After Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh vigil

We gather together in sorrow. In grief. In horror. In disbelief. In anger. In determination. In solidarity. And in community. Tonight we show we will not be afraid. We will not close ourselves off but rather reach out toward each other.

Every year in celebration of the holiday of Passover, Jewish families gather in their homes and create what’s called a seder, a festive meal and ritual recounting of the Exodus from Egypt, in which our people escaped slavery and set off toward freedom. The Haggadah, the liturgical text from which we read as we sit around the table, explores the Biblical tale from many different angles, and includes teachings, songs, prayer, and lots of discussion questions.

One teaching that comes between a shorter telling of the story of the Exodus and a longer interpretation is this:

“This promise made to our forefathers holds true also for us. For more than once have they risen against us to destroy us; in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

When we got to this part of the Passover seder as a child, my older relatives stumbled through it, not having the best singing voices, and to be honest giving up part way. In recent years, in my husband’s family, I’ve learned the proper tune, although always done in the awkward rhythm of the particular Hebrew teacher my husband and his siblings once learned it from.

This whole portion has at times to me felt superfluous, or overwrought. In telling our redemption from slavery to freedom, this and several other moments of the hagaddah are like messages in a bottle from past generations, washing ashore in our lives. Every year, these lines break the fourth wall, and instead of telling an ancient story, they insist we are telling our own story.

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I never felt that this particular section was telling my story. Despite the murders of Jews in a kosher grocery in Paris, despite the sharp rise in anti-Semitism these last few years, despite the swastikas on this very campus, despite Charlottesville, I fought the idea that this was my story too.

Until now.

It could have been my children. It could have been my grandmother. I’ve been to that synagogue to pray. It could have been me.

In the Jewish community, we rehearse these fire drills every year. It’s embedded in our cultural and ritual memory. It’s when we first hear of the Holocaust as a child and start planning lists of toys to take with us when they come for us. It’s the warning in the Passover haggadah of how quickly things can change. It’s the photos on our walls of dead relatives, smuggled out of Europe or Egypt or Ethiopia.

And it’s the thought expressed by a number of students I’ve spoken with over the last 48 hours. I’m horrified. But I’m somehow not surprised.

And that may be even worse.

And I feel all of these things. And the anger. And the despair. And the confusion. Why? Why in every generation? Why?

And yet.

There is another lesson we take from the experience of the Exodus from Egypt. And it is the reason most often given for the ethical commandments in the Torah. Six times the Torah references it.

“You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It says to us, there are two potential responses to oppression, to exclusion, to being targeted. One is closing ranks, looking only inward, letting others fend for themselves.

And the other is to say: We have suffered, let no one else suffer like us. We have been shut out; let us open ourselves to welcome others.

These last few weeks, the weekly Torah portions we read on Shabbat have been the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their family. It is taught of Abraham and Sarah that they were models of hospitality, so much so that we think of their tent as being open on all sides.

That is why these congregations were targeted. The murderer decided that the Jews were waging genocide against whites in America by working to welcome refugees through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee and immigrant settlement organization that for over 130 years has helped first Jews fleeing persecution in their home countries and then all those who needed help. Congregation Dor Chadash, the Reconstructionist congregation meeting at Tree of Life, was one of many congregations to host a National Refugee Shabbat last weekend October 19-20, which was how the murderer found their name and location.

I refuse to walk through this world afraid.

I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist.

Because that is how they win.

I will live my one Jewish life to walking through this world with the values given me by our people, our traditions, our families: Love the stranger. Remember where you come from. Do what is right. It is a Tree of Life to those who hold it fast, and all of its supporters find joy.

And love.

To those who are here today in solidarity, support, and allyship, we thank you. We see you. And we feel comforted to know that you stand with us, when too often our experiences of anti-Semitism in the world are doubted or downplayed. Please continue to stand with us, when we face Holocaust jokes from acquaintances, cyber bullying, targeted comments from professors in class, questioning our religious faith due to the actions of a government halfway across the world, or God forbid worse. Speak about anti-Semitism by name when you work for justice. Reach out to your Jewish classmates, floormates, neighbors, synagogues nearby and tell them you are thinking of them.

And I tell you tonight: We will stand with you. We will support you. We will show up. And if we aren’t doing it enough, call us in. With love.

I want to especially note with gratitude our Muslim partners who reached out this weekend, knowing too intimately what this feels like. I also want to note that on Wednesday in Jeffersontown, Kentucky a shooting at a grocery store claimed the lives of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, after the perpetrator, motivated by white supremacy, attempted to enter the black church next door with his guns and failed.

Friends, there is much work to be done. Together.

To my Jewish brothers and sisters:

We know the ways in which trauma can harden a heart. Let us take our hurt, our fear, our anger, and our devastation, and turn around to take action toward a better world.

Because we suffered, let no one else suffer.

Because we know fear, let no one else fear.

Because our people were refugees on these shores, let no one else be turned back toward certain death.

Let us embrace what makes us who we are. We will not close the tent. We will not be defined by the notion that in every generation they rise up against us, but rather by the stance of reaching toward each other, loving the stranger.

Psalm 89 says: “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” a world of lovingkindness is being built. A world of lovingkindness is coming.

And I will build this world from love.

And I will pray with my people, in our sanctuaries, and I will not be afraid.

And I will care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, and I will not be afraid.

And I will lift my voice for justice and righteousness, and I will not be afraid.

And I will add my light to all our lights until darkness has no place here,

until we all see in each others’ eyes our stranger selves that need comfort,

and our gloriously powerful selves, to join hands.

 

(song) Olam chesed yibaneh

I will build this world from love. And you must build this world from love. And if we build this world from love. Then G-d will build this world from love.

https://www.utoronto.ca/news/i-refuse-walk-world-afraid-u-t-community-remembers-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting-victims

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