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Address Given at Stronger Together, Hamilton’s Multi-faith Solidarity Vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

Temple Anshe Sholom, 215 Cline Ave N, Hamilton
Tuesday, October 30th, 2018 ✡ כ״א מרחשון תשע״ט


How do you live your life, knowing there are those around you wanting you to die? Wanting those you love to die? Wanting your babies to die? How do you leave your home, knowing you might encounter someone interested in actively putting an end to your lives?
Terrorism victimizes those who survive. The dead can’t feel terror – but we surely do. So what do we do about it? How do we respond? How do we respond Jewishly?
The massacre in Pittsburgh comes as a shock because it occurred on this continent, not far from us, just across the border. Pittsburgh is a four-and-a-half drive from here. The murderer is an otherwise law-abiding citizen who committed the murder using four of his twenty-one guns, all of which he purchased, possessed and carried 100% legally. The victims were praying. They were celebrating the Brit Milah – ritual circumcision ceremony of twin baby boys newly adopted by a gay couple, active members of that congregation. The community was celebrating new lives as one person was senselessly inflicting death.
The United States is infested with frequent mass shootings, beyond any doubt stemming from their gun culture and their inability to examine it honestly. We are lucky to be living in a civilized country, Canada. But we are far from immune. We are far from safe. Just under two years ago there was a similar shooting here in Canada, in a mosque in Quebec city, leaving six innocent worshippers dead. The perpetrator there also owned at least some of his guns legally. And we’ve had our share of anti-Semitic and otherwise racist, misogynist and homophobic events here in Hamilton in our time. Thankfully in current Hamilton they rarely end in death. But it’s far from impossible. Let’s not fool ourselves.
How are we supposed to go on living? How are we to respond, as law-abiding, good citizens believing in equality and multiculturalism?
Well, the first step, of course, is to take the necessary precautions to make sure we and our families are safe. We are not allowed to rely upon miracles. This means we must listen to our security experts with respect to securing our homes and places of worship. We must take an active interest in local and national politics and urge our community leaders and politicians to give proper resources and support to law enforcement, rescue services, and quality education that stresses the values of multiculturalism, coexistence, equality, and fighting poverty – the lack of which are proven to contribute to acts of hate. We don’t have a right to think in spiritual terms before we’ve done our best to take care of our basic physical security needs.
But then what do we do?
I believe the answer lies in something we all read about, something that happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday. When the murderer was in custody and taken to hospital to have his bullet wounds treated, the first three hospital doctors and nurses who treated him were Jewish. And they knew what he had done. The president of the hospital, Dr. Jeffery Cohen, walked in and asked the man if he was in pain. The FBI agent guarding the perpetrator told the doctor that he didn’t think he would have been able to do that. Dr. Cohen answered, “If you were in my shoes, I’m sure you could.”
Our responsibility is to always do what is right. To honour the image of God instilled in us upon birth in every situation we encounter. This is what it means to be a human being created in the likeness of God. We will all die some day, we can’t control that or prevent it forever. What we can control is the way we live while we are alive.
We have to hold our heads high and live our lives, good lives. We have to be proud of our ethical heritage, and friendly to all we encounter. We have to open our homes, our pockets and our borders to the needy and the vulnerable. The perpetrator blamed the Jews for immigration and resettling asylum seekers? Helping people escape oppression and danger is a central principle of our Torah; we will respond by increasing our efforts to do what’s right. We will never allow fear to deter us from this holy mission.
We are going to fill our sanctuaries to capacity this coming Shabbat and show the hateful that we will not be discouraged, we will not lose our dignity, we will not be terrified. Then, inspired and encouraged, we’ll go out from our places of worship and do good.
We are all in mourning now. And when mourning, Jews recite two prayers in memory of the dead. The first, which will be read in a moment, is called El Malé Raḥamim. In it, we ask God to hold onto the soul of the departed and treasure it bitzror haḥayim, in the treasury of life. Judaism stresses life, not death. Though we believe in an after-life we rarely speak of it because our focus is on preserving life. And yet when we experience tragedy, our tradition comforts us and tells us that a person does not just disappear once they have physically left this Earth. Each and every human being leaves an indelible mark on the world. Their soul – their personality, the good values they stood for – live on forever. Even though sometimes we humans are not able to notice how, when someone good leaves it, the world is a better place than it was when that person entered it, God notices. That is the treasury of life where all the souls are kept. That is the secret of the eternity of the soul.
The second prayer we recite is the Kaddish, sanctifying God’s name, recognizing that God is in control of the universe, and that existence is so much bigger than us, so much more complicated than we could ever understand. God being in charge is a source of comfort. It is a notion which releases us from an unhealthy anxiety that we could control everything if only we tried hard enough. So we must not respond to violence with fear-based attempts at total control. We must resolve that we will be brave enough to remain in loving commitment to an open and ethical way of life. If that idea makes us feel vulnerable, we must embrace that vulnerability.
Believing that God is in charge does not mean that an event like this was meant to happen. It does not mean that these victims were intended to die. Our sacred texts tell us that “God gave the earth to human beings,” meaning that, humans are responsible for the actions of humans, not God. God gives us the ability to make changes for the better; it’s up to us to do so.
So we lick our wounds. We cry. We hug each other. And we sing our songs and read the comforting words of our prayers. And then we get up and go out and do good. We must all live each and every day of our life as if it were our last day, knowing that because of what we do the world will be better today than it was yesterday.
In memory of these eleven victims let us work hard to make the world safer and better. In doing so, these souls live on forever.
May God send us all comfort, and may we know no more sorrow.
By: Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli