Dvar Torah – Parashat Bereishit

In honor of this #ShowUpForShabbat, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

Thank you for “showing up for Shabbat” tonight. To mindfully mark time and to notice where we are now in relation to where we have been, and where we hope to go – that is a distinctively Jewish act. Tonight we mark the transition into the sacred pocket of time that is every seventh day, the Sabbath, Shabbat; and tonight we mark one year (this Sunday) (according to the Gregorian calendar) since the worst anti-Semitic attack in United States history. Tonight we also mark a new beginning – since we celebrated Simchat Torah last Sunday night, we’ve rolled our Torah scroll back to the beginning and we begin our reading of and engagement with our sacred story once again – as we have for over 2000 years, nearly 100 generations. As soon as we conclude the scroll we start right back up again, uninterrupted. Each year we look at the Torah with new eyes because we are not the same as we have been; we have lived another year and so we bring new experiences, new questions, new hopes to bear on our people’s sacred text. This is precisely what makes it sacred. Torah is sacred, it is holy, because human beings engage with it over and over again. This is what it means to be an Etz Chayim, a Tree of Life. We say: “Etz chayim hi la’machazikim ba” – “It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it.” (Proverbs 3:18). What does it mean that we “hold fast” to Torah? I understand the words “machazikim ba” to mean a mutual strengthening: We draw strength from it, and we strengthen it, by our engagement with it. This is how Am Yisrael Chai – how the Jewish People lives on, and this is how our Torah, our tradition, is an Etz Chayim – a tree of life.

Etz Chayim. Tree of Life. This was the name of the synagogue that the gunman decided to attack on the morning of October 27th, 2018. That day was a turning point. Though we knew that Jews have never been free of the risks that any minority on earth faces, with the human capacity for bigotry, for fear and therefore hatred of those who are different, we were Jews in America. We were successful, even disproportionately so, in so many arenas; and we were safe. Back in 1790, President George Washington visited the Jewish community in Newport, RI. They welcomed him with an official, written greeting, and Washington responded with a letter back to them. In the conclusion of this letter, dated August 18, 1790, Washington wrote:

“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid (Micah 4:4). May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

Washington’s hope for the Jews of America draws on the best of American values (although regrettably he did not extend these values to African American slaves during his lifetime), inspired by the vision of the prophet Micah: tolerance, good will toward all, safety and security, the pursuit of happiness. Although Jewish history in America has not been without challenges, the United States has been the diaspora’s most hospitable home for our people.

But as happens in waves in human history, hateful rhetoric which began to be heard in the public square in a new way, gave rise to hateful acts– hateful acts accompanied by the lethal easy access to assault weapons. And on October 27, 2018, Jews who had gathered to observe Shabbat in prayer and community were murdered as they did so. 11 souls – their lives stolen – our Am Yisrael, our Jewish people – robbed of them. Their beloved ones, robbed of them. These souls – robbed of more days to live and love and connect and teach and heal our world – and robbed of a peaceful death at the end of a long life; and our world – robbed of the unique contributions each of them had yet to make. And those who were attacked but not killed – those who have to live with the searing trauma in their hearts, minds, and bodies for the rest of their lives – robbed of the lives they knew.

And since then – an attack on the Chabad of Poway, CA, also during services. Lori Gilbert-Kaye died shielding her rabbi. She was at shul to remember her mother by reciting kaddish on her first yarzheit.

Five days ago, the online publication Politico reported this statistic from the ADL: “At least 12 white supremacists have been arrested on allegations of plotting, threatening or carrying out anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. since the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue nearly one year ago, a Jewish civil rights group reported Sunday.

The Anti-Defamation League also counted at least 50 incidents in which white supremacists are accused of targeting Jewish institutions’ property since a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. Those incidents include 12 cases of vandalism involving white supremacist symbols and 35 cases in which white supremacist propaganda was distributed.

The ADL said its nationwide count of anti-Semitic incidents remains near record levels. It has counted 780 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2019, compared to 785 incidents during the same period in 2018.” I’m not telling you this to frighten you. I know that each of us is frightened already, and we each cope with it and feel it in our own way.

Two days ago, the Washington Post reported the results of a survey by the American Jewish Committee (the sponsor of ShowUpForShabbat): “ONE IN THREE JEWS IN AMERICA has avoided displaying or wearing something — like a skullcap or a Star of David necklace — that would reveal their Judaism.” According to the Washington Post: “For the first time, the American Jewish Committee — which despite its name focuses on anti-Semitism worldwide — asked a question it had not even thought to ask in its surveys before the deadly Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., synagogue shootings in the past year: “Do you ever avoid certain places, events or situations out of concern for your safety or comfort as a Jew?” The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, said:

“Frankly, it’s a question that is regularly asked in surveys of European Jews. We never thought some of the questions asked in those surveys in Europe might one day be very pertinent to the United States. There was always the sense that it was there and not here.” Another finding of the survey: One-third of the American Jews surveyed said that they are affiliated with a Jewish institution that has been the target of vandalism, threats or attacks.

Etz chayim hi la’machazikim ba. This verse from proverbs is something we say every time we take our Torah out from the ark and then return it: It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. We, the Jewish people, are as deeply rooted as a tree, and our branches are so numerous and so beautiful. We weather the seasons of security and fear, but we cannot be uprooted. Our sacred wisdom, to which we each add our own particular layer when we read and wrestle with Torah again and again, makes the tree only stronger in each generation. The wisdom, the Torah, flows through our life-giving tree like sap, like blood from a beating heart. It nourishes us, it animates us. We draw strength from it and we give it strength by holding fast to it. In our holding on to it, it holds us.

In this time of fear, let us hold tight to one another and to the life force that transcends each of us and has held us and been held by us for millenia. When we hold each other – when we come together in community – when we SHOW UP FOR SHABBAT and for one another, when we enrich our own lives and others by learning and living by our tradition’s ancient values, we ourselves become a tree of life. We form a tree that is stronger than each of us alone; enduring through the ages. This tree of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, has weathered all of the seasons and storms and it will continue to do so. May we find shelter beneath its branches, may we find nourishment and courage and strength and sweetness from its sap. May we roll our sacred scroll to a new beginning each year for thousands of years to come. May this new year give us strength to strengthen and to draw strength from one another and our Tree of Life.