On August 5, 2012 a gunman entered a Sikh Temple in Oak Park, Michigan and murdered 6 people as they prayed. On June 17, 2015 a gunman entered an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed 9 people as they studied the sacred text of the Bible. Almost exactly one year ago today—on November 5, 2017 a gunman entered a Baptist church in Sutherland, Texas on a Sunday morning in the middle of worship services and killed 26 people. And on October 27, 2018 a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people during Shabbat services.
What religious denomination is next?
In the last reading from last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read the story of the Akedah, when God demanded that Abraham offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.
As they head off to Moriah, Abraham knows what is expected to happen on the mountain; Isaac does not. At a certain point, they separate from the two servants who have made the trip with them.
Genesis 22:5 And Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you.
Strange that Abraham should say this. If he really believes that he is going to sacrifice his son, how can he say that we will return? Some rabbis say that this demonstrated Abraham’s supreme faith in God, that somehow this would all work out. I think that would be presumptuous on Abraham’s part. But the verbs in this verse are really a form that is called cohortative, expressing a wish or a hope: let us go and let us worship and let us returnto you; better yet, may we go and may we worship and may we return to you. Abraham seems to making a plea to God, “please God, let us go and worship You together, and let us both return from there together.”
Later on in the passage, after the attempted and aborted sacrifice, the text only says that one of them returned:
Genesis 22:19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they
rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at
Where was Isaac? One Midrash says that Isaac actually did die that day, along with all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. Another midrash says that he didn’t die, but couldn’t bring himself to return with his father. And who could blame him? After all, his father had just tried to kill him. So instead he went off on his own for a time. Either way, Abraham has lost his son and is returning home alone.
And what awaits him at home? In the beginning of today’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, we read the news that his beloved Sarah has died, some say from a heart attack when she learned what had transpired on the mountain. His only remaining son dead or estranged, his wife dead, Abraham is truly alone in the world, left to mourn the loss of 2 people either way.
Though Abraham is 20 generations after Adam, and the Torah has recorded numerous genealogies in the text up to this point, this is the first recorded incident of any character in the Bible dealing with the death of a loved one. Abraham wants to find an appropriate burial place for Sarah and mourn her properly. And so he turns to the children of Heth, the non-Jews among whom he lives, to ask for their help in purchasing a burial plot.
Genesis 23:4 I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead …..
Following this, Abraham negotiates with Ephron to buy a field and a cave from him, thus making him now a resident of the land. Once he has completed his mourning for Sarah, Abraham has one more important task to accomplish: finding a suitable wife for Isaac. For this, he enlists the help of his non-Jewish servant, Eliezer, whom he sends back to the land and family from which he had originally departed. There follows a lengthy description of Eliezer’s journey and his selection of Rivkah. Towards the end of today’s parsha, we read
Genesis 24:67 And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
So how do these 3 passages speak to us today in the wake of the senseless violence that occurred a week ago?
The people of Tree of Life never got to read the story of the Akedah last week. Rather, they actually lived it. Their Shabbat worship was interrupted by gunfire in a sacred space just like this one. God received 11 sacrifices in Pittsburgh last Shabbat.
If we accept the standard interpretation that Isaac did notdie that day on Mt. Moriah, then we might ask who–or better yet, what—did die that day? I would suggest that what died was Isaac’s innocence. Despite all the promises God had made to Abraham about Isaac’s future, he now knew that the world that his father had created for him was no longer a safe place.
In much the same way, we see that the American Jewish community lost our innocence as well last Shabbat. For several hundred years we have told our children that they were safe in this country, that here we can worship freely without threat of violence. In the last 70 years since the end of the Shoah, we have told ourselves and our children, “It can’t happen here.” After the events of last Shabbat, we know that that is no longer true. Just like Abraham, today we come to synagogue and we say, “please God, let us go and worship You, and may we return safely from there.”
But unlike Isaac, who ran away from his father’s world, we have returned to our synagogues today. All across the country we American Jews have come together to defy those who would deny us the freedom of our religion. We resolve that we will not abandon our God.
And we have not come alone. Just as Abraham turned to his non-Jewish neighbors to help him bury his dead, so, too, have we reached out for support from those of other faiths among whom we live. And all across the country, just like here, people of every faith have come to help us mourn and to bury our dead.
And just as Abraham relied on his non-Jewish servant to find a wife for Isaac, someone who could provide comfort to Isaac after the loss of his mother, so, too, do we look to the others who are here with us today to offer us support and comfort to help us through these difficult days.
Let us resolve to move forward together, strengthened in our resolve that no other house of worship should be desecrated by the sound of gunshots; and that we all can continue to worship freely and without fear.
I can’t tell you how that’s going to happen. But I can tell you that today is a start. May the momentum built up today in synagogues all across the country carry us to the voting booths on Tuesday where we can let our voices be heard. And may we continue to live together in peace. Ken yehi ratzon—May it come speedily and in our day.