Pittsburgh and New Beginnings by Rabbi David Aladjem
Below are the moving words offered by Rabbi David Aladjem at Shabbat services on the anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life murders last year.
Drash — October 26, 2019
This week’s parasha is Bereishit, or “In a beginning.” It is the beginning of all Torah, of all the world. And the first verse in Torah is – justifiably – famous. בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ, or as it is usually translated, “In the beginning, G’d created the heavens and the earth.” This is the beginning of a new year of Torah, a new year of hearing the Voice that come from Sinai, the Voice that speaks to us with love and care and compassion. It is the Voice that says: שמא ישראל הי אלקינו הי אחד, “Listen, those who wrestle with the Most High, the all-encompassing Beingness of the universe, whose Name is compassion, that Beingness is unity. It is the Voice that says: ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני הי, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am the One.
And yet this is also the beginning of another new year, one that we mark with sorrow. One year ago tomorrow, eleven Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh at a Shabbat morning service much like this one here at CBH. They were murdered in cold blood while in prayer. It is hard to imagine a more horrific desecration of a holy space. We will say Kaddish for them later this morning but I want to pause for a moment to speak their names and honor their memories. Just as much as Rabbi Akiva or the Six Million, they are martyrs who gave their lives for the sanctification of G’d’s Name:
What are we to make of this confluence of events, of this synchronicity? There are no coincidences in Torah, so what is it that we are to learn? How are we to go forward in this new year, in this new world?
Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak – the preeminent Torah commentator from the 11th century, teaches that the way in which we usually translate בראשית ברא אלקים, “In the Beginning, G’d created” is grammatically incorrect. The prefix ב is not the definite article “the” but the indefinite article “a.” So the more accurate translation of בראשית ברא אלקים is: “In a beginning, G’d created.” Now just think about the implications of that one change. Torah is not telling us that the world was created once and for all in a particular way; instead, Torah is teaching us that the world was once created in a particular way but that this form of the world is not immutable. It can be changed. The possibilities for creating the world anew are present, right here and now. And there is nothing that would honor the memories of our departed more than changing the world – whether by new gun laws or, more powerfully, by true reconciliation and love – so that no one should ever be murdered in their place of worship again, whether those places of worship are Pittsburgh or Poway, Oak City Wisconsin or Sutherland Springs Texas, Charleston or Christchurch.
Rashi also teaches us that the name of G’d in this verse – אלקים rather than הי – is important. Rashi notes that the Name אלקים (Elokim or G’d) signifies the Divine attribute of justice whereas the Name הי (Adonai or Lord) signifies the Divine attribute of mercy. Rashi in this way teaches that the world must start on a foundation of justice but will only survive if justice is tempered by mercy. Thus, even though the Holy One of Blessings starts creation by manifesting the attribute of אלקים, we soon find G’d showing up as הי אלקים, as “Adonai Elokim” (Lord G’d) wherein the attribute of mercy precedes the attribute of justice. So it is for us as we grapple with what has happened over the past year. Speaking for myself, my first reaction was a visceral revulsion, sorrow and a desire for justice, a desire for retribution. And then – and then – once those emotions has subsided, what welled up was a desire for mercy. And that prayer was answered: thousands of people have offered their prayers and their kindnesses to Pittsburgh. And that will continue tomorrow, with a virtual vigil at 2 pm PDT where we can all stand in silence and join our hearts and souls with our sisters and brothers in Pittsburgh. And these small acts – which are really not small acts, for they come from the depths of our souls – are evidence of the Divine attribute of mercy flowing through our world.
Rashi doesn’t really talk about the final phrase in this verse, that G’d created the heavens and the earth, but he really doesn’t need to do so. We are all aware of the ways that we live in two realms at once. At one level, we are always communing with the angels, for our souls and our spirits never depart too far from their essence as divine. And at another level, we are always so far from those heavenly hosts, for in our day to day lives, we struggle to make a living, to find our ways and to be more than we were the day before. But Torah sees this dichotomy and gives us a deep lesson: all of our lives are infused with the spiritual, with the Divine spark, with holiness. Yes, it is wonderful that we can gather here at CBH this morning in peace and love and joy – thank G’d! – to celebrate our connections to the Divine and to each other. But is also wonderful that we can go home to spend time with our families and friends, to play soccer and Monopoly, to have a nap in the middle of the afternoon, and – come Monday morning – go back to work to build a better world. All of these are, so the Torah teaches us, just as holy as coming to Shabbat services.
And, so what does this “coincidence” or this synchronicity teach us? It teaches us – in the deepest way – that we have the ability to change the world, to make this year a new beginning. It teaches us that we need justice in our world but – as it says in almost the exact center of the Torah (in the middle of the Book of Leviticus) –we need the attribute of mercy even more, for that is the only way that we will be able to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” And Torah teaches us that, in our own heavens and our own earths, in all that we do and all that we are, there is holiness. And when we can remember that teaching, when we can walk with G’d in all that we do, we will surely be able to redeem the world.