Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Tale of Two Shivas

Click below for audio of this sermon

A Tale of Two Shivas
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

The beauty of shiva is that it establishes the natural order of things when everything appears hopelessly chaotic.  It is incredibly life affirming, and I experienced that this week – right here.  I observed the traditional week-long shiva and sat publicly for ten hours each day, because I believe in the importance of that ritual and in its healing power.  Stretching forty hours over four days enabled me to have real conversations with about 400 people. 

And then yesterday, our Hebrew School students came to me and had a real time lesson in how to comfort a mourner, and I can say two things about that: 1) Not working has never been so exhausting. And 2) I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of our Hebrew School students. Each of them came up to me individually, held my hand or hugged me and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

As much as this was my personal loss, we all were feeling personal loss this week; our collective Jewish people’s shiva and my personal shiva fused together as one.  As much as people came to comfort me, they also looked to me for comfort.  As much as they helped to restore the natural order of things for me, we all sat together, low to the ground, and mourned the chaos that resulted in untimely death for good, innocent people, for vulnerable people, for people at prayer, for people who had only love in their hearts – and we mourned for their innocence and ours.  I felt helpless to do anything about it – and yet, one on one on one on one, the healing took place, down in the trenches of the mourning bench.

I received this email from one of my dear friends in the interfaith community this week:

Josh – our hearts are so heavy with you. On so many levels you are bearing great burden for your family – and your congregation, not to mention extended community. Please know what an incredible blessing you are to us (and undoubtedly to so many) we are grateful for you and stand by you in Love and Hope.

While this correspondence made passing reference to the world out there, the condolence email warmed my heart.  It was part of the natural order of things and it demonstrated the love that exists in our interfaith community.

I contrast that letter with this plant on the bima has been sent to us by St Cecilia’s church.  What a wonderful gesture of love and solidarity.  So necessary.  So welcomed – and yet, there is something wrong with this picture.  It angers me that we need to accept such condolences.  It angers me that we have to be victims.  It angers me that some sit idly by while the threat has grown.  It angers me that while our Hebrew School students can show such love for their rabbi, they need to have school shooter drills in their classroom and armed guards in their synagogue.

It angers me that our graduates feel that way too.  TBE young adult Matthew Katz wrote a poem trying process his ambivalent thoughts and emotions surrounding being a Jew in America.

He said that for much of his life, entering Jewish houses of worship made him feel like a target. Walking into services, his first action was locating emergency exits and mentally preparing to evacuate in the case of what he thought was the inevitable. He began to view public gatherings of the Jewish community as dangerous.

He writes, “I viewed my fears as irrational. However, this weekend, my deepest, most irrational fears became a reality for the Tree of Life Congregation.

He shared that poem in hopes it helps someone else process the events that unfolded in Pittsburgh and mobilize into action.  It helped him come to the decision to mobilize his thoughts into action: becoming Kosher, and he exhorts other Jews to take action too – to “Yell, scream, cry, vote, petition, protest, pray.”

His poem exclaims, “It's not easy being a Jew.”  Click here to read it.  There’s a lot of anguish in that poem – and we all feel it.

This was personal for us, but so were Parkland and Orlando and Charleston and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  In each case, groups of people were singled out because of the hate in the heart of man with an assault weapon.   The disease of hate goes beyond mental illness, and that's what drove a person to cold blooded murder.  In Pittsburgh, the murderer, who shall go nameless, accused Jews of bringing Muslims and refugees to the United States.   While the idea of Jewish puppet masters organizing hordes of invaders is an anti-Semitic lie that has been seen often before, the idea that Jews welcome strangers and love neighbors is nothing new – and is true.

Guilty as charged!  The Torah tells us to love three things: God, our neighbor, and the stranger.  God and our neighbor are mentioned almost in passing.  But we are commanded to love and not oppress the stranger thirty six times.  Of course that’s one reason why haters hate us and why demagogues enable them. Because they want to divide and vilify.  They are looking for scapegoats.  And the Jew has always fit the bill.

But we should be proud of the fact that we are singled out for caring for others – and never, never, never be afraid.  Never be afraid to support those who are weakest.

These victims were the weakest.  Like Amalek in Exodus, the killer attacked the rear guard, those in the back: the elderly, those with special needs - and he did not ask a single one whether they supported admitting refugees.  Because to the bigot, it never matters.

“The people who were there are the ones who kept this community going, who made things happen,” said Diane Rosenthal, a sister of Cecil and David Rosenthal, intellectually challenged adults who used to greet visitors at the door to the synagogue and were both killed. “I imagine they probably greeted this guy. This place was so part of their lives, a place where they could go and be welcomed at any time and where they were part of the fabric.”

Killing Cecil and David Rosenthal.  If my mother hadn’t died two days before, THAT would have killed her.   She often had premonitions about similar dangers befalling my brother.

These are the victims, this generations, martyrs for the Sanctification of the Name:
These were then stalwarts, the ones who came on time, the ones who made the minyan – a minyan plus one.  We all know them.  They exist here and at every synagogue.  These sweet lives were callously snuffed out, by a sane man with an insane idea, egged on by insanity.

If you are here to pray tonight, to share solidarity and comfort with your neighbor, let us feel that love and solidarity, between Jew and Jew, Jew and non-Jew.  That is the natural order of things – we experience death – we sit and mourn and share love and comfort.

But if you are here because it should be seen as in some way an act of extraordinary courage to come to synagogue, that this is a dangerous place to be, that approach is unsustainable and it cannot be allowed to continue.  Not here.  Not in this country.  Not in this place.

Come to services.  Every week.  You’ll find it compelling.  You’ll find that it brings joy to your life, not fear.  Come to services.  And sit up front.

I love the gesture of this plant but I never want to see a plant like this again.  We will have added security for now – but I’m putting that added security on the clock.  This is not sustainable.

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette had the Kaddish on the front page today – in Hebrew letters. Cool – and appreciated.  But never again should that have to happen! 

We don’t want pity.  We want partners.

Hand in hand we will defeat hate – hand in hand – Jews of all denominations, and backgrounds, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and all others.  All ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. We know the hate has never really gone away.  If it's been stoked, and it has, we need to douse the flames.  We need to call out White Supremacists and all who enable them.  We need to snuff out anti-Semitism in all its manifestations.  Matthew Katz is right. As he said: “Yell, scream, cry, vote, petition, protest, pray.”  But he is wrong in thinking that this kind of thing is inevitable.  It does not have to be.

We can end the fear.  And that is how the grief of shiva can become normal, good old fashioned mourning, again.

And we shall drown the hate in our love-soaked tears.

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