Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5779

Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander – 2 November 2018

As is our tradition, Jews gather for Shabbat services. This week there is a baby blessing, celebrating new life in the community. An evil man bursts into the building, hatred spewing from his mouth, spreading death with assault weapons legally available across his country. Eleven innocent people are murdered.

We are speechless in shock and horror. We grieve with the loved ones of the victims. We wonder what should have been done to prevent such a tragedy. It’s no surprise that prejudice and hostility flourish in our society, and we do our best to combat such malevolence wherever we may find it. When we ourselves are the target, however, ancient fears are resurrected, and shake us to our bones. How then may we respond to the attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh?

First, we pray. Alden Solovy, liturgy laureate for the North American Progressive Jewish community, offers these words:

Source and Creator
Grant a perfect rest under your tabernacle of peace
To the victims of terror throughout the world,
Men and women whose lives were cut off by witless aggression.
Today we add Pittsburgh
To the list of places where innocents have been murdered and wounded.

Remember with love
The survivors of these horrors
Throughout the world.
Grant them shelter and solace,
Comfort and consolation,
Blessing and renewal.
Grant them endurance to survive,
Strength to rebuild,
Faith to mourn,
Courage to heal,
And devotion to each other.

We feel empathy and we express our sympathy to those who are suffering. In the past few days, I have spoken with friends and colleagues in Jewish communities across North America and Europe. They tell of messages from other faith communities and their members, declaring their solidarity with us. Again and again the statement is the same, as Mira Awad writes:

“… No one in the world should encounter this sort of hate … a crime of hate is not only an attack against one group of human beings, no, it is a direct attack against my way of life, against my family. I am daughter to the human race, and no matter what branch of the family one group or another is from, we are still firmly connected at the roots, brothers and sisters.”2

It is good to know that we are not alone, and certainly such thoughts may sow seeds of hope in our hearts. Yet each time there is an atrocity, while we may find some comfort in standing together and staying strong, after a short while we move on. Until the next heinous act.

In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sara, we see a vision of a possible future. The portion concludes with the death of Abraham, and says:

“His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” 3

What on earth is Ishmael doing there? 75 years previously, Sarah’s desire to protect her son Isaac caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast into the wilderness. God predicted a life of conflict for the boy4. Now we see the brothers together, fulfilling the rites for their father.

Some years ago, I’d prepared a lovely feminist drash for this portion, all about Sarah vanishing from the text. The day before the service, I attended the local Interfaith Association meeting of our small Virginia community. I heard that the new mosque would not be putting a sign out front, in order to protect its members from possible harassment. On the bimah, I looked out at my congregation, and binned my speech. I told them what I’d heard at the meeting, and shared the vision that I’d seen in the Torah portion. How did Ishmael come to be at Abraham’s funeral? Because Isaac, his brother, went and found him. “You know what it is like to live as a minority in this town,” I said. “We have to do something about this. This week, let’s figure out what we can do.” And we did. We invited the Muslim community to dine with us one Shabbat, and we began to get to know each other. We discovered what we had in common. Over time, we learned how, despite the official issues in the wider world, we could live together, shopping in the same supermarkets, studying in the same schools, sharing our joys and our sorrows.

The Jewish people has survived myriad attacks throughout time and space. Our example is a source of hope to all who suffer. We know how to build new lives from the ashes of the old; we continue to love, and to care for strangers as well as our own. Our Torah teaches us to support those who are Other. Our tradition teaches us to turn away from evil and towards good. The parashah teaches that Isaac made peace with his sibling, and the two of them went on together. In response to those who hate us for being Jewish, let us be all the more Jewish5. Let us work with our siblings from other religions and none. Let us reach out to each other in times of sorrow, and learn to live with our differences together in peace. Nu, let’s go find Ishmael!

1 From “After a Terror Attack”, Alden Solovy, 2016
2 Mira Awad, Arab-Israeli singer, songwriter, actress in a FaceBook post on her page 28.10.18
3 Genesis 25:9a
4 “He shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him;” (Gen. 16:12)
5 Shoutout to Lev Taylor

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