Remembering Life and Confronting Hate: Chayei Sara

Today, shivas in Pittsburgh are paused; our tradition teaches us to pause public mourning on Shabbat.

Yet we gather as Jews, here and across America, with so many strong and difficult feelings: sadness, anger, vulnerability, and determination. I share those feelings with all of you, and I offer these reflections from our parasha in the hopes of finding some small measure of comfort and paths forward after the horrific events of last Shabbat.

Our parasha, Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, begins this morning with the words:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה

The life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years: these were the years of Sarah’s life.

While recounting the story of Sarah’s death, the Torah never uses the word death. Instead, the it uses the words chayei, chayei, life, life. And therein, a teaching: when faced with loss, we remember life. Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, was a life of tzidkut, righteousness, ahavat ha’ger, loving the stronger, hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, and deep emunah, deep faith.

When responding to the attack in Pittsburgh, we too must respond with remembering the chayim, the life and lives that were taken.

We remember chayei Rose Mallinger, the 97-year old bubbe whose grandchildren said: “She loved us and knew us better than we knew ourselves.”

We remember chayei Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor who was killed when he ran outside to try to help the wounded, one of the first doctors to treat patients with AIDS with dignity and respect.

We remember chayei Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers whose laughter, kindness and warmth were an essential part of their shul community.

We remember chayei Daniel Stein, 71, ish tam yoshev ohalim, was a “simple man” who loved going to synagogue and playing with his grandson

We remember chayei Richard Gottfried, 65, dentist Squirrel Hill Medical Center’s dental clinic, where he treated refugees and immigrants, many of whom had never been to a dentist.

We remember chayei Joyce Fienberg, 75, accomplished academic, grandmother of six, “one of the kindest people you have ever met.”

We remember chayei Melvin Wax, always showed up early for davening and could do any part of the service; a minyanaire.

We remember chayei Irving Younger, most wonderful dad and grandpa.

We remember chayei Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a loving couple, whose front door has three stickers, according to The Tribune-Review: “Support Our Troops,” “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

We remember their lives and the Torah values they stood for, we remember them by recommitting ourselves to good deeds, Torah learning, and mitzvot, and in so doing we fulfill the words of the Gemara in Masechet Brachot 18a:

צדיקים שבמיתתן נקראו חיים”

“The righteous, in their death, are called living.”

The Gemara goes on to say:

“רשעים שבחייהן קרויין מתים”

“The wicked, in their lives, are called dead.”

The events of this past week also demand that we reflect today on wickedness, and how it must be confronted.

This week’s parsha we encounter the first rasha, the first wicked individual, the first anti-Semite in the Torah.

His name is Lavan.

At the Pesach Seder, we say: arami oved avi. The simple translation is: my father was a wandering Aramean, but the Mishnah reads it us: an Aramean, Lavan, wanted to destroy my father.

The Haggadah continues – Unlike Pharaoh, who only sought partial destruction of the Jewish people, Lavan to bikesh laakor et hakol – sought to uproot it all. In the words of the shooter yemach shemo, “All Jews must die!”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, the Lutzker Rav, in his work Oznayim LaTorah comments that the words we recite on the Seder night, arami oved avi, are recited in the present tense. Lavan’s attempts to “destroy my father,” to uproot it all, are not historical phenomena; they are happening right now.

What fuels this hatred? What fuels these neo-Nazis, white supremacists and KKK members?

The Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, observes in his sefer Gevurot Hashem that unlike our other archetypal opponents Lavan’s hatred for the Jewish people has no legitimate reason. When we compare him to Esav who had his birthright taken, or Pharaoh, who feared the rise of the Jewish nation, the baselessness and wickedness of Lavan’s hatred stands out.

After all, Lavan was blessed by his encounters with the Jewish people, first by his encounter with Yaakov who helped him grow wealthy and then subsequent encounters throughout our history. However, even while receiving material benefit, Lavan grows envious, then greedy, spiraling into deeper hatred, plotting and wickedness, wild conspiracies with the threat of violence, and then as we saw this week, the actualization of all that hate, venom, envy and greed into violence.

It used to be the spirit of Lavan was strong in the governments and organized religion – inquisitions, pogroms, Nazis, etc. Today, thank God, that is not the case – as we have seen massive response from communities of faith and from police, FBI, and government agencies rushing in to support our community. On Monday night we were joined in solidarity and support by what I was told was almost 1,000 people from across the Jewish community to elected officials, pastors, imams, and much more. And that was reflected across the country. The Pittsburgh Gazette ran the words, yitkadal ve’yitkadash, in Hebrew across the masthead yesterday morning. For this, beautiful, amazing and unique American reality we are deeply, deeply grateful.

The spirit of Lavan isn’t in the Bishops or the Kings. Lavan can be found now in the dark corners of the internet, on the extremes of the left and the right, spewing venom, inciting, trying to approach the mainstream.

It’s not our fault that it exists, and it will never completely go away, but we must still confront it, directly, today.

I wish to suggest three modes that we can confront this force together:

The first, and most critical way to confront this kind of hate is to continue to live our lives as proud, Torah learning, mitzvot doing, Israel supporting, justice pursuing Jews.

We will not stop being a warm, welcoming shul.

We will not stop having brisses, or davening, or learning Torah.

We will not stop loving the stranger.

We will not stop being Jews who live our traditions and our Torah values with pride and strength.

We will talk about Pittsburgh – a model of a tight knit, committed, loving Jewish community. We will learn more and do more mitzvot in the merit of those who were killed. We will reach out across the lines which sometimes divide us, and we will bring each other close.

We will do all this safely.

That’s the second way we will confront Lavan.

In case the forces of hate confront us, we will do everything we can to be ready.

As many of you know, security has been a strong priority in our community. Before the attack we:

  • Were granted $150,000 by the Department of Homeland Security towards making our building more secure
  • Installed emergency landlines throughout the building
  • Upgraded the quality of the video on our security cameras
  • Acquired and upgraded security items and medical kits throughout the building.

And now we are continuing on that path:

In this past week we:

  • Formed a new 12-person security committee with representatives from Skokie Valley and Kol Sasson, tasked with upgrading our current security plans
  • Created a rotation for volunteers to help with monitoring, communication and emergency action plans
  • Connected with our security company, the Skokie Police, the Federation, as well as other local synagogues.

We need your help enforcing our policy of children either being in groups or in shul with parents, ensuring that the doors that need to remain closed remain closed, and supporting additional security measures we are undertaking financially. We will rise to confront this threat, together.

The third way we must act is to confront these forces wherever they manifest in our broader society.

When we see anti-Semitism trying to creep into the mainstream, whether it be on the political extremes, religious extremes, or anywhere else, we must speak out.

Two examples very close to home: 

Art Jones – a literal Nazi and Holocaust denier, is the Republican candidate for Illinois’s 3rd Congressional district. He received 20,000 votes in the primary. It is a Democratic stronghold, which is why no real Republican ran. He will not win, but I will spend my day on Tuesday in front of voting stations in that district imploring voters to vote for anyone but him, and I call on all of us to speak out and ensure that receives fewer votes in the general election than he did in the primary.

Steve King, a Congressman from neighboring Iowa, must be confronted. He recently took a trip to Auschwitz paid for by a Holocaust education organization and decided to, on the same, funded trip, spend some time with extreme right Austrian parties and have a discussion with poles to hear “their side” of the Holocaust story. This is completely unacceptable, and he must be held accountable for this reckless and dangerous behavior.

This problem isn’t limited to the KKK, Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists.

We need to confront anti-Semitism when it appears on the right, on the left, in the white community, in the black community, in the Muslim community, in any community.

We need to confront community leaders who all too often praise Louis Farrakhan, a notorious anti-Semite who most recent anti-semitic screed was calling Jews termites.

Just the other night, my good friend, rabbi Avram Lotek was accosted on a New York subway by two African-American men who harassed him his whole train ride home, repeating the disgusting ideas and language that Farrakhan uses about Jews.

We need to confront campuses who allow Students for Justice in Palestine to call for the murder of Zionists. We need to confront the Alt-Right and websites like Gab and 4-Chan which allow for the proliferation of antisemitism online.

It’s going to be hard. As Rabbi Yehuda Mirsky, a former U.S. State Department official, and current professor at Brandeis explains, we Jews get it from both sides. Both the extreme right and the extreme left find different aspects of the complex nature of Jewish idenity to despise:

“Anti-Semitism of the Left and the Right has each seized on one piece of the equation. Right/Trumpist anti-Semitism despises universalism, loves nationalism. Left/Corbyn anti-Semitism despises nationalism, loves universalism.”

We’re never going to be loved by the extremes. But we know that in certain climates, things tend to be worse for Jews. We are in one of those climates now, a climate of extreme and hateful rhetoric and speech that strips the humanity from one another.

We must confront any speech that dehumanizes a group of people, whether its dehumanizing Jews by calling them termites, dehumanizing all immigrants by calling them an infestation, or dehumanizing all people who voted for Donald Trump, it has to stop. We can disagree passionately about ideas, but when it becomes acceptable to use words that strip the humanity of others, there are consequences. We felt those consequences on Shabbat. The African-American community felt those consequences in Charleston, the Sikh community felt them in Wisconsin, the Muslim community felt them in Quebec, and tragically, the list goes on.

Finally, we can, and must hold our political leadership, our media leadership, our technology leadership accountable. They are not guilty of pulling the trigger in Pittsburgh, but they hold critical responsibility. We must confront our nation’s leaders and demand that they lead: instead of gaining and profiting from division, we must demand they lead us towards healing.

This is how we can confront the hate we saw this past Shabbat.

  1. Confronting it in the public sphere.
  2. Protecting ourselves in the private sphere.
  3. Most critically, by continuing to live our lives as proud Jews.

Lavan is defeated in the Torah, but interestingly, unlike some other enemies, never through violence. There is no war with Lavan. Rather, the defeat of Lavan comes through perseverance, commitment, values, and unity. This was our path forward after countless struggles and adversity in our past, and it is our path forward after Pittsburgh.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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