Resistance and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy - Parashat Hayyei Sara

This D'var Torah was given to Temple Beth Abraham, Oakland, by student rabbi Natasha Mann. The parashah was Parashat Hayyei Sara. This was the week after the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

Resistance and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy

This is a hard week to be at shul. Last Shabbat, just one week and yet somehow an eternity ago, eleven of our brothers and sisters were shot down between the walls of a sanctuary not unlike our own. They were killed because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred. They are no longer with the Jewish family to share their wisdom, and their laughter, and their tears, because of the actions of one sick and hateful man. Their lives have been cut short. I cannot even imagine what this time must be like for their families, for having to bury them, or for the community of the Tree of Life Synagogue, who are reeling from this attack within their walls.

This week, I have found myself struggling to explain to non-Jewish friends and loved ones how this has affected the American Jewish community, and the worldwide Jewish community, so deeply and so personally. What it means to be Jewish is not easy to explain on one foot, but the best I can do is to say that we are a family. Those were our brothers and sisters, and many of us feel a profound sense of loss and grief. And some of us are angry – didn’t the generations before us leave their homes and travel to America to escape this? And still more of us are scared. Our sense of safety in our own synagogues, our own houses of prayer and learning, has been violated. And for many of us – I would venture to say probably most of us – this last week has been a mix of all of those emotions, and of more, and of numbness. Whatever you are feeling, whether you think that it is the ‘right thing’ to be feeling or not – it is valid. It has a place here.

It has been a very difficult week. And yet. We are here together, today. All over the country, and all over the world, Jews who do not usually find themselves travelling to shul on a Shabbat morning are kissing the mezuzot on the doors as they walk inside. And non-Jewish allies are arriving, too, to sit in the pews listening to a language that they have no connection to, in order to show with their presence that they support us. If you are one of those non-Jews who has come today to show support – thank you for your friendship. If you are one of those Jews who would not usually find yourself here on Shabbat – thank you for being our family; we are glad that you have come home so that we can be together. And if you are one of the members of this community who is here most weeks – thank you for your devotion to this synagogue.

There are two messages that I hear in presence at synagogue this week. The first of those is resistance. It is saying to the man who terrorised the Tree of Life Synagogue last week, and any others who might think like him: ‘We will not respond to terrorism with acquiescence.’ We will not be intimidated into handing them a victory. We are stronger than that, and history has proved that we are stronger than that. Jews throughout history have been exiled, have been pushed from border to border, have been told that we are not welcome unless we assimilate and leave our Torah and our tradition behind us. But we still have our Torah, and our tradition, and our synagogues, because our ancestors said ‘no’. We took our Torah scrolls with us from border to border, and when we couldn’t, we wrote new ones. We taught our children to read Hebrew even when we were threatened for it. We lit the candles of Shabbat and festivals and Chanukah even when we had to do it in secret. If anyone thinks that they can intimidate us to leave Jewish tradition behind, history tells us that they have another thing coming.

And the other reason that coming together today is so important – the other message that I hear in your presence – is one of healing. We heal best when we are together. Patients in hospitals heal best when they are surrounded with love. Even just touching a person that you love positively affects your brain chemistry. Love aids healing.  

The parashah that we read this week, the weekly section of the Torah, is called ‘Hayyei Sara’ – ‘the Life of Sara’. But it is actually about the death of our matriarch, Sara, and later about the death of our patriarch, Avraham. Sara and Avraham had one child together, a son called Yitzhak (Isaac). In this week’s Torah portion, we watch Yitzhak respond to the death of each parent. First, Sara dies, and it is clear that Yitzhak has a hard time healing. He all but disappears from the narrative, all while his father Avraham is burying Sara, and also while Avraham begins the search for a wife for Yitzhak. Then we meet Rivkah (Rebecca), who agrees to marry Yitzhak, and travels to meet him. It seems to be love at first sight. In fact, the first mention of love between a couple in the Torah is the love of Yitzhak for Rivkah – and when they meet, Rivkah even falls off her camel when she first sees him! The Torah tells us that it is only then, when Yitzhak loves again, that he is able to heal from the loss of his mother.

Love leads to healing. This is what we are taught by Yitzhak and Rivkah. And this, I believe, is the model that we are emulating by being together today.

There is another model of healing that is presented in this week’s Torah portion. It is a model of healing that is less easy to emulate. Later in the Torah portion, Avraham dies – upon which Yitzhak and Yishma’el come together to bury him. Yitzhak (Isaac) was the son of Avraham and Sara; Yishma’el (Ishmael) was the son of Avraham and the handmaiden Hagar. The two sons of Avraham were subjected to a difficult family situation, to say the least, and Hagar and Yishma’el were kicked out of the camp when Yitzhak was very young. Until the death of Avraham, we have no mention of any further interactions between the half-brothers after that incident – all we know is that when Avraham died, he left everything to Yitzhak. But when the time came to bury their father, the two sons of Avraham came together to put him to rest. I believe that what Yitzhak and Yishma’el are teaching us is that sometimes, we have to come together with those with whom we have complicated relationships. It is easy to love people in this room – it is easy to love people who show up to be with us in times of need. It is easy to love our neighbours who have sent flowers and letters to assure us that they care. That is like the love of Yitzhak and Rivkah. It is less easy to love people that we don’t see eye-to-eye with – for example, pockets of the Jewish community with whom we have significant and hurtful disagreements, or non-Jewish communities who just don’t quite understand us. Or, for that matter, people who don’t share our every political opinion. But it is also necessary if we are going to heal, and move forward. This is like the reuniting of Yitzhak and Yishma’el.

And it is worth noting that Yishma’el was also mourning in that situation. It was his father, too. We, too, are not the only victims of violent hatred in our society. Just days before the Tree of Life shooting, a white man attempted to enter a predominantly black church in Kentucky with a gun, and when he was unable, he shot two black individuals in a grocery store. Our situations may not be identical, but the root of them is still sinat chinam, baseless hatred. As we receive comfort from those around us, it is worth wondering to whom we should likewise be extending comfort.

I would like to leave you with one last thought. This week’s Torah portion is called ‘Hayyei Sara’, ‘the Life of Sara’ – even though it begins with her death. Our rabbis teach that this is because Sara was the first person to leave a legacy in the world, to teach values that would be passed on throughout the generations that were descended from her. The value that she left in the world was hesed – lovingkindness. The more that we are learning about those who were brutally taken from us last week, the more we are learning about lives of hesed. May we be able to learn and live the hesed – the lovingkindness – of the life of our mother Sara. And may we all be able to learn and live the hesed of our eleven brothers and sisters whose lives were cut tragically short last Shabbat, but whose legacies will live on.

May this be a Shabbat of Shalom.


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