Alternate Realities and The Real After Pittsburgh©

Alternate Realities and The Real After Pittsburgh©
Rabbi David Baum
Parsahat Hayyei Sarah – November 3, 2018

Who in here has felt, after the events of the last week, that we are living in an 'alternate reality'?  Alternate realities are all the rage now in pop culture.

There is a very popular show on Amazon streaming right now – it's called the Man In the High Castle.  The show, in its third season, is based on reality, an alternate reality.  In this reality, the allies during World War II were not successful; in this reality, the U.S. is the American Reich; the Nazi ideology spreads to America.  The government isn't German, it's American, they speak English with no accents – the Nazis didn't need to send an invasion force – they had people waiting to embrace their worldview.  As you can imagine, the Jews do not fare well.  Philip Roth, the great Jewish-American novelist, also wrote a book about an alternate reality called the Plot Against America.  In this alternate view, Charles Lindbergh, beats FDR in the 1940 election and becomes President, then makes peace with Hitler, and anti-semitism runs rampant in the United States.

In a different reality, I would have given a sermon last week on the power of visiting the sick, Bikkur Holim, and I would have been pushing our Sunshine Committee which was to meet on Tuesday night.  Instead, I scrapped my sermon and informed our congregation of the horrific terrorist attack in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In an alternate reality, I wouldn't be making statements asking people to show up to shul as an act of defiance, or being interviewed by the news stations on my reaction to an anti-semitic incident at our own congregation 30 minutes before the shooting.  In an alternate reality, 2,400 people would not have gathered at Bnai Torah Congregation for a vigil in response to the worst attack on Jews in American history.  In an alternate reality, I would not have had a conversation I never thought I'd have with my 95-year-old grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, where he gave me advice on how to handle Nazis and bigots, because, he went through it himself, but never thought he'd have to give advice to his grandson in America.

In an alternate reality, the Rabbi of Tree of Life would be giving a normal sermon this week, and would not have had seven funerals to perform leading up to Shabbat.  In the pews, in the back of the room, Irving Younger, 69 years old, would be helping a person who came late to shul find his or her seat.  Melvin Wax, 88 years old, would have been sitting in his seat, the first to arrive at shul in the evening and in the morning; 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, known as Bubbe to her family, would probably be in the pews thinking about a new latke recipe to make for her family's Hanukah party; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86 years old, would be sitting in their regular seats, staring at the bimah, the same bimah they were married on 60 years ago; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a member of Dor Chadash, one of the congregations that met in Tree of Life, would be sitting in shul, surrounded by his patients who loved him because he was such an incredible physician and human being; Joyce Feinberg, a 75-year-old widow, would have been lighting up the sanctuary with her caring personality; Dr. Richard Gottfried, a dentist who often came to shul, would be sitting in his seat, probably warning kids not to eat too much candy on Halloween; Daniel Stein, a 71 one-year-old husband, father, and grandfather, would be sitting in his seat showing pictures of his new grandson to everyone around him, and probably making dry jokes during the rabbi's sermon; and Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, two intellectually disabled Jewish adults, would be sitting next to each other as they did every Shabbat, smiling and handing out siddurim to every person who came into the sanctuary at Tree of Life.  A minyan, plus one, would likely be in shul on Shabbat in the Tree of Life building.

In an alternate reality, I actually wouldn't be standing here today – I'd be in New York at my cousin's wedding as I had planned – and maybe you wouldn't be here.

We showed up for Shabbat, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing up today.  I don't know if it is an act of defiance, or bravery, or Jewish pride, or maybe it's all of these, and maybe more.  Going to services on a weekly basis, having Shabbat meals with our family and friends is part of my routine, but it seems that having these vigils, and giving sermons like these have become more a part of our routine.  One of our chaverim, what we call congregants here at Shaarei Kodesh, wrote the following:

“Some routines are comforting.  The way my dog greets us at the door every time we enter.  Watching Jeopardy every night beside my husband.  The candles, Kiddush, hand washing, challah rituals at our Shabbat dinner table. Some routines are exhausting.  Tragedy strikes – social media goes crazy – a vigil – a fundraiser – heartbreaking stories of the people whose lives were cut short – and heartwarming stories of the heroes.  Until the next one, and the next one and the next one.  A cycle, a routine that is so fatiguing it makes me numb.  Boston Strong. Orlando Strong. Charleston Strong. Parkland Strong. Pittsburgh Strong. We talked about going to the vigil tonight, to be part of the community to seek comfort together, yet a piece of me was hesitant which I couldn’t quite place.  Until I realized that this painful routine, the knowing what will be said before we even arrive feels like the opposite of comfort.  So I will see you with our community on Shabbat, participating in the morning service which is familiar and reassuring and uplifting in its simple, age-old routine.”

Today, I stand here with you, because you are my community, you are my family – I'm here because I know you are searching for answers; and although I am just as lost as you are, I hope I can help just a little bit.  And I'm here to tell you something important – this is our reality, but we have a choice, and I actually have hope, despite the events of the week.

Whenever I am lost, whenever am I in search for direction or meaning, I turn to God, and God's word, our Torah, both the five books, the prophets, the writings, and our rabbinic tradition.

In our Torah reading this week, Hayyaei Sarah, we experience the deaths of our father Abraham, and our mother Sarah.  Sarah's death is a big focus in the parashah, and although it is important, I wanted to focus on the death of Abraham, which doesn't get as much attention.

The Torah says the following about Abraham's death:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו׃

And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.

וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו אֶל־מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה אֶל־שְׂדֵה עֶפְרֹן בֶּן־צֹחַר הַחִתִּי אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא׃

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre,

There is something here that is quite amazing – Abraham isn't buried just by Isaac, but also by Ishmael, the son he banishes.  Despite their differences and past fights, they come together.

I read the following by a writer named Sally Neff about this incident in our parashah:1

“Why did Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father? Did they still have brotherly affection for each other, despite their history of conflict? Perhaps they had repaired their relationships with Abraham and with each other to some degree.

Possibly it was merely a sense of family and religious obligation that brought the two men to their father's graveside. However, I would like to imagine that their father's death gave them the opportunity to start healing their emotional wounds. Most likely, they never became best friends, but that doesn't matter. They were able to reunite in that time of grief and support one another, to be family for each other. When the Israelites received the Torah, they said, "Naaseh v'nishma-we will do and we will hear." We learn from this that when it comes to doing mitzvot, sometimes we have to engage in the right action before we can understand its meaning. If Isaac and Ishmael, those classic enemies, could come together in a time of crisis, so should we in our families; so should we in our family of Judaism; so should we in our family of humanity.”

This, THIS, is our reality – a reality where people can come together to heal, a reality where we can stand up for each other in the face of anti-Semitism and bigotry, even in our darkest of times.

80 years ago, on November 9 and 10, 1938, German Jews experienced a pogrom – homes were burglarized, Jews murdered, businesses vandalized – it was a night of broken glass, Kristalnacht.  In Germany, the state was complicit in this attack – they let it happen, they encouraged it.

But in our reality - the police, rather than stepping aside and letting the violence and anti-Semitism occur, were the first ones on the scene to help apprehend the shooter, and they immediately protected synagogues across the country including our county's synagogues.

In this reality, I've been taken aback by the support I've been receiving from other peoples of faith, and those of no faith at all.

The interfaith Vigil at Bnai Torah, organized in only three days, had 2,400 people of all faiths in attendance.  We heard from a priest, an Imam, and a Morman leader, who said, with one strong voice, we stand with you.  Tonight, all of us are Jews.

The Muslim community in Pittsburgh raised close to $200,000 for the victims of the shooting.  The Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh said, “If you need more money, let us know.  If it's people outside your next service, let us know, we'll be there.  If you need someone in the grocery store because you don't feel safe, let us know, we'll be there.”

But it's not just in speeches in public, it's been every day.  Keith Cutshall, the Gleaning program director of CROS ministries wrote the following to me on Sunday:

"Rabbi Baum, 
Ever since the tragic events of Saturday I have been thinking about the congregations that I have the privilege to serve with gleaning in the fields.  I hope you know that we stand with you and that having our Jewish brothers and sisters serve with us is a joy and honor.  If there is anything that I can do to make that support more tangible please let me know and know that you and your community are in my thoughts and prayers.”

Two days after the shooting, while at the doctor's office, the receptionist noticed that my file says that I'm a rabbi.  She said, “I just want to tell you how sorry am I for the attack in Pittsburgh. It is breaking my heart; I felt like calling every one of my Jewish friends to offer my support - I’m just heartbroken.” I thanked her. She added, “I have two teenagers, and my husband and I are divorced. He has very different beliefs about people and the world. I’m going to raise them right.”

This week, I thought to myself, do I wear my kippah as I'm out and about or not?  That hesitation lasted about 2 seconds, so I continued to wear it.  For those who don't know, we have been building an addition on to our home, and time after time, we have failed many inspections.  The same inspector came to our home this week, and he saw my kippah.  He took a deep breath and said, “I am heartbroken with what happened this week in Pittsburgh.”  We had a long talk, something we had never done before.  He's Catholic, his mother ran a wig business in New York and had many Jewish clients.  He said they taught her about values, they supported them financially – he went to bar and bat mitzvahs growing up, his Jewish friends came to his confirmation in church.  He said, “my mother used to light a Hanukah Menorah every year, and we would light a new candle each night.”  He went on, “you know, I've been silent far too long in this face of this bigotry and hatred, not anymore.  There are millions of silent people who are with you, and we will make our voices heard.  And, I'm going to donate to HIAS.”

How did Isaac heal after the death of his mother Sarah?  It began with engaging in a new relationship, a relationship built on love.

וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ׃

“Isaac then brought Rebecca into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

And this ultimately is our legacy.  The Catholic inspector told me something, “he said, you know, this may sound crazy, but I truly believe that when I act kind to others, especially those who are different than me, a part of my mom lives on.”  I answered, “that's not crazy, it's true.”

We must build a world of love – this is our task, that is how Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Ishmael and Hagar, all of our ancestors, and the 11 Jews killed in their synagogue, will live on in this world.

Here is where as a rabbi I challenge you – we must build a world from love, but how do we do this?

Love in Hebrew, Ahava is a give and take – it means going back and forth, dealing with real issues in a civil way.  This is how we build.

We can begin building by voting on Tuesday. (click here for information on how and where to vote on election day)

We can begin building by demanding an end to the scourge of gun violence in this country.

We can begin building by toning down the rhetoric of hatred and bigotry, of words that trigger, of dangerous rhetoric.  Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the spiritual leader of Tree of Life, spoke eloquently when he laid it on the line to the community, political leaders and everyone in attendance at the first Pittsburgh vigil Sunday evening.  He remarked that “it starts with us” and to the political leaders, he said, “it starts with you as our leaders, Stop the Words of Hate.”  We must demand this is our leaders.

We can begin building by standing up for others just as people have stood by us.  11 Jews were murdered by an anti-Semite last Shabbat, and a day later, Vickie Lee Jones, 67, and Maurice E. Stallard, 69, both black people, were murdered in a supermarket after the shooter tried to get into a black church but couldn't get in.  He was reported to have yelled racist remarks during the attack.  We must stand up against all forms of hatred and bigotry.  We are in this fight together.

We can continue to build a world from love through our acts of loving kindness – like the Jewish doctors and nurses who treated the terrorist last Shabbat.

This is our reality, because in our reality, the Nazis lost, and we will make sure they continue to lose, because the future is in our hands.  We will build this world from love, these are the words we are about to sing, and our nation, Am Israel, will not only live on, but we will change this world for the better.  This is our reality, we will build it with every interaction, with every act of loving kindness and justice.

I will build this world from love

And you must build this world from love

And if we build this world from love

Then God will build this world from love

Let's sing, and build, together.


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