“Let There Be Light” – Shabbat Bereshit and the First Yahrzeit for the Victims at Tree of Life , Friday, October 25, 2019

A year ago, tomorrow morning, as I was leaving here after adult Bible study, I got a text from a congregant who wanted to know if I’d heard any news. No, I texted back – why? There was a shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, he replied. And it is very bad.

Since I have been the rabbi here at Temple Beth Israel, I have had to respond – in prayer and in preaching – to way too many mass murders in this country, from Sandy Hook Elementary School to the Orlando Night Club to the Las Vegas Strip. But this time it was different. This time it was personal.

Eleven Jews murdered at Sabbath prayer – simply because they were Jews. Elderly people sitting in the back of the pews, as they had, faithfully, every week for decades. In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. Altoona’s Jewish community has deep ties there. Many of us have family there and some grew up there. Some of us shop there on a regular basis. At least one of our couples was married at Tree of Life, and another among us taught Religious School there. These eleven people, and those who were wounded – including UPMC chaplain Dan Leger, whose colleagues are here tonight – could have been our family, our friends.

In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. A center of bustling Jewish life for generations. A place where people from all different faiths and cultures live as neighbors. It is literally Mister Rogers Neighborhood – as Fred Rogers lived not far from the synagogue that remains closed, surrounded by security fences and make-shift shrines with symbols and messages of love and support.

This Shabbat marks an ending and a beginning for the survivors and for the families of those murdered. In Jewish mourning tradition, we set aside a full year from the time someone is buried as a time of special remembrance.

Children have a particular responsibility to say Kaddish, a statement of faith in God in memory of a loved one, for a full year. Here at Temple Beth Israel, we read the names of congregants and loved ones who have passed away for a full year, so that any time the family comes to worship during that time, they can be assured their loved one’s name will be shared.

For some of the mourners at Tree of Life, the turning of a year may mark a time of closure. We know that some have begun returning to their lives, though they will never be the same. Some who have gone through grief counseling have found solace in the arms of neighbors and friends and others who have suffered as well.

It doesn’t mean that we forget. We never forget. But we come to this day changed by the distance from our immediate shock and horror and fear and grief.

We at Temple Beth Israel were so afraid a year ago. We knew that the accused murderer in Pittsburgh had been motivated and inspired by other mass murderers around the world who had posted manifestos on social networking spewing hatred at Jews, blacks, Muslims, and other minorities. We needed to mourn. But we also needed to know that we could be safe here. And you took care of us. Our friends in the interfaith community embraced us, and hundreds of you were part of a magnificent service of remembrance and hope at Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg.

And we took action to protect ourselves. Security briefings from the Department of Homeland Security. Procedures for emergencies. Hardened security for the building. We still want to be what the words from the prophet Isaiah chiseled on the front of our building tell us we ought to be: A House of Prayer for All Peoples. But we are also careful, as we have to be.

According to an annual survey of Jewish opinion in the United States conducted this summer by the American Jewish Committee, since the slaughter at Tree of Life, sixty-five percent of American Jews feel less secure as a Jew in the U.S. than they did a year ago.

And with good reason: According to the FBI, antisemitic incidents in this country rose nearly SIXTY percent last year, compared to the year before. Sixty percent. And, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups operating across American last year rose to a record high of 1,020 – the fourth straight year of heightened, coordinated hate.

“Hate has frayed the social fabric of our country,” said Richard Cohen, past president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Knitting it back together will take the efforts of all segments of our society – our families, our schools, our houses of worship, our civic organizations and the business community. Most of all, it will take leadership – political leadership – that inspires our country to live up to its highest values.”

Since Cohen specifically mentioned houses of worship, let’s work on the healing process tonight, and let’s start with Scripture and our Jewish tradition.

I mentioned that this is a time of endings and beginnings. It is a new beginning on the Jewish calendar – the Sabbath on which we renew our reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), starting with its very first verses and the story of Creation.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם:[1]

God created Adam in the Divine Image; in the likeness of God was Adam created; male and female did God create.

Unlike all of the other creatures created before humanity, who were formed two by two so that they could reproduce, God created only one first human – Adam – fashioned from the adamah, from the dust of the earth. Adam was created both male and female, and only later did God split the two sides apart.

But why were we created differently? Why do we all descend from one human rather than two?

Because, as the rabbis taught us:

“A man may stamp out many coins with one die and they are all alike. But the Holy One of Blessing stamped each human with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow – so that each of us may say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’”[2]

Each of us carries the stamp of God. Each of us is equally worthy – not just of God’s love but of each other’s love. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what language you speak, or what color your skin is, or how and where you pray. We are all created equal and all originate from one being – so that nobody can say: My ancestor was greater than yours.

That makes every life as precious as every other life. And every life to come. In the next generation, when Cain kills Abel, the Torah tells us:

י וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִׂיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן־הָאֲדָמָה:[3]

God said, “What have you done? The voice of the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the earth!”

Not “the blood of your brother” but “the bloods (plural) of your brother” – because, as the rabbis teach, it wasn’t just one person that Cain killed.

It was all the children who would never be born – untold generations that would never have a chance to do God’s work on earth.

These verses from the first chapters of Genesis teach us of the preciousness of every life. Of the equal value of every life. Of the untold potential of every life. This Divine message is engraved in the act of Creation itself. And anything we humans have done that is contrary to this message is a shanda, a disgrace – a show of contempt for God and God’s plan for this world.

We live in a world where dark forces far from God’s message surrounds us: people seething with hatred and perceived grudges that are multiplied in the shadowy corners of the internet. Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who has spent decades fighting antisemitism, wrote this week that “this oldest hatred continues to grow, evolve, and develop” across the political spectrum.

“Today’s antisemites,” she wrote, “including those who might have previously never dared to publicly utter their hateful thoughts, feel emboldened to do so. In fact, they feel more than emboldened.” [4]

But then, Professor Lipstadt said something that took me aback. She wrote: “As much as I worry about what the antisemites might do to Jews, I worry even more about what we might do to ourselves because of antisemitism.”

And here’s what she meant:

When we define ourselves as Jews, our motivation should not be to counter the toxicity of antisemitism. It should be because we are proud of our history, our heritage, and our mission on earth. It should be because we truly rejoice in Torah and mitzvot, in holy days and festival days, and in this Sabbath day – which, like humanity, is part of the fabric of Creation itself.

It’s what Professor Lipstadt called living Jewishly for the joy, and not for the oy.

“While we stand guard,” she wrote, “and we would be crazy not to – we do so in order to be free to celebrate Jewish life in all its manifestations.”

But here’s the part of her message I really wanted to share with you tonight:

“We are bearers of a magnificent tradition, one that expresses itself in religious, intellectual, philanthropic, artistic, communal, and political contexts. Despite the best efforts of so many generations of non-Jews to harm, kill, and even annihilate us, we celebrate the multi-faceted tradition that is our and all it has given to the world. We do so, not because of the attempt to destroy us, but in spite of it.”

We must be Jewish – in every way we express Judaism – not because we are victims but because we are Jews. We gather here for Shabbat tonight, mindful of what happened a year ago that shattered our world. But we gather every Friday night because we are Jews. Because the Sabbath is God’s gift to us.

It is the culmination of the act of Creation, which began with the light of a Divine spark that is embedded in each and every one of us. It is a foretaste of the World To Come – a world of peace and of freedom and, yes, of joy.  It is a gift that we share tonight with our friends and our neighbors as a thank-you for their love for us.

Our unity in this sanctuary tonight is a testament to the way God intended for humanity to live in this world. As the Psalmist wrote:

 זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ:[5]

This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Genesis 4:10.

[4] Deborah E. Lipstadt, “The Best Way to Fight Anti-Semitism? Jewish Joy,” Forward, October 23, 2019.

[5] Psalm 118:24

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