

“הָרֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָם.God heals the broken heartקג, and binds up their wounds.” There are so many broken hearts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, and so many wounds to heal.

We have so much work to do together. In these horrible times, I am reminded of the rituals that gird our religious lives. A glass is broken at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding to indicate that even at a time of personal joy, we recall communal tragedy, a symbolic act that emphasizes the importance of memory, even as the couple faces forward to build a future. And when we name a baby in memory of a loved one, we often cry at our loss as we rejoice over the birth. Even in our happiest moments, we hold and acknowledge a space for sadness. 

For ourselves, our children, and our society, let us grieve and turn again to life.

After sorrow, let us create hope. After hate, let us create love. After death, let us create life.