Sermon – After Pittsburgh – Chaye Sarah
November 3, 2018 | 25 Cheshvan 5779
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Friends – What are we to do today?

What are we to do with the feelings we have in the wake of last Shabbat morning’s horrendous massacre of eleven beautiful and innocent souls in a Pittsburgh congregation?

What are we to do with the burning anger, the profound sadness and perhaps even the sense of vulnerability we now feel?

You and I have choices to make.

Our responses can be born of threat.

We can view those who are not like us as “the other,” who ought to be shunned and from whom we need protection…

…simply put, as one who scares us; as one who should not and cannot be among us.

We can reflect on the sobering data the Anti-Defamation League has shared with us this week – that the year 2017 saw an increase of 60% in anti-Semitic incidents over the previous year – and then reach a frightening conclusion.

With growing trepidation, we can reflect on such information, which ought to be a source of concern, and say, “We thought America was different; now, perhaps, we realize it is not different.”

We can hunker down in place and create Jewish institutional fortifications – complete with a military like security presence that some of us associate with European synagogues.

Ultimately, we can think and do everything possible, as a Jewish community, to insulate ourselves and protect our own.

From engagement in the world out there – engagement that now brings blessing to other communities beyond our own – we can turn inward in an attempt to shield our own.

There is another choice.

Some years back, Mary Oliver penned a brief poem – startling for certain, dissonant to the ear perhaps, maybe even offensive at first reading … but, ultimately, challenging.

I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Eric Cytryn, for having drawn my attention to it.

The poem is entitled, “The Uses of Sorrow.”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

Jarring, isn’t it? – Let me read it again.

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

Families in Pittsburgh are still in the midst of the shiva mourning period, a dark and bleak time that obscures hope – for them and for us.

Today darkness hardly feels like a gift.

This darkness will never feel like a “gift.”

And yet, amidst the darkness – a time of anger and unrelenting sadness – clarity can eventually begin to emerge; opportunity arises.

Similar to Mary Oliver, is it possible that we might eventually come to see our “box of darkness” as a moment of opportunity?

I think we must do so.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.

He was also a Holocaust survivor.

Amidst untold degradation and with ample reason to recoil from life itself, Frankl recovered and shared incredibly uplifting insights with us.

Here is one of them.

He wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the   human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of   circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What was taken away from eleven families last Shabbat morning in a Pittsburgh synagogue is incalculable.

What was taken away from what is apparently a tight-knit Pittsburgh Jewish community is absolutely heartbreaking.

And what was taken away from all of us in the Jewish community could lead to a terribly different kind of communal Jewish life if we choose to see only threat out there in the world and then withdraw from it.

Viktor Frankl reminds us – From the very depths, we are still free to choose our direction.

That direction is quite clear to me now – for our community and even more so for us as individuals.

I would suggest that our direction begins with teshuva, of sorts.

For our friends who are joining us today from outside the Jewish community, “teshuva” is a word that Jews associate with the High Holiday penitential season we concluded just over a month ago.

The word “teshuva” is usually translated as “repentance.”

But today I mean to use the word “teshuva” in its more literal sense, “turning…”

…turning, perhaps, from unhelpful directions toward better directions that will foster kedusha – that will encourage holy relationships with others inside and outside the Jewish community and with ourselves.

We must see a community – those of other faith traditions and those who do not identify with any faith tradition – that grieves with us now – that has repeatedly stood this week with Jewish communities throughout this country to offer words of comfort and consolation.

I am immeasurably grateful to that community – certainly to a number of people here today – for its healing presence.

On behalf of the members of Ahavath Achim Synagogue, I thank you for your expressions of concern and kindness.

They reassure us at a very uncertain time.

Next – Friends, we must see that we cannot rely on people in positions we have trusted in the past – elected officials among them – to lead us in reaffirming ways that foster healing and hope.

The unimaginable sentiments we hear; the images we see have assaulted our historic understanding of what it means to be a leader of the American people.

But we will rail against it to no avail.

Instead, we must rely on ourselves – not on others – to provide the healing and hope we so desperately need.

Then, friends, we must recognize a spiritual dimension that too many of us ignore.

If we look for it and open ourselves to it, we will recognize that a vision of the divine – of God’s caring presence – abides among us urging us to create the world we crave – a world where sentiments felt and words offered find constant expression in our actions.

One of our congregants, Jim Dricker, shared an extraordinary piece of wisdom with Rabbi Rosenthal and me earlier this week.

I am grateful to Jim both for the uplifting manner in which he expressed the need to constantly translate word into deed and for his permission to share his words with you now.

Jim’s note was a response to a friend who had reached out to him following the Pittsburgh murders.

Jim wrote the following:

“I say that deeds, not words, are the only consolation that make a difference, and words from those who put themselves out as leaders are empty without actions.”

“Some of us will react by making ourselves less visible, thinking there’s safety in that. Others will gather in groups to pray, sing, and express solidarity. That’s empowering and expansive … for a while.”

“There might be a memorial erected as a fitting tribute to the memory of the murdered. But for their memory to be a blessing we must bring more blessing to the earth.”

“Only deeds of goodness and kindness and light can overwhelm that evil and darkness.”

Jim continues – “For me, the best way to do this is to make a difference one person at a time. To welcome a refugee, to put food on someone’s table, to teach, to learn, to smile.”

“Evil wins when we do less. Resolving to do a bit more, and following that resolution with a deed, will transform the victim into victor and the evil into a blessing.”

I cannot possibly say it any better than Jim did.

Each of us can turn in a different direction, if necessary.

Each of us can do one thing that makes a difference one person at a time.

And we can do so today, tomorrow and the day after that.

We can and we must do so.

May the Holy One bless us as God blessed Abraham in our Torah Reading earlier this morning.

“V’Adonai bayrach et Avraham bakol” – God blessed Abraham in every way.

May the Holy One bless us bakol – in every way – so that we may transform an act of desecration of God’s name and presence last Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh into a sanctification of God’s name through acts of healing and hope here and elsewhere.


I ask, please, that we now rise to remember the victims of last Shabbat morning’s murders and join with Jewish communities today throughout the United States and the world in offering the Mourners Kaddish in their memory.

Today we remember:

Joyce Feinberg – Yiddis Bultcha bat Aba Menachem

Jerry Rabinowitz – Yehudah ben Yechezkel

David Rosenthal – David ben Eliezer

Cecil Rosenthal – Chaim ben Eliezer

Irving Younger – Yitzchak Chaim ben Menachem

Dan Stein – Daniel Avram ben Baruch

Rose Mallinger – Raizel bat Avraham

Richard Gottfried – Yosef ben Chaim

Bernice Simon – Beila Rachel bat Moshe

Sylvan Simon – Zalman Shachna ben Menachem Mendel

Mel Wax – Moshe Gadol ben Yosef

Zecher tzadikim l’vracha – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Mourners’ Kaddish – page 184