“Our coming together tonight is an act of peace”: d’var for Peace Shabbat 2018

On November 2nd, 2018, the Friday night after the Pittsburgh shootings at Tree of Life synagogue, Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill celebrated its annual Peace Shabbat family service and opened its doors to our interfaith neighbours, friends and allies. Over 225 people, congregants and friends and neighbours and allies (including 14 interfaith clergy and community leaders, numerous politicians, and Mayor Jim Fiorentini of Haverhill), filled our seats for the service, led by our 3rd-5th graders.

Friends, tonight we celebrate Peace Shabbat. Last Shabbat morning, at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, there was no peace. Shabbat shattered into pieces as eleven people died: killed because they were Jewish and praying in a Jewish sanctuary.

“When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.” – Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, after the 1958 bombing of The Temple in Atlanta

Hate comes from fear, and often from fear of someone who is different from the one who fears. A different religion; a different skin colour; a different nationality or ethnicity; a different gender. We live in a time when fear of difference, dressed in the hate that comes from it, is given loud voice, even on the lips of people who are sworn to serve our country.

Anti-Semitism is a particular fear that thrives when enough non-Jewish people feel powerless and need to believe that there is someone to blame, someone powerful, who is keeping them unhappy and uncomfortable. So their fear creates the false idea that Jews run the world, with secret plots, and media, and a lot of money. Anti-Semitism is not caused by Jews, but it targets Jews.

Judaism is a religion that celebrates difference. There’s paradox at the heart of us: in so many ways we work like a tribe, and yet our rabbinic legal writings, the Talmud, always include the voice that disagrees with the majority decision. We’re commanded over and over in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to welcome and love the stranger as one of our own. The way Judaism welcomes difference is one of our most valuable contributions to the global work of tikkun olam, repairing the world’s broken places and broken systems.

Last Saturday’s shooter aimed his especial fury at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which helps asylum seekers and refugees enter the United States and gain legal status here. Tree of Life is a community with a long, rich history of working with HIAS. Just two weeks ago, we here at Temple Emanu-El celebrated National Refugee Shabbat, an initiative of HIAS – and so did Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and scores of other Jewish communities across the country. As HIAS’ director of education, Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, explained on NPR yesterday morning, their slogan is “We help refugees because we are Jews.” [Emphasis mine.] Jews know what it is to need, as well as to build, sanctuary.

Our friends and neighbours: your presence in our sanctuary is powerful. Jews here tonight feel our hearts swell with hope as we look around and see not only each other. We see YOU, who have come here to be with us. Our coming together tonight is an act of peace.

If there is a lesson for us all to learn from the tragedies that anti-Semitism has created, in Pittsburgh and throughout its long dark history, it is this: that simply tolerating each other’s differences is not enough when those differences are attacked by words and acts of hate. We need to stand with each other, as you are standing here tonight with us. And we need to reach out to each other. We need to make connections that turn the pain of someone else, with whom we might not have that much in common, into a pain that we feel. We need their joy to feel like our joy, too. This doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t even happen by hanging around one another with good intentions. It takes reaching out. Introducing yourself. Asking questions. Sharing stories and vulnerabilities, even if you’re shy. Torah tells us that when God promised to redeem the people Israel from Egypt, Mitzrayim, the narrow place of hatred and fear, God did it “b’yad chazakah” – with a strong hand – but also “bizroa n’tuyah” – with an outstretched arm.[1]

That’s how we get out of these narrow places, friends. We reach out to each other, and in that holy act of reaching, we find and echo the Divine. We start feeling like other people’s lives matter in our own. After this service, before you leave the building, find someone here who’s a stranger to you. Introduce yourself. Make a connection. Reach out your arm. Shake their hand. Let your heart expand, just a little bit.

Led by our children tonight, we dare to dream that “one day,”[2] difference will be no barrier to peace. Thank you all for joining us in that vision, and committing, with us, to making it a reality. Shabbat shalom.
1. Sh’mot/Exodus chapter 6, verse 6; in successive instances in Torah; and many times repeated in our Haggadah for Pesach
2. Immediately preceding this d’var, our students sang “One Day” by Matisyahu as part of a medley of peace songs