On Wednesday night, after the first of the 11 funerals in Pittsburgh, my daughter lit 13 yahrzeit candles: 11 for the Jews murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and 2 for the black man and woman murdered in Louisville, Kentucky.
This has been a week of funerals in Pittsburgh: Our tradition is to bury our dead within one or two days of their death. So we had three on Wednesday, three yesterday, and one today. This week’s Torah portion begins with a funeral. וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע, (V’tamat Sarah b’kiriyat arba) Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” Right now we are in the days of Shiva, the seven days of most intense mourning that follow a funeral. This is the time to remember the dead. Who they were. What their lives meant. There will be a time to talk about other things, the greater forces at work in our society, that contributed to these murders. I will talk about those in their time, but not tonight. Tonight is a time to mourn. So just as Abraham mourned Sarah, let us mourn these, our dead.
- David and Cecil Rosenthal, 59 and 54, two developmentally disabled brothers who lived together. They were the synagogue greeters. Every Shabbat they stood at the door of the the Tree of LIfe Synagogue and welcomed people, “not out of obligation, but out of joy,” One mourner said of them, “It was easy to feel sad over what could have been, had the boys been quote-unquote ‘normal. But when I think about it more, I realize that we were more enriched by them than they were by us.”
- Melvin Wax, an 87-year-old member of the Or Chadash congregation, was born into poverty and became an accomplished corporate accountant. He was described as a kind and simple man.
- Joyce Feinberg, 75 years old, had been a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. After she retired, she volunteered across the city and went to minyan at the Tree of Life Synagogue every morning. At her funeral, the other daily minyan-goers served as her honorary pallbearers. They were called to the front of the sanctuary at Beth Shalom synagogue as her casket was wheeled out, in order “to be with her, one last time.”
- Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 67 years old, A colleague said, “He was one of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life. He had a moral compass stronger than anyone I have every known,” Another said, “Jerry was above all one of the kindest physicians and human beings in our community.” One patient said, “in the early days of HIV treatment, when stigma around the disease was high, Rabinowitz was known to hold patients’ hands without gloves and embrace them whenever they left the office.”
- Sylvan Simon, 86, and his wife, Bernice, 84, lived six miles from Tree of Life. One of their sons, Martin, died in a motorcycle accident in 2010. Bernice Simon was a retired nurse. Sylvan Simon, who was also retired, liked to take walks around the neighborhood. He always exchanged a wave and a friendly hello. They were described as the sweetest people you could imagine.
- Richard Gottfried, 65, was a longtime dentist, an avid golfer, runner and book lover. He and his wife volunteered their skills as dentists for the Catholic Charities Free Dental Clinic.
- Irving Younger, 69, was a retired real estate agent, a little league coach and a self-appointed greater at the synagogue. A friend said of him, “He liked to make sure you knew where you were in the prayer book. It was his duty. He felt responsible. He felt like his role was to help serve.”
- Rose Mallinger, 97, was a Holocaust survivor, One of her granddaughters said, “To Bubbe, family was everything. She knew her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchild better than they knew themselves. She retained her sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day,” The mother of three children, with five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, she still cooked family meals for high holidays. She was described as a sweet and lovely lady who was quick with a friendly greeting, a hug and a smile,
- Daniel Stein, 71, was described by his son as “a simple man” who “did not require much.” “He was a great guy, a fun guy, he had a dry sense of humor and everybody loved him.”
- Maurice Stallard, 69, Stallard had been shopping for poster board with his 12-year-old grandson when he was shot at the Krogers in Louisville. A family friend said, “in Jeffersontown’s tight-knit black community he was known as a warm and easy-going man who always greeted people with a hug. “It’s complete sorrow in our community right now,”
- Vickie Jones, 67, was a widow for the last eight years. She had two sons and multiple grandchildren. She retired from the Veterans Affairs hospital, where she worked as an office administrator. Her nephew said she loved to travel and was a faithful member of the Church of the Living God,
The murderer saw us as Jews. But we see each of the people he killed as human beings. We reclaim their humanity. Where a racist sees only blacks, we see individuals in their full human dignity. In the face of dehumanization, we assert the truth of our religious tradition. That God created every human being in the Divine image. That every human being is sacred, holy, unique and precious, a representation of the Divine image here on earth. As the poet Zelda wrote, לכל איש יש שם, (L’chol ish yesh shem) Every person has a name.
Our Torah portion this week also ends with a funeral. Abraham dies and, וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה, (v’Yikberu oto Yitzhak v’Yishmael banav al ma’arat h’machpelah) His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah,” This second funeral is a story of reconciliaition. The two brothers, who have been estranged for so long, since they were children, are reconciled and come together to mourn their father. Our Rabbis teach us, in a midrash, that Yizhak sought out Yishmael and went to visit him frequently to rebuild the bonds of connection.
Look around you, here, now, in this room. We have come together to mourn the dead. To support each other. Just as the Jews in Pittsburgh are doing. Just as the black community in Kentucky is doing, and not just us.
Remember this, where there is hate there is also self-sacrifice and love. As I speak, four policemen are in the hospital in Pittsburgh recovering from the wounds they received when they put their lives at risk to stop the killer. Look at how the people of Pittsburgh turned out, in their thousands, from the mayor to the simple citizen, to embrace the Jewish community, to show their love. The mayor said, “The Jewish community is the backbone, it is part of the fabric of Pittsburgh and we will be there in all communities to help our friends in the Jewish community.”
Look around this room. Look who else is here with us from our community. Showing us love and support and commitment. You may feel afraid. You may feel anger. You may feel deep grief. Just look around now and remember, you are not alone.
My daughter lit 13 yahrzeit candles because the 11 Jews in Pittsburgh and the the black man and woman in Kentucky were all murdered by blind hatred. Without denying the individual circumstances of their lives, they are one in their deaths. They are all victims of blind hatred. This is not the first time in our people’s long history that Jews have been killed for being Jews, victims of blind hatred. But we have an answer to that. We call our Torah עץ חיים, (Etz Chayim) the Tree of Life, its message is one of lovingkindness. God says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—” Where someone acts with hatred, we respond with love. Where someone sews enmity and division, we answer with community and connection. Were someone tries to spread fear, we respond with the strength that comes from hope and the certainty of human redemption. We do not cower. We come together and we continue our Jewish lives.
If these are the days of Shiva, the days of mourning, then we also remember that Shiva is suspended for Shabbat. Even in the depths of our despair we are commanded to rejoice in Shabbat. If you have been a mourner then you know how hard that can be. I remember because Shabbat came in the evening of the day we buried my mother on January 31st. But there is a reason for that. In our Kiddush, our blessing over the wine on Shabbat, we say, that Shabbat is זִכָּרון לְמַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית, (zecher l’ma’aseh vereishit) it is a remembrance of Creation, and it is also, זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם,(zecher l’itziyat Mitzrayim) a memory of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat reminds of God’s creative power, that the world is holy and that human beings are holy because created the Earth and all that is in it. Shabbat also reminds us that God’s intended purpose is freedom and dignity for all human beings. And if we haven’t achieved it yet, creation is not yet done. Shabbat reminds us that as long as we live we must affirm life and work for redemption. So let us embrace Shabbat and go out from here tonight committed to finishing God’s work of creation. In the memory of those who were slain last week, so that we can say זכרונם לברכה, (zichronam l’vrachah) may their memories be a blessing.
© 2018 Dean Kertesz