A Torah of Life: Post-Pittsburgh Thoughts

Friday Night Sermon
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

A Torah of Life: Post-Pittsburgh Thoughts


Brothers and sisters, acheinu v’achyoteinu,

In our weekly reading of the Torah, we are approaching the center point, the fulcrum, of the book of Genesis. Parashat Chayyei Sarah focuses on chapters 23 to 25 and deals with the aftermath of Sarah’s death. The Midrash suggests that Sarah died a traumatic death after hearing about her son Isaac’s near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah. As we can see, this is part of Genesis that addresses some of the experiences, concerns and questions that we are sitting with as a community tonight: death, mourning, trauma, fear, healing, celebrating life, honoring, rebuilding. Love, hope, legacy, vision, future. In fact, the portion is capped by the two deaths of our giants: Sarah at the start of the reading and Abraham at the end. In between, we witness a match being made between Rebecca and Isaac and reconciliation being found at the foot of Abraham’s grave between Ishmael and Isaac, the estranged siblings locked in an existential struggle.
In short, this is a quintessentially Jewish reading: messy, complex, real, compassionate. Concerned with continuity and survival, inspired with a wider vision of all we could be. It allows us to sit with our pain. It helps us frame sacred memory. It encourages to build and rebuild and look to the future. And moreover, in its very name, ‘Chayyei Sarah’, ‘the life of Sarah’, lies a secret: of honoring those we have loved and lost.

It’s been a heck of a week. In my life, I’ve experienced nothing like it and I must say that I’ve experience a number of political, social and economic upheavals during my forty year tenure on this earth.

It’s been a heck of a week.

It is a week today since I stood on this very bimah and heard the news. I was reading from the Binding of Isaac, and my response was immediate and visceral. For so many of us, there will always be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Pittsburgh. From then on, we have all been pulled into a maelstrom, the force of its currents amplified by social media. We have seen footage, read articles, railed and cried and mourned on social media. Rallied and organized. Supported and listened. And most of all, ask ourselves and each other how this could happen. It is so easy to loose our footing in such a traumatizing and devastating time. It is so easy to feel isolated and fearful. It is so easy to be confused about who we are as a community, as a country, as a species.

Yet, this is not what we have done. We had rallied and risen. With pain in our voices, we have sang and prayed and spoken words of hope and healing. We have bound together as an interfaith community. We have addressed and analyzed the bigotry that caused this and stared down this hatred with a forceful, determined, defiant love.

Many words have been spoken, not least of all by myself. For now, I am more grateful for presence. We can be grateful for our holy Jewish tradition and its intuitive wisdom, for the rhythms and rituals of mourning. For the gift and blessing of prayer. When I would cry into my tallit during my morning prayers multiple times this week, I have been grateful for the opportunity and safety to do so. We can be grateful to be gathered here; to balance our righteous anger with caring, compassion and community. To stand and sit in this sacred space and witness a young child being initiated into the Covenant. To sit as a diverse community. To know that despite it all, and because of it all, the four walls of Abraham and Sarah’s tent will remain open for all.
It is a joy and a privilege to be Jewish. As we remember our eleven holy martyrs, and as we hold the pain of all victims of bigotry and hate, we are called to recommit to that Judaism.

I am thankful for all of you here tonight. As we move into an uncertain future, a ‘new normal’, we do so with the determination of our values, the courage of our convictions. Now more than ever, I believe in being Jewish, in carrying the banner of ethical monotheism, the words of the Shema – of God’s Oneness, and by extension, our human oneness – on my lips.
Acheinu v’achyoteinu, our brothers and sisters, may we all – of all faiths and none – be restored by what we encounter here tonight. A love of humanity. Togetherness. Sanctuary. Rest. Reconciliation. It is what the world needs and I know that we can give it. For that, brothers and sisters, we can all be grateful.

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