Based on what I offered at the Vigil for Tree of Life Synagogue.
I stand before you, a descendant of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Warfare, economic hardship, and
persecution forced them to leave lands where their ancestors had lived for generations. My three-year-old
grandmother crossed borders guided by her nine-year-old sister, smuggled out beneath blankets by their mother in the back of wagon, under the cover of darkness, all afraid for their lives.
Eventually, they made it safely to America. America is a nation of immigrants, many of whom fled religious persecution in search of freedom. We are a nation who so prized our welcoming nature as to enshrine it on the Statue of Liberty in the words of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” words that greeted my grandparents as they came to Ellis Island:
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These words do not come from nowhere. They are based on the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 58: This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie
the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke.
It is to share your food with the wretched and take the poor into your home;
When you see the naked, clothe them and do not ignore your own kin.
Then will your light burst through like the dawn and your healing will spring up quickly.
[When] your higher-self leads you, the weight of God is behind you.
Thus [now], when you call out, God will answer;
When you call out God will say: Hineni, here I am.
We are all God’s children. Jewish tradition tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Sometimes, too often if you ask me, that image is reflected with more than a bit of distortion, emphasizing the worst aspects of our nature.
We Jews have seen the hate-filled faces before, through many generations in many countries. Too often, historically, the torches of hatred have entered Jewish neighborhoods and set synagogues, businesses, and homes aflame.
We don’t knock down or abandon places where violence has happened. We mop up the blood. We patch the holes in the walls. And we live with the holes in our hearts. In synagogues, like the one in Pittsburgh and so many others through the ages, we have stood holding the Torah, our tree of life, in those now sanctified places where people died, Kedush HaShem, martyrs in sanctification of God’s name. And God is right there with us, as we return the next day, and offer the same words of prayer and song, of peace and love, and of thanksgiving, words that have inspired generations.
Most of the time, historically, it has only been a small percentage of the local population that was involved in the violence. The vast majority of people, good people, stood by and watched.
Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called “The Hangman.” It’s a bit long for me to read to its theme is very important. Ogden’s poem is about a Hangman who comes into a town and begins to single out people for hanging. He begins with the weakest minority and then keeps dividing and dividing, singling out and singling out, until the very last person is finally hung upon the gallows.
The one who did nothing to offend, nothing to get in the way, of the one promoting violence and hatred of the other, of the immigrants, of racial or political minorities, of Jews or of other faiths. We will not be like the Hangman’s faithful servant. We will not stand by and allow age-old hatreds against Jews to rise again unchallenged. We will not allow hatreds of any kind to spread.
At the vigil, it was wonderful and, oh so appreciated, to see so many people there, over 1,000, including at least 150 members of the clergy representing numerous faiths, to support us and to have heard from so many who reached out in care and concern. It is our nature to be there for others in times of need, and we value the caring and support of our friends in the interfaith community in return.
We are a people who care deeply about everyone else. Caring for those who are ill and otherwise in need is a big deal for us. We are a people who see ourselves in Henny Youngman’s brief joke.
“A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well.” That is us.
We Jews know that human beings can and too often do act cruelly and inhumanely toward one another. Our tradition tells us that when we find ourselves among those not acting humanely, even if no one else is, our job is to be a mensch, to be a human being. As Hillel taught, “Bamakom sh’ein anashim, hishtadeil li-hiyot ish.” “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a person.”Jewish doctors and nurses treated the shooter when he was brought to the hospital. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
And we expect the best of this country and its leaders.
We are like Moses Seixas, a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, who wrote a
letter to the first President of the United States, George Washington, checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would indeed “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And we expect that our government will live up to that ideal to this very day.
We are a people who look at a world filled with violence, a world filled with hatred, a world in which age-old prejudices surface again and again, and believe, we can, with the help of our friends change it. We are a people who believe the words of Theodore Hirzl, “Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah,” “If you will it, it is no dream,” because we have seen our hopes amid the darkness become reality.
Confronted time and time again with opportunities to join the majority, to bring an end to difficulty, oppression, and great suffering, we have remained true to our beliefs.
Before Kings and Priests, before soldiers with swords or guns and mobs with torches, who all wanted us to say something else, believe something else, or simply to vanish from the face of the earth, we bravely uttered, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad!” “Here, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone!”
Today, we come together to declare that we will not allow ourselves to remain silent as hatred is offered. We will not be cowed into silence. This is our country. This is our home. May it always be truly both the land of the free and the home of the brave… and let us be brave.
We will not stand idly by. No more. Never again!
Rabbi David Kaufman