Louisville/Pittsburgh Vigil: From Where Does Our Help Come?

Vigil for Louisville and Pittsburgh, 30thOctober 2018, Iowa City
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Shir la’amot – A song of ascents.
Essa einai el he’harim– I lift my eyes to the mountains
Me’ayin yavo ezri– from where will my help come?

Dear brothers and sisters, 

I’m an immigrant. Unlike many American children, I did not grow up watching ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’ as a child. I was blessed to discover Mr. Rogers’ television ministry of humanitarian kindness as an adult and it has given me succor during turbulent times. 

Mr. Rogers’ mythical television neighborhood – a place of hope and love - was set in Squirrel Hill, the Neighborhood where the Etz Chaim– Tree of Life – Synagogue stands. 

There is a now-famous story that Mr. Rogers would share the comfort his own mother gave him. He said:

“’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

We, the Jewish People, together with our African-American brothers and sisters, and our brothers and sisters of all backgrounds and faiths, are looking for help.

Me’ayin yavo ezreinu– from where will our help come? 

We have come here today to mourn. Eleven Jews were martyred at prayer. Eleven Jews who had probably just put on their kippotand wrapped themselves in their prayer shawls, like the one I am wearing now. Who had in all likelihood just chanted the morning liturgy, which affirms our pride and joy and sense of obligation… 

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam she’asani betzalmo.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has made us in Your Divine image.

Bullets tore through that Divine Image and desecrated it.

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam she’asani b’nei chorin.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has made us free human beings.

The freedom to worship, enshrined in this great country’s constitution, shredded by a semi-automatic rifle. 

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam she’asani Yisrael.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has given us the great privilege of being Jewish.

We Jews, old and young, devout and secular, Jews-of-Color, Jews-by-birth and Jews-by-choice—are all one family and when one of us is hurt, we are all in pain. We are dying because we came together on our holy day, the Sabbath, in our holy place, a sanctuary, to worship God and sanctify God’s Name through the values of our tradition: kindness, compassion, loving the stranger, protecting the vulnerable, serving all humanity. 

When people marched in Charlottesville that fateful August, the bigots called out ‘Jews will not replace us.’ 
The Pittsburgh terrorist tried to make good on that promise.

Me’ayin yavo ezreinu– from where will our help come? 

When the Louisville terrorist who killed two innocent African-Americans, a brother and sister of our soul, after failing to enter First Baptist Church—an African-American church—he tried to make good on that hateful promise. 

No, we will not let them fulfil that promise. 

Against the vows of hatred, we pledge our eternal values, the values that were sung and prayed on a peaceful Shabbat morning in a quiet sanctuary. The values of Malachi that plead the unshakable truth: ‘Do we not have One Divine Parent? Has not One God made us?’ The values of Leviticus that instruct: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, the calling of Micah: ‘To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ w
Me’ayin yavo ezreinu – from where will our help come? 
Where does our help, our strength, our solace, our hope come from now that we mourn our dead? Now that we nurse our anger, sit with our pain and feel the burn of unanswerable questions on our lips? When the ‘tza’akah gedolah’, the ‘great outcry’ of our hearts is ‘why?’

Our help comes from helpers – from all of us here dedicated to the memory of Louisville and Squirrel Hill. We will build our own neighborhood. Our help comes from all of us here – people of conscience, of kindness, of good will, of moral fortitude. And we are so grateful that we in the midst of our pain can come together and link our arms, hearts and destinies. 

Ezri me’im Adonai, Oseh shamayim v’aretz’ – ‘my help comes from Adonai, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.’ 

Elohei Yisrael, Shomer Yisrael, God of Israel, Guardian of Israel, God of all humanity, of all of us, have mercy on us. 
Shelter us under Your wing as we remind ourselves of our great mission: to be a light unto the nations, to be unflinching advocates for radical empathy, to stand strong in solidarity with all the human family, especially those that are vulnerable to being targeted by bigotry. To speak truth and Torah to power. May You offer us healing and give us courage in the days, weeks, years ahead to rally our moral center. To meet hatred with love, just as You love us all with a great love. 

Be with us, Adonai our God, be with the African-American community, the Muslim community, with those who have disabilities, with those who are vulnerable. Be with the LGBTQ community, the immigrant community. Be, as You promised in Psalm 146, the One Who loves the stranger, protects the widow and orphan, Who feeds the hungry, opens the eyes of the blind and raises the downtrodden. To You, O Merciful One, we look for hope. We know we will hear the answer in the hearts and hands of our fellow human beings. This is where our Redemption lies.

Ken yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Amen. 

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