The carnage of Saturday, October 27, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, was the most fatal assault on a Jewish institution in United States history. And the deep irony is that the Pittsburgh synagogue – where 11 lost their lives, thousands lost relatives and friends, and maybe America lost some of her innocence – is named for a Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life lives. It connects us all. As does the carnage. As does the hatred that fuels bloodshed and fear. The same xenophobia that aimed at the Tree of Life Synagogue also targets Muslims, people of color, LGBT Americans and immigrants. It targeted a supermarket in Kentucky last week because the gunman couldn’t enter an AME church. It hit a Charleston church a year ago. It targets our collective soul.
Torah records that God created with words, starting with light. Light is the first building block of spiritual life, but something came first before light. והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחושך על פני תהום / “Earth was a chaotic mess, and darkness was on the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2). Chaos and darkness pre-existed creation; chaos and darkness are with us still.
We – you, me, all of us together – are in the “chaos to cosmos” business. Our task in spiritual life is to bring light to the darkness.
How? We bring light much as the Biblical Creator brought light – from the unity of our shared soul, with love, with words and with actions.
The mezuzah that marks Jewish doorways symbolizes all of this. The mezuzah proclaims our Unity: שמע ישראל יהו”ה אלהינו יהו”ה אחד / “Hear, Israel, YHVH our God, YHVH is Unity.” It next calls us to love in Unity: ואהבת את יהו”ה אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מעודך / “Love YHVH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all you’ve got.” The mezuzah is a symbol of unity and love. The mezuzah is a beacon for Jewish life.
And now, in this time of darkness when Jews again are targeted for being Jews, the mezuzah also stands for the risk we take to be Jews – and the risk we all take to love and shine. It’s a risk to open the heart when it hurts. It’s a risk to open the heart when we feel unsafe. The risk may cost us dearly. It might even cost us our lives. But a life that lacks the freedom to be fully ourselves, a life that lacks the power to love, a life that shirks the duty to repair the world, a life that loses the hope of healing, is not a full life.
That’s why the risk is worth taking. Our people have taken this risk for centuries; we’ve paid the price with our blood. It might be that hate and carnage will continue. And if so, we’ll stand up every time. There is no other way for us. It is because we know the suffering of the stranger, the widow and the orphan, the outsider, the senseless hatred that singes the soul of our very humanity, that we know to open our hearts for others.
We who flourish in this so-called “land of the free” now stand among the many who extend hands to the next wave who seek the same blessings and offer many blessings in return. That’s why the Pittsburgh shooter targeted Jews: his Twitter feed railed against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). That’s why the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue is an attack on our national Tree of Life, and an attack on the sacred Tree of Life that is all human unity.
But the Tree of Life lives on. We will not let terror diminish our light. We will be lights in the darkness today and tomorrow – and as we all shine, we will send darkness scrambling.
We dedicate these 11 candles to the memory of 11 murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue for being Jews. We dedicate these 11 candles to strengthening our resolve to nourish the sacred Tree of Life, to shine with ever more empathy, to offer the good words of our lips and the good works of our hands to all who are marginalized.
Today we mourn our Jewish losses. And with the light of these candles, the stirring of our hearts and the tears of our eyes, we dedicate ourselves today and tomorrow to healing the Tree of Life that is our wounded nation.
Please stand as we dedicate these candles to the memory of the victims of murder at the Tree of Life Synagogue:
May their memories be for a blessing.