After the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we gathered together in this sanctuary and I read these words from our prayerbook, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, hope and dream, and to lose.”
In that moment we were grieving the loss of life, and the terrible tragedy of what we called the worst attack on a Jewish community in American history. Tonight we gather again, although in a profoundly different way, to support one another, to share concern, and to pray for strength.
Strength, in my opinion, is one of the only true and measurable benefits of prayer. Strength to heal, strength to grow, strength to mourn. I say the names of my loved ones, out-loud or silently, and they appear to me; and I am strengthened by their presence, as they might be strengthened knowing that I hold them close. Our family joined with Congregation Beth Israel early on in the week for a Healing Service hosted by the leadership there and the many friends from many faiths who came to pray with them, for their strength. As tonight we pray for ours.
It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. The very idea of life’s fragility is so fearsome we spend most of our time ignoring or denying it. The strength we pray for often looks like security, as one leads to the other. Strong walls and locked doors reinforce our feeling of stability, growth, security, and strength as certainly as shatter-resistant glass. It keeps out the cold and also those who would do us harm. But there is another strength, something deeper that we pray for – Gevurah, the Hebrew for strength, is the word we use to say God is with us, God is our strength.
God is the strong wall, the rock which does not move. But God is also the walls of the Sukkah, fragile walls and temporary walls, barely shutting out the winds and rains. God is in our strength of body, God is our breath, which feels permanent, so stable, and then it evaporates in the cold winter air. Those who have suffered from COVID know how fragile breath can be; they have learned gratitude for the ability to breathe deeply, to feel satiated. In truth, we know our lives are fragile, as we remind ourselves each and every Yom Kippur. We contemplate our mortality unshielded, and we remember those we have already lost to it.. And that acceptance becomes our strength.
I never wanted to have a file of sermons to reflect upon in case of attack on a Jewish community, but I have one. We have witnessed threats to the Jewish community at the JCC, synagogues, kosher supermarkets, trendy New York restaurants and coffee shops. In the past many years we have watched as the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed. We feel vulnerable; we feel afraid.
Despite the fact that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, 60 percent of faith-oriented hate crimes target Jewish communities across the country. And this latest attack, a desecration of one of our holy spaces, has left us in shock. It is only natural I suppose, to walk the halls of our own building on Meridian Street this week, and to feel a chill down the spine trying not to imagine the unfolding events of last Shabbat happening to us, happening to me.
So much of our lives are intertwined with this place, this room… its desecration is unthinkable. It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, hope and dream, and to lose.
And so even though we are afraid, we continue on our path. We will celebrate Shabbat this week and next, and the week after that. Like Elijah the prophet, who saw a terrible storm, earthquake and fire, but only found God in the silence after the trauma, after the crisis had passed – we too will feel our strength return only now, gathering after the storm, feeling a new connectedness with Jewish congregations in Texas and around the world. Feeling tremendous gratitude and relief for the resolution of this one situation, even as our anxiety about other threats grows.
The ancient sages were very familiar with crises like these, they are not new to the Jewish body and the Jewish soul. In the Talmud, the sages struggle with how to pursue justice when lives are threatened (Bava Batra 8b, Gittin 45a). They show concern for the emotional as well as the physical costs of protecting the community, versus the emotional and physical costs of neglecting that security.
Interestingly, the sage Maimonides, in his commentary suggests that these ancient sages have it all wrong. There is no cost too great, he argues, to protect our community. Neglecting our security, he writes, is akin to breaking the commandment, “you shall not harden your heart against your neighbor,” and “you shall not stand idly by his blood,” because a community is only as strong as each of its members. And when we forget our responsibility to one another, to protect and secure those times we gather at the center of our community, our sanctuary, then we can no longer call this “sanctuary.” Maimonides writes that we need to protect one another like a husband protects his spouse, and a mother protects her child. As long ago as the 12th century he admits that Jews will always be targets, he says, “ever since the destruction of the Temple and the loss of our national home.” We have known what it is to be disenfranchised, marginalized, AND scapegoated, blamed and held captive.
So this is the conversation; here is where once again we make our stand. Locally and nationally, we are being lifted up and supported by interfaith partners of every stripe. We have personally received communications and blessings from Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, and even a few atheists, as have our colleagues around the country. But their strength buffers our own only so much. We pray tonight for the source of strength to stay with us during the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Professor Deborah Lipstadt wrote this week in the New York Times: “We are resilient because we cannot afford not to be. That resiliency is part of the Jewish DNA. Without it, we would have disappeared centuries ago. We refuse to go away. But we are exhausted.”
We are tired, but we still have our strength. We remain on guard but we greet the Sabbath bride with joy. We fear, and and we refuse to go away. Together we love, hope and dream too. That will always be our true strength.