I was completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from the greater Concord, NH community. Nearly 250 people attended services Friday night, November 2 – about one-half Temple Beth Jacob members and one-half supporters from the greater community. We typically have 25-35 people at services on a Friday night.
The next morning, another 50 people were at services, again and one-half TBJ members and one-half supporters from the greater community. Most Shabbat mornings I struggle to get a minyan, unless a young person is become bar/bat mitzvah.
Add to all of this, the wonderful peacekeepers from the Kent Street Coalition — eleven that Friday night and another two Saturday morning. Their presence brought calm, peace of mind, and a sense of safety to our members.
What follows is my sermon — delivered both Friday night and Saturday morning (with minor adjustments).
Chaye Sarah 2018
Our portion this week, perhaps misnamed Chaye Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, opens with the story of her death. The text is fairly matter of fact – Sarah was 127 years old when she died at Kiriat-Arba. While Torah gives no “reason” for her death – and at the age of 127 must there be a reason other than old age? – the midrash, the rabbinic interpretations of the Biblical text, does. According to the ancient Rabbis, Sarah dies of a broken heart. Her heart broke, they say, in last week’s portion when she realizes that her husband Abraham has taken their beloved son, Isaac, the son she bore in her 90s, to the top of Mount Moriah where he is ready to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We know that an angel of God stops Abraham. Did Sarah know?
Like Sarah, our hearts are broken. And like Sarah, some part of us died this past week, too. The pain is so very great because eleven of our brothers and sisters were senselessly murder for no reason other than the fact that they were Jews. And as Jews, we know any act of hatred against one of us is truly directed at all of us. The shooters words confirm that. They are all too reminiscent of the chants we heard last year in Charlottesville or the message left by the vandals at Union Temple in Brooklyn just last night.
As I said in our healing service in this very sanctuary last Sunday morning and at the community vigil later that night, the Jewish community in the United States is very small. And like all Americans, we move around a lot. We are so deeply intertwined. We just heard from one member about her connections to the Pittsburgh Jewish community and some of the dead and injured. Another member shared with me that the parents of best man at her wedding were sitting in the Tree of Life sanctuary last Saturday morning. They escaped with only emotional scars.
Another congregant went to medical school in Pittsburgh. He remains intensely close to professors and families who essentially adopted him during his years there. They all suffered losses last Shabbat.
For our dear friends at Temple Adath Yeshurun, in Manchester, the tragedy hits even closer. The brother-in-law and sister-in-law of Joyce Feinberg, one of the victims, are members of TAY. So are cousins of the killed brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal.
And many of you may remember that during the summer of 2017, while on my sabbatical, I attended a spiritual writing retreat at Kenyon college. My teacher, with whom I became very close, is married to the rabbi who leads the New Light Congregation that meets in the Tree of Life synagogue. A published author and eloquent writer, her Facebook post on Sunday simply said, “Our family is physically fine. Three of our congregants are dead. I have nothing more to say.”
Judaism teaches that in every generation there arises an Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people, who seeks to wipe us out. We can point to biblical Amaleks, medieval Amaleks, and modern Amaleks, all who sought our destruction in vast numbers or one at a time.
And yet, we can also point to words of hope in our Passover Haggadah, words which begin: v’hi she-amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, “And this (promise) has stood for our ancestors as for us, for not only has one individual stood to wipe us out, but rather in every generation many have stood to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be God, has saved us from their hands.”
The truth of anti-Semitism and the rise of Amaleks are indisputable. Furthermore, they are largely out of our control. But what is in our control is how we respond. Not just we, the Jews, but how all of us respond.
And the responses have been filled with remembering and honoring the victims, praying for the physically and emotionally injured, and expressing hope and love.
While our Torah portion begins with the death of Sarah, Abraham mourns and grieves, and then ensures that his wife is buried with dignity and care. And when his mourning times ends, he moves on with living. One of his first tasks is to send his servant, Eliezer, out to find Isaac a wife. Eliezer meets Rebecca at a well. She is kind and caring, bringing Eliezer and his many camels the water they need after their long journey. She is worthy to be Isaac’s wife, and she chooses, of her own free will, to return with Eliezer and marry Isaac. That story ends with the words, vayinacheim yitzchak acharei imo, “Thus Isaac took comfort after [the death] of his mother.”
Like Isaac, we need comfort. And we – the Jews of Concord and the Jews of America – have found more Rebeccas than we can count. Here is one story. On Shabbat afternoon, just hours after the shooting, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah, an Orthodox shul a few blocks away from Tree of Life Synagogue, stood in front of his building. A student who said his name was Ahmed approached him. Ahmed held a large serving bowl of hot soup in his hands and he handed the rabbi a note with the following text:
“I am a student at Carnegie Mellon University. I have lived in Squirrel Hill for almost four years now and am very grateful for the hospitality and how good everyone has been to me here. I tried to make something for you. I am sorry for your loss and wanted to give my condolences to your community. Please accept this, I didn’t put any dairy or eggs or anything not kosher in with the lentils. My thoughts and prayers go out to the bereaved. Love, Ahmed.” The rabbi thanked him and gave him a hug.
At my former synagogue in San Francisco, the membership of the local Mennonite Church is standing vigil tonight showing their love, protection and solidarity with the Jewish community – much like the multi-faith members of the Kent Street Coalition are doing for us tonight.
A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest in Virginia, wrote these words for her Jewish friends around the world: “I lit candles and kept silence. I gave thanks for lives that mattered – lessons taught, stories told, hands that healed and helped and hoped. I gave thanks for the threads that bind us together, Children of God. I watched candles flicker in the darkness and I accepted responsibility for hanging on to hope. I mourned from the deepest part of my heart for my beloved friends for whom this was so close, so personal. I send my love. I will tend those flames.”
These flowers were left at our door on Saturday, with an unsigned note reading: “I am so very sorry. All of us deserve peace, hope, and a safe place to live and love; ours and our God, Jahweh, Buddha, The One. America is better than this. Love to all.”
Look at these hand-written messages of love and hope from the clergy and parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Concord. And here’s a card from a member of The First United Church of Christ in Hopkinton. She comes here once a year with confirmation students.
She writes, “I share your broken hearts (and anger and fright) over the slaughter of worshippers in Pittsburgh Saturday. I stand with you and mourn.”
Another friend was at a concert at the Audi Sunday in Concord. She told me that, “The Symphony NH gave an all-John Williams Concert. When it came time for the Schindler’s List selection, the Conductor asked for a moment of silence. It was a very long moment and you would have thought the Audi to be empty as there wasn’t even a cough.”
Colleen, our Office Administrator, and I have taken phone calls and played voice messages offering love, hope, support, and comfort. Police officers are stopping by to see how we are. And they are circling the neighborhood much more often than they did in the past.
And Wednesday afternoon, as I stood outside of my daughter’s pre-school awaiting the Halloween parade, my cell phone rang. It showed “Unknown Name,” which I usually ignore. But something urged me to answer this call. “Hello,” I said. And the response was, “Is this Rabbi Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob.” “Yes, I said.” She continued, “This is Maggie Hassen. I’m calling to see how you and your community are doing.” The Senator and I spoke for about 15 minutes. Her concern and care were so real, so palpable.
Similarly, we welcome Congresswoman Kuster into our sanctuary tonight. Thank you for your presence, and for the beautiful note of concern you sent to me this week.
“The Jew lives with hope,” I am fond of saying. And how can we not? We look at Rebecca. She enters Isaac’s life at a time when he so desperately needs her. His father has traumatized him and his mother is dead. His brother Ishmael has long been ousted from the family. He is so utterly alone. Rebecca represents the link to the future. She will give birth to the twins Jacob and Esau, and Jacob will become the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.
The congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue were celebrating a birth, too, of a little boy who was to enter the covenant and be given his Hebrew name. We thank God that he is alive, with a full life before him.
Jewish poet Zev Steinberg wrote these words for this little boy:
Little boy, what’s your name – do you have one?
Sweet baby, just eight days, what should we call you?
Is your name Shalom? We long for peace in this troubled world. I hope you are Shalom.
Is your name Nachum? Oh, how we need to be comforted in our grief. I hope you are Nachum.
Is your name Raphael? Our broken hearts and bleeding souls need healing. I hope you are Raphael.
Is your name Moshe? Our unbearable anguish and rage demands justice. I hope you are Moshe.
Is your name Ariel? We need the ferocious strength of lions to protect our people. I hope you are Ariel.
Is your name Barak? We need courageous warriors to vanquish our enemies. I hope you are Barak.
The blood on Shabbat morning was supposed to be covenantal not sacrilegious, sacramental not sacrificial, sacred not unholy. The tears were supposed to be of boundless joy not bottomless sorrow. The cries were supposed to be “mazel tov” not the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Is your name Simcha? We need an end to sadness by bringing joy into our world. I hope you are Simcha.
Is your name Yaron? We need an end to mourning by bringing song into our lives. I hope you are Yaron.
Is your name Matan? We need the gift of children who will bring a better tomorrow. I hope you are Matan.
So little boy, what’s your name? Take them all if you will. Take a thousand names.
Be Peace and Comfort and Healing. Be Justice and Strength and Courage. Be Joy and Song and a Gift to the world. Be every good name and every good thing.
And, sweet baby, take one more name if you will – because I hope you will be blessed with a long, blissful, beautiful, and meaningful life…
I hope you are Chaim.
Life, peace, comfort, healing, justice, strength, courage, joy, song, and gift – we celebrate each and every one of them this Shabbat. And we pray that our world, speedily and soon, will know them as well. Shabbat shalom.