Religious Life

Holding Fast to the Tree of Life

Holding Fast to the Tree of Life
25 Cheshvan 5779 | November 3, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59 were brothers and roommates in a home for adults with intellectual disabilities. They were the regular Shabbat greeters.

Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86 were married at the Tree of Life Congregation in 1956 in a candlelight ceremony.

Daniel Stein, 71 recently became a grandpa.

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66 was among a handful of doctors treating AIDS patients with dignity and respect in the early days of the epidemic.

Richard Gottfried, 65 was a popular local dentist who volunteered with a Free Dental Clinic. He and his wife had recently celebrated their 38th anniversary and were planning to retire soon

Joyce Fienberg, 75 retired in 2008 as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center

Rose Mallinger, 97 was a caring, gentle, loving woman.” 

Melvin Wax, 88, a grandfather was leading his congregation’s services at the time of the attack.

Irving Younger, 69 was a father and grandfather. He volunteered as a youth baseball coach.

These are the eleven precious souls who were killed and entered an eternal day of Shabbat rest this past week in Pittsburgh. But for the living, the scars remain. Some of you may remember Rabbi Jonathan Pearlman and his wife Beth. They and their girls were members here at Beth El when Jon worked at the JCC. Jon’s synagogue meets in the basement of the Tree of Life. When the shooting started, he ushered members into a storage closet. When the shooting stopped, one of the men in the closet peered out to see if it was safe. The gunman spotted him and killed him. Then, the gunman made his way into the storage closet but didn’t see Jon and the others hiding. Jon was spared. But the scars remain. They remain for the survivors and for the families in mourning. The scars remain for the larger community, for Jews across America and for many Americans.

Like you, I come to shul today with a mixture of emotions. Sorrow where there should be rejoicing. Anger where there should be peace. Fear where there should be sanctuary.

But I also come in with something else. I feel supported by the outpouring of love from our Minnesota neighbors including our Christian and Muslim neighbors. And I say, “Thank you.” I feel supported by first responders who risked their lives to save those people. And I say, “thank you.”  I feel supported by community and political leaders who responded, “I stand with you.” And I say, “Thank you.” I feel strengthened by our Jewish community: by parents reassuring their children, by teachers reassuring their students, by rabbis and cantors across the country lifting up their congregants and by congregants lifting up their rabbis and cantors.

And I feel pride. I feel pride because we have faced tragedies in the past, many even more devastating and we’ve survived. No, we’ve thrived. I feel pride in Jewish doctors and nurses who ignored a guy screaming, “I want to kill all the Jews,” and took care of him like they would any other patient. I feel pride in a community who was attacked because they supported HIAS, because they opened their heart to those in need. I feel pride because my tradition, Jewish tradition offers hope in a world full of distress, healing in a time of grief: What a gift is Shabbat! What a gift is Torah! What a gift is prayer! I feel pride because far from crushing our spirit, this evil only strengthens our resolve.

Chaverim, here it is in a nutshell. If I have to boil down all that I am, all that I believe, it comes down to this simple saying. I didn’t come up with it. This is Heschel. But I carry it with me always:

“It is either tragic or holy to be a Jew. Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world. It is either tragic or holy to be a Jew.” That’s it. It is a simple choice. If it’s tragic, I am out of here. What do I need this tzurus for? If it’s holy, I am in. I am all in. 100% in.

And I choose holy. I choose to grasp hold of the tree of life with all my might. Winds may come. Leaves may fall. Branches may die. But the trunk is strong. It has deep roots. It guides us on the pathways of justice and comfort and dignity and respect and righteousness and peace.

Last Shabbat, a man entered a shul like ours and said, “All Jews must die.” And he murdered an entire minyan. A minyan plus. If Judaism is tragic, then we add it onto the list that stretches back to the Shoah, and the Pogroms and the Crusades. At best, we remember and move on. Or we say, “I am out of here.” If Judaism is holy, yes, we remember. Yes, we mourn. But we also transform.

Where he sought to kill Jews for being Jews, we embrace our Judaism even more: more Torah, more tefilah, more community, more tzedakah, more chesed.

Where he made walking into a shul scary, we make it warm and welcoming, safe, secure and joyful.

Where he sought to exclude foreigners, we vow to love the stranger, to welcome the refugee.

Where he wanted to empty a synagogue of Jews, we fill it.

Where he fostered hate, we add love.

Where he wrought death, we celebrate life.

Where he brought sorrow to Shabbat, we fill it with delight.

In the face of darkness, we add light.

Am Yisrael Chai!