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"I Am A Different jew today"

I am a different Jew today than I was yesterday,” said 15-year-old Sophia Levin of Pittsburgh.  “Anti-Semitism is something that happened in history, that happened in other places.”1

No longer.

Yesterday’s brutal attack was the deadliest Anti-Semitic attack in the United States in history. As we were celebrating a bar mitzvah yesterday morning here at Temple Beth Sholom, those who had come to worship at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, to celebrate a new born life at a bris, to say Kaddish and to pray, were devastated by a madman who sought to erase Jews – and this on the heels of another madman sending pipe-bombs throughout our country.

It is hard to fathom the type of hatred that would cause someone to mercilessly attack innocent people gathering to pray.  It is a hatred born of a climate of mistrust, violent rhetoric, bigotry and polarization that is rampant in our country. In a cruel and ironic twist, just this Friday night at Shabbat services I read these words of German Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

This time the Jewish community was targeted. Other times it has been African-Americans, or Sikhs or Muslims, or the LGBT community, or too many others. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said: “What we know is this:  The fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart.”

This is our call to conscience.

We will not tolerate hatred against Jews, or against anyone who is being mocked or marginalized in our country.

But it is not enough to condemn what is wrong. We must also stand up for what is right.

In this week’s Torah portion we meet Rebecca who in an act of radical kindness greets a parched stranger on a journey.  She not only offers the stranger water but offers to draw water for his camels as well. She runs back and forth, drawing water energetically, overflowing with love and kindness or what is called hesed in Hebrew. In fact, the Torah uses the term hesed 4 times in relation to Rebecca.

Hesed is more than just being nice – rather it is a profound generosity of spirit.  What’s most interesting about this kind of hesed or kindness is that it generates love even as it spends it. Recent research notes that: “The more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity.” 2

The hesed modeled by Rebecca, so needed in our world today, is the antidote to hatred and violence. Just as hate and violence beget hate and violence, kindness and generosity lead to spirals of love, healing and hope.

As Jews we must protect ourselves and our community, but we must not let these acts of hatred allow us to turn inward and insulate ourselves from the world around us. Today we mourn, but we also commit ourselves to redoubling our efforts to battle hate with friendship and love.

Our mission is to be a beacon of light among the nations. Our mandate is to listen to the words of Torah, to love our neighbors despite the hatred and anger around us, to build the kind of world we want for ourselves and our children, a world of kindness, friendship and peace.

Today I, too, am a different Jew.

We all are.




1New York Times, 10/28/18

2Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic Magazine, 2014.

Fri, March 31 2023 9 Nisan 5783