Next week I’ll be celebrating my Jeremiah anniversary. It was on a mild, early November morning in 2012 that I pulled up to Temple Jeremiah, way too early, and was essentially locked out. Frank, the maintenance person on duty, had not yet unlocked the doors. I made my way to each entrance trying to get into the building and start my day. But each door was locked and there was no sign of anyone in or around the temple. I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. I thought I potentially missed the email saying we were closed ahead of the election. Eventually, I made my way in and the rest is history.
I may have not shared this publicly, but I am glad that I am not a clergy person. Our clergy do a wonderful job of inspiring those both young and old with words of wisdom and song. For me, I like being in the background and making sure that things are moving seamlessly. Those who see me at programs or worship services usually find me either sitting in the far back row or, more often than not, speeding from one place to another making sure things are just right. When Rabbi Cohen asked me to join him on the bima to share his Kol Nidre sermon, my answer to him was of course, but inside I wanted to curl up and cry. So, you could imagine what I feel like when I have to share my thoughts on the weekly parsha with the congregation every couple of weeks.
This week is especially challenging to write in light of the tragedy that took place in Pittsburgh. I find myself scrolling through endless posts and emails with an outpouring of heartfelt grief for the families of the victims and the rallied support for the Tree of Life Congregational community and Squirrel Hill neighborhood. I am trying to still digest what has happened and how it affects me as a member of our smaller congregational family and the larger Jewish community. As the person most connected to matters concerning the security of our congregation, I am trying to remain as vigilant as possible while trying to make sure people know its important for us to “get back up” and continue with day to day life. And as I do sometimes, look towards Torah for some answers and solace.
This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Life), opens with Abraham mourning the loss of his beloved Sarah. He visits the Hittites requesting land for a gravesite. The Hittites graciously offer him any gravesite he wants and let him know that no one amongst their community will withhold it from him. Abraham asks to pay for the cave of Machpelah but Ephron, the land owner, refuses to take any money for it. After pleading to pay, Abraham and Ephron finally settle on 400 shekels of silver. Sarah is eventually laid to rest in the cave. The parsha continues with Isaac meeting and eventually marrying Rebekah. Interestingly, the Torah references their marriage taking place in the tent of Sarah and Isaac finding comfort after his mother’s passing once marrying Rebekah.
I, like many others, wonder why a portion titled Sarah’s Life is about her death. Frankly, it makes no sense to me considering the amount of time spent laying out the meeting between Isaac and Rebekah and then tracing Abraham’s heirs when he passes. But I have a different take considering the events of this past weekend. There has been a term I have heard our clergy use the past few years. Instead of a family holding a funeral or memorial for a loved one, they held a celebration of life. We honor the memory of those who have passed not by thinking that they are gone, but by remembering the person they were when they lived. I have heard such amazing stories about some congregants and their families. How I long to have known each of these individuals better to even get a taste of how each lived their lives. Our patriarchs were doing similar. In Abraham finding the right place to bury Sarah, and then Isaac marrying Rebekah in Sarah’s tent, our patriarchs are celebrating the lives of their wife and mother.
It’s difficult to think that we should be celebrating during such a solemn time for world wide Jewry. The wound runs deep for many. As I stood at the door greeting Religious School children and their parents on Sunday, I could see the anxiety on the faces of many people. As Rabbi Cohen mentioned in his letter to our congregation and temple community update in response to the tragedy, we are in conversations with law enforcement and security professionals to ensure we take appropriate measures. But more importantly, we stood out front as a sign of solidarity. We want to make it clear that we won’t stand for hate or violence. By standing out in front we were signaling that its important to “stand up after you get pushed down.” By standing out in front we remember those who were taken from this world due to violence. Over the next few days, as more information comes out about the tragedy and the counts brought against the gunman, several families will be planning funeral services. I know that the clergy officiating those services will acknowledge that the victims passed in senseless violence. I can only pray that those close to the victims and the Tree of Life Synagogue find solace in the outpouring of support from all walks of life. And I pray that the victims of this horrible tragedy are not just remembered for the way they passed but celebrated for the way they lived.