Tree Of Life – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – November 2, 2018
The story is told of King David.* King David asked God to know how long he would live. God told him, “Ordinarily, humans do not know when they will die. But I’ll make an exception for you. You will die on Shabbat.”
This saddened David greatly for it would bring sorrow to Shabbat. “I would much rather die on Sunday,” David replied.
“That is impossible,” God said. “Sunday will be the coronation of your son, Solomon.
“Then let me die on Friday,” David pleaded.
“I would not dare cut your life short even by one day,” said God.
It was no use. King David accepted that he was destined to die on Shabbat. But God did not say which Shabbat. So, King David devised a plan. He knew that the angel of death would not take him as long as he studied Torah. Thus on Shabbat, King David studied Torah 24 hours straight. He did not interrupt his learning even for a minute. The angel of death was confounded. He could not touch David. So, it was Shabbat after Shabbat.
Then, the angel of death had an idea. One Shabbat, he went to the courtyard just outside of David’s palace and started shaking the trees violently. Hearing the noise, David went outside to check it out, all the while reciting verses of Torah. David looked at the trees shaking but couldn’t understand why. So, he made his way up a ladder leaning on a tree to get a better look. Unbeknownst to him, the angel of death had loosened a rung on the ladder. When David slipped, he stopped his learning for a split second. And in that instant, he died.
It’s a fanciful midrash. One that speaks to us this week.
The Tree of Life Synagogue has been shaken. It shakes in mourning, in grief and in disbelief. The callous murder of 11 Jews any time is tragic. On Shabbat, in a sanctuary even more so. It shakes because someone full of hate and rage violated its Shabbat. It shakes because 11 precious and pious Jews have now stopped their learning and their davening and their welcoming.
How are we to respond? By cleaving to the Tree of Life. In the days and years ahead, it may shake. It may sway. But it will not break. It will not be uprooted. It is strong, firmly planted. We cleave to the tree of life by learning Torah and by living Torah. In defiance, we deny what the murderer sought to achieve- “Death to all Jews”- by clinging to Jewish community, by upholding Jewish values, by cherishing Jewish practice.
No, this does not mean we will never die. But as long as we cleave to the tree, the Jewish people will endure. And through them, we will gain eternity. As it says in the Torah blessing, “v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu, eternal life is planted in you.”
I’ll have more to say about Pittsburgh on Shabbat. Following services and lunch, I’ll lead a discussion: Jews in America: Resident or Alien. I hope to see you in shul.
May the families of those murdered find peace as their loved ones enter an eternal day of rest. And may peace be returned to our sanctuaries, to our shabbat, to our Nation and to our world.
Rabbi Alexander Davis
*The story is told by the Meam Loez (Rabbi Yaakov Culi, 18th C, Turkey) in his commentary on this week’s parasha which describes the death of Sarah. This week’s haftara describes the death of David.