Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.
That’s the first line of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, which means The Life of Sarah, or perhaps The Lives of Sarah. It’s a poignant name for the Torah portion, because the portion begins not with Sarah’s life but with her death. This week we read how Avraham purchased a burial place for his wife, and buried her.
There is no way to read those lines today without thinking of the eleven who were killed during Shabbat morning services last week at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The days of their lives were cut short by hatred and by the ready availability of guns. They were killed in a house of prayer because they were Jews.
We are not the only community to be targeted in these ways. I think immediately of the massacre in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in 2015, and the massacre in the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.
And we are not the only community that now feels afraid. The fear we feel now as Jews in America is connected with the fear felt by our Muslim neighbors, and our queer and transgender neighbors, and our immigrant neighbors, and our neighbors who are people of color. The cancer of bigotry and white nationalism that has infected our nation damages all of us.
And at the same time, this shooting is scary in specific ways for us as Jews. We carry the trauma of the Holocaust. We carry the trauma of centuries of dispossession. Our fear is linked with the fear that so many others feel — and it is also our own, unique to the story of our people.
And yet here we are in synagogue. Here we are, coming together in song and prayer, searching for meaning, striving for the taste of the World to Come that Shabbat offers us each week. Here we are in Jewish community. Because no amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop being Jews. No amount of hatred or vitriol will make us stop singing and praying, learning and studying, standing up for the immigrant and the refugee, loving the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
If I have to die for those values, I will die for them. But far more important to me is my willingness to live for those values, and for those values to live in me. The best way I can honor the lives of the eleven who were killed last Shabbat is by living my Jewish values with all my heart and with all my might all the days of my life. And that means speaking up for the disempowered, and welcoming the refugee, and “walking my talk.” Halakha, the term usually translated as “Jewish law,” can also be translated as “our way of walking.” To be a Jew is to aim to walk a path of righteousness.
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,” says the Song of Songs (8:6), “for love is strong as death.” Granted, love can’t make death disappear. No matter how much the Pittsburgh shooting victims were and are loved, we can’t bring them back to life. But love persists beyond death. Even when someone has died, we can continue to love them — our love persists as long as we draw breath. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we die, our souls return to their Source, to the wellspring of hope and love that we feebly name as God. We come from Love, and when we die we return to Love.
And while we live, it is our job to love. It is our job to love one another — in Auden’s words, “We must love one another or die.” How do we love one another? One answer comes from Cornel West, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Because I love, I demand justice not only for myself but for all. Because I love, I will work toward liberty and justice for all. Because I love, I will work toward a world where we have banished hatred and bigotry, slander and cruelty, xenophobia and white nationalism, racism and prejudice. We may not get there in my lifetime, but we have to keep trying.
That’s the best response I can offer to the tragedy of the Tree of Life shooting last Shabbat. We honor their memories by being who we are, being Jews walking a Jewish path, all the days of our lives. And we honor their memories by working tirelessly — once Shabbes is over — toward building a world redeemed.
Let us seal God’s presence into our hearts so that we are not afraid. Let us seal God’s presence into our arms, to strengthen us for the work of bringing justice to this battered world. Let us take comfort in our togetherness. And tonight when we make havdalah, let us rededicate ourselves to being a light in the darkness and building a world of greater justice and love.
This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)