Shabbat Inspiration – After Pittsburgh

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, November 1, 2018

It has been a long week and as Rabbi Mintz wrote in our communication to the community, last shabbat was not a shabbat of shalom, a shabbat of peace.  Today, many of us feel more vulnerable, more raw, and more scared then we were.  Seemingly overnight our sense that in America we are safe has been shattered.  We’ve been shocked out of complacency.  We ask ourselves how do we move forward?  How do we regain our sense of equilibrium and our sense of safety?

Earlier this week, I joined with 1500 other congregational and agency leadership from across the country for a call on security.  Sponsored by the reform, conservative and reconstructionist movements, the call was facilitated by the ADL who were in conversation with national law enforcement agencies and security experts.  The call focused on securing our synagogues and institutions and there are several key points that I want to share.

First, the man who perpetrated this attack appears to have acted alone.  He was not a part of a larger movement and as of Wednesday night, according to the FBI, there were no credible threats against the Jewish community.

Second, while we may feel under siege because there has been an increase in the number of harassing phone calls and emails reported in the last year, until last Shabbat, there had been only one reported physical assault in the past two years.

So, what can we do now to feel secure as we return to our daily lives?  As a community we can no longer be complacent.  We must take control, and empower ourselves.  We take our security seriously.  Just like we plan for fires and earthquakes, together with security experts, we will develop a plan that will keep us secure as is possible.  God willing, we will never need to use it but at the Tree of Life, Rabbi Meyers saved lives because he had recently undergone security training and he knew what to do when the unthinkable happened.

As I think back on the events of last Shabbat, what confuses me is that what so bothered the perpetrator, Jewish involvement with helping the downtrodden and oppressed, is what I thought was a core American value. I ask myself how anyone could find fault with that?  As if this tragedy was a rational act.  As if the perpetrator was a rational man.

The Jewish people were forged into being through the formative event of our master story, the exodus from Egypt; the journey from slavery to freedom, from oppression to redemption.  Zecher yitziyat Mitzrayim – remember you were slaves in Egypt.   Everything we do is colored by this framing.  No matter what financial or professional success we achieve, we always carry within us a connection to our history as slaves.  This connection guides us to be empathetic advocates for others who are suffering today.  We see ourselves in their eyes. That empathy puts many of us at odds with current immigration policies.   For most of us it is only one or two generations ago that we were immigrants trying to get into America and to create a better life.  We see ourselves in their eyes.

Remembering that we were slaves in Egypt calls us to follow in the footsteps of the prophets who advocated for change, to make the world a better place… to change the status quo…from Isaiah of old, to Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King and who famously said, “When I marched in Selma, I prayed with my feet.”   Many in our community are politically active, using their voices as Mahatma Gandhi said to “’Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Last weekend I was in New York for a conference.  My son Will came down from Vermont and we spent Shabbat together.  We walked the streets of lower Manhattan where we caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.  The iconic Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American values, upon whose base is engraved, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Jews have proudly fought to uphold the values inscribed here, and yet in today’s world, “Give me your tired, your poor” seem not to be the values of a segment of our society.

In the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat we read of Hillel and Shammai, two great sages of the last century before the Common Era who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought.   “Once there was a person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside, dismissing him as a not serious student. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  Treat others how you would want to be treated.  In moments like this, it is easy to feel alone and isolated.  But we are not alone.  Last night at the community vigil, and in this room tonight, are people of good faith and love and warmth, who choose to stand up against hate, and to stand with us when we really need it.

Standing up on the bima at the vigil last night, looking out at the sea of faces that included so many of you, members of all the synagogues here, clergy people of all stripes and collars, political leaders across the aisle of the political divide… standing on that bima was a beautiful site.   And as the lieutenant governor said, we cannot, we should not, forget that there are millions of people standing with us, as we stand with them.  We cannot let the terror perpetrated by the very few, outweigh the goodness of the majority.

We see ourselves in their eyes.

I looked out from the bima and in my eyes I saw all of you, and I know that I am not, that we are not alone.  We are a community made up of many, many parts, and we see each other, we find each other, in each other’s eyes.