A Mixture That Must Happen: Tears of Sadness for the Tree of Life Family and, Eventually, Tears of Joy for Our Own
I presented this on Friday evening, November 2, 2018, one week after the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh.
Months ago, and I don’t really understand how, Jedd and a quite-pregnant Tiffany Chesterson scheduled a babynaming for tonight. Didn’t they know that first babies never show up on time? But I don’t argue with mama bears. Well, sure enough, Camila arrived on October 21 and found herself with a free evening so she’s come to be here with us tonight.
Who could have known what would transpire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh only six days ago, and that we would be gathering here this evening to remember the eleven men and women whose lives were ruthlessly taken by a vicious, hate-filled killer? And although our country has been here far too many times before – notably, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Kroger killings this past week in Jeffersontown, KY, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT – you probably don’t know this, but also won’t be surprised to learn that there have been 297 mass shootings in our country thus far in 2018.
It’s clear to so many of us that America simply cannot continue “business as usual” any longer. We simply must pass new legislation to more effectively regulate access to guns in this country so that those who cannot responsibly own them are not permitted to do so. Perhaps most important of all, everyone of us needs to get to the polls this Tuesday and vote. Vote to elect leaders whom you believe will help our state and our nation get to a place where gun violence is dramatically reduced and the citizens of this country take better care of one another.
Our hearts ache for the dead and the grieving of Tree of Life synagogue. They ache as well for those in Jeffersontown, and in every other city, town and village where terror has come to call. The candles we lit this evening are in remembrance of eleven, plus two, plus seventeen, plus forty-nine, plus fifty-eight, and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on …
Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov, who lived and taught in 18th century Eastern Europe, insisted that, despite the decades and the generations of antisemitism and of persecution, we may not despair. We may not give in to fear or terror. We may not give up. There is always a better world and it’s not the one after this one. Rather, it’s this world that can be made better – safer, kinder – if we will only join together and make it so.
There are many people of faith here this evening. Faith takes a lot of different forms. Some include religious belief, others humanistic belief. In either case, faith is required — faith in God, faith in humanity, faith in what some may deem impossible — if we are to transform our world into a place of justice and of mercy. Rabbi Issakhar Dov Baer of 18th century Radoshitz, Poland, was once asked, “How are we to interpret the Talmudic passage where Shimon bar Yokhai tells his son, ‘You and I are enough for the world’?” The rabbi replied, “In our prayers we say, ‘You are our God,’ and in our Torah we are told, ‘I am your God.’ It is this ‘you’ and this ‘I’ that are enough for the world.”
Everyone believes in something. What is crucial is that we believe in something good, something that will inspire us, even compel us, to bring increased goodness into our world. Whatever our religious choice, it will be the values that our parents teach us and by which we choose to live that will determine the outcome of this current state of disarray. Let us please choose life – for us, for our loved ones, for every inhabitant of this planet — for in that choice will we find the only path to shaping the world so many of us desire.
And if this week that path seems more difficult than ever to find, let us remember the words of Rabbi Nakhman and not despair. Let us never despair. Let us hold onto each other, cry together, comfort one another, and strengthen one another, so that we can return to the sacred work of building a world of goodness and peace.
Camila Chesterson is only thirteen days old. She was born into an already difficult world. And she was born with a very special purpose: to come here this evening and to renew our faith, our hope, that there is an abundance to good, of good people, in our world, and that it is worth it to pursue justice and peace, and it will happen. It will happen! We may be stunned to find our nation at this crossroads, but there are tens of millions of us, hundreds of millions of us in this magnificent, promising nation of 325 million souls. We not only can fix this, but we will. Camila Chesterson is a powerful symbol of that, and she is counting on us – she and every other baby, ever other young person – to get to work, at the voting booth, in our legislatures, and simply in how we treat each other, to build the world we’ve promised them.
This week’s Torah reading, Khayei Sarah, tells the story of a despondent Abraham who responds to recent sadness in his life by insuring the future of his family, sending his servant on a long journey to find a bride for his son, Isaac. Camila, we’re not quite ready to see you married (although I know some 4-month olds who might interest you) but, by your mere arrival, you have insured the future of your family.
Children may turn our lives upside down but they also add riches beyond measure! Your mom and dad already know this, their lives having been delightfully upended and made immeasurably richer for your having come to them. But don’t expect it to be all fun and games! There are plates to be eaten clean, potty-training, homework, and grandmothers’ hand-knit sweaters to be worn and thanked for.
Camila, I’ve known your parents for a while now. Your dad became a Bar Mitzvah here, your parents got married here, and your mom became Jewish here. And now they’ve brought you here! And at just the right time too. I’m glad you don’t understand what I’m saying right now, but everyone else does, and this is important. After something terrible happens in our world – as with last Saturday’s shootings in Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s shootings in Kentucky – it simply must be followed by something that affirms what is good and hopeful in our lives. Which is where you come in, little one. Your mom and dad are good folks. They care about you, and will always care about you. But they also care about others, and they’re going to teach you about that in the years ahead, and we’re going to help them.
Judaism teaches that each of us is an important puzzle piece in putting together a world of goodness and peace. We don’t know when, where or how, but your puzzle piece, Camila, will come into play someday. It is our shared hope, the hope of everyone in this sacred space, that when the time comes, you will stand and act proudly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
So enjoy babyhood, kiddo – we’ve got big plans for you!
Camila, we conclude this ceremony by reciting the three-fold blessing from the Torah. It is a blessing of family, once upon a time spoken by the kohanim, those who officiated in the Jerusalem Temple, and (through the generations) by one family member as an expression of love and of hope for another. Tonight, the three of us, representing three different religions, representing your human family, recite this blessing as a sign of our love for you, and our promise to work together to build for you a world of safety, or inclusion, and of peace.