By Rabbi Shimon Silver
Parshat Chayei Sarah
This sermon was delivered Chayei Sarah 5779, one week after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh.
Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.
Avraham arose from upon his deceased and spoke to the Chitites saying: “I sojourn and live in your land …”
“You are a prince of G-d in our midst …”
From where did Avraham come? Rashi says he came from the Akaidah, the binding of Yitzchok. He was informed of the sudden death of his beloved wife. Avraham just experienced the height of spiritual ecstasy, enduring the greatest test. And immediately, he received this terrible blow. What can one say at a time like this?
Ramban says the Hebrew word for “he came” is used here to mean “he began.” In other instances where the Torah describes a eulogy, this term is not used. Why is it used here?
The Hebrew terms are “to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her” — which means that Avraham came with this intention. Why does the Torah not state in the past tense, “Avraham eulogized Sarah and wept for her”?
It appears that Avraham came with the intention of eulogizing and weeping. He even began trying to do so, but he could not follow through. It was just too much, too difficult.
There are situations that are so close to the heart, so sensitive to the self, that it is impossible to speak about them. What is there to say?
The massacre at the Tree of Life building is not something that happened somewhere far away in some anonymous place, that we can look at from a safe distance and talk about. It is not something that we can watch on the news, talk about for a while and then tune out.
This is here, right here. It happened to us. It took place right in our midst. How can we even talk about it? What can we say? We are silenced by our shock and our emotions.
Most rabbis in America probably are talking about this “news” today, perhaps the biggest speech of their careers. But here, in Pittsburgh, what should we say? It is just too hard to say anything about this terrible event.
The commentaries ask about the order of “to eulogize and to weep.” Usually, weeping comes first, and then the eulogy. Perhaps Avraham came with the intention of eulogizing but was unable to. He could only cry. We are unable to speak, but we can cry.
“To eulogize Sarah, and to weep for her.” Kli Yakar explains that Sarah was known as the tzadekes, the righteous woman of the world. When he eulogized her publicly, Avraham used her name. The crying, however — that was for Avraham alone. He did not need to use her name to cry. He was crying about himself as much as about the loss of the great woman. There is no need for the Torah to mention what Avraham cried about.
The prevailing practice is to refrain from mentioning the souls of the departed on Shabbos Mevorchim, when the new month is blessed, which occurs today. One could question this — some say that Av Harachamim, the martyr’s prayer, was instituted specifically to be recited on Shabbos Mevorchim Iyyar and Sivan, the period of the crusades when they were martyred. Furthermore, the instruction was specifically to say it on Shabbos, when tachanun is not said, and when the souls are not judged in Gehinom.
Our martyrs in Pittsburgh entered directly into Gan Eden. They also died on Shabbos Kodesh, a sign of holiness.
Nevertheless, it makes no difference whether we mention their names or not today. The rest of the world needs to mention their names. The rest of the world is eulogizing. We are not eulogizing, for we know not what to say. We are crying in our hearts and minds. Just like Avraham. Avraham might also have wept internally but not openly, as the Torah says he came “to weep” but does not say he wept. Perhaps he was unable to weep.
It is hard for us to weep right now. There is so much media. It has become like a show, like something that we watch but do not take part in. Like a story, with pictures and videos. We cannot focus on what really happened and cry about it. Not now. Once the media moves on, then we can weep by ourselves.
Nonetheless, we are all probably crying silently, afraid, panic-stricken.
To eulogize is too hard, crying happens by itself.
But what did Avraham say in the end, and what did the Chitites answer him?
Avraham arose from upon his deceased, and he spoke to the Chitites saying: “I sojourn and dwell with you!” A gair, sojourner, is a stranger. A toshav, settler, is a resident.
Avraham described himself as a resident alien (like it says on my Green Card). “With you” means that he felt a certain equality. He was together with them, with feelings of unity and fraternity.
The Chitites answered: “You are a prince of G-d amongst us!”
This much, I suspect all of us can say: We are conspicuously Jewish, especially those of us who choose to dress differently. We are seen as Jewish residents of the Pittsburgh community. I have lost count of the number of people to whom I am a stranger, a gair, yet they recognize me as a local resident, a toshav, and see me as a part of their lives with a measure of fraternity, who have gone out of their way to offer me condolences. All of them. In the street. In the stores. The parking lot attendant. Neighbors, acquaintances and total strangers. “You are a prince of G-d amongst us!”
Our responsibility is to recognize this. We must live up to this. We need to make a kiddush Hashem. Right now. There is kiddush Hashem by the sacrificing of lives. And there is kiddush Hashem after the sacrifice, when we acknowledge the friendship of the people of the land in whose midst we live.
Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.