Rabbi Todd November 2, 2018 Sermon

Shabbat Shalom everyone.

It really is incredible to see so many people here this evening. As anyone who has been through the process of mourning knows, it’s the support of family and friends that can be most helpful during times of grief.  Truly we have a lot of friends in Cedar Rapids. Thank you for being here.

I am sure that many of my congregants have had friends and acquaintances reach out to them this past week. I can no longer count the number of notes, emails, phone calls, and texts that I received. Many from people I know, but also so many from people I’ve never met. Priests and ministers and pastors, Imams and spiritual guides, people of all faiths and races. We’ve heard from neighbors right here on Lindsay Lane, as well as some from other cities in Iowa. An anonymous person has been leaving white roses on our door. One each day since the shooting.  The outpouring of love, from all of you, has been amazing. The tragedy that brings us together is horrible, but the fact that we are together is a huge comfort.

Normally, at this point in the service, we’d be transitioning into our Torah reading. But this isn’t a normal service or a normal Shabbat. We’ve lit memorials candles with our Shabbat candles, and eulogized the dead, even as we’ve welcomed the joy of Shabbat together. Yet as odd as it seems, to be mixing mourning and Shabbat rituals, it’s not really that uncommon. Jewish mourning customs last 7, and then 30, and then 365 days. An individual mourner always has to find a way to fit the joy of Shabbat into their process of mourning. The oddity here, is the communal mourning we are experiencing. Both Jews and non-Jews alike.

Yes, this particular tragedy was committed against a group of Jews, by a deranged anti-semite.  He shouted horrible, ugly slurs as he shot and killed 11 observant Jews who were peacefully praying. Many are calling this this worst anti-semitic attack in American history. Which it likely is. Unfortunately, we all know too well, that this isn’t the worst violent attack of anti-semitism in history, not by any stretch of the imagination.  

Less than one lifetime ago the Third Reich came to power in Germany. Though we all know of the Ghettos and the Concentration Camps and the Gas Chambers that were part of the Final Solution, what many people don’t know about is what the early days of Nazi Germany were like. Prior to moving their Jewish population into ghettos and camps, the Nazis began with a propaganda campaign depicting manipulative, wealthy Jews, who were responsible for all of Germany’s problems. This led to increased vandalism of Jewish businesses and synagogues, and physical attacks upon Jewish people, including a number of deaths. The fact that police and other governmental officials at the time turned a blind eye to these crimes, only encouraged more people to commit them, which only made it that much scarier to be a Jew in Eastern Europe.

These facts are well known to us Jews, and because of that events like the shooting in Pittsburgh bring to the surface all kinds of vulnerabilities and anxieties we often didn’t know we had. We start to see all the ways that today can devolve into back then. We start to notice similar rhetoric and propaganda and find old fears bubbling up.

But as I look around here tonight and I consider all that has happened this week, I realize why this is such a unique moment. Yes, anti-semitism still exists, even here in the Land of the Free. But we Jews aren’t the only ones effected by it. Most of us have been targeted by our own forms of hatred and prejudice. More and more, we are all minorities in some way, and we are realizing that we are stronger together. So all week long the larger American community has reached out to us. Muslims across the country, including our own Islamic Society of Cedar Rapids, are raising money for the Jews Pittsburg. All over America, there have been vigils and services, lead by any number of different faith groups.

If there is anything good that can come from this tragedy, it will be our shared goal to make this country a safe space for all people to live together in peace. 

But I got distracted. Because, if you remember, I started to talk about the Torah portion for this week, and why it was odd we weren’t reading from it. We would, normally, take out one of the Torahs from the ark behind me and read a section from it, in it’s original Hebrew. For the sake of time, we aren’t going to do a direct reading tonight, but I do want to talk about it.

The Torah is the core of Judaism. It’s the foundation on which our morals and values are based. It’s the story of our people and the starting point for all our of laws. For those who don’t know, the Torah is the Five Books of Moses written in Hebrew. It’s the same first five books of either the Hebrew or the Christian Bible. During Shabbat, Jews typically read a particular section of Torah. One section a week for 52 weeks so as to finish reading it, in it’s entirety, once a year. Every Jewish community, all over the world, reads the same section of Torah each weekend. Since we just started over, a few weeks ago, we are still in the Book of Genesis. This week we are reading a section known as Chayei Sarah, or The Life of Sarah. Like most sections of Torah, Chayei Sarah gets its name from the opening words of the portion. In this case, “Sarah’s life was 127 years, such was the span of Sarah’s life.” However, this portion isn’t at all about Sarah’s life, because the next sentence tells of her death. The rest of the portion is actually about her burial. Her Jewish burial, the first Jewish burial.

Following Sarah’s death, Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah, to be his family burial site. The Torah gives the details of the sale in a rather unique example of reverse haggling. The owner, knowing of Abraham’s stature, first offers to give the cave to Abraham as a gift. Abraham then begs to be allowed to pay a fair price. The owner says, “If I were to sell it, it would be worth such and such.” And then Abraham agrees.  

The rabbis explain the negotiations as typical for the day and so they are less concerned about the manner in which the sale is made then that it was so important to Abraham in the first place. At this point in the story, Abraham and Sarah have lived in Canaan for decades, and yet there was never any formal ownership of any part of it. However it worked, it worked. Abraham’s family and the locals lived together peacefully.

But burial of a loved one is too important for informality. It’s seen as one of our highest commandments, because the dead can’t repay us for our kindness. Abraham, knows his family will still move around Canaan, they are shepherds with flocks that roam. But Sarah will no longer travel with them. She needs a permanent place that Abraham can return to, so he purchases a burial cave. To this day, because of Abraham, any new Jewish community first purchases land for a cemetery before land for a building. Having a place for our honored dead is more important, than having a place to pray.

We also learn from this text that burial is more important than mourning. Or at least, it’s the necessary first step to being able to mourn. Immediately following Sarah death, Abraham is purchasing the cave so that he can honor Sarah’s memory. After he tends to her, then he can mourn her passing, which is a year long process in Judaism that doesn’t start till after the funeral is over. So Jewish funerals tend to be held within a few days of someone’s death so that one can mourn completely.  

For any one person in mourning, the process can include, seven days of sitting shiva (a period of intense mourning), 30 days of sh’loshim (less intense but still very sad), and then a year reciting the mourner’s prayer daily. For most of this, especially the first seven days, the entire community participates. They bring food, tell stories, give comfort, say prayers.  

Imagine starting this process 11 times in one week. 11 funerals, 11 shivas, 11 yahrzeits. The only way an individual can get through this is with the support of their community. The only way an entire community is going to get through this, is with the support of all of us. 

Thank you for being here, for standing with us, for mourning the deaths at the Tree of Life.

May God watch over the soul’s of our dearly departed, and bless us all with comfort and peace.