Thursday October 24, 2019
As the anniversary of the murders of our brothers and sisters approaches (on Sunday, October 27, and the yahrzeit on Shabbat, 18 Heshvan-November 16), we join as colleagues throughout the world in mourning with the three congregations: Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha, New Light, and Dor Hadash. Our hearts are with the families of those who were murdered, with those who continue to recover physically, mentally, and spiritually from the attack, and with the entire city of Pittsburgh and its Jewish community. We are grateful for the allies and communities who have shown such and love and who have stood with our Jewish community, as well as law enforcement and others who work to ensure our security.
But how should we understand the events of a year ago in Pittsburgh -- the murder of 11 beloved souls as they came early to shul, gunned down as they were davenning? Among the most powerful verses in the Torah is Leviticus 18:5: ושמרתם את חוקותי ואת משפטי, אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם--You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which [a person] shall live: I am the Lord (modified JPS translation). The Torah insists that living a life of mitzvot should lead to a fuller, more meaningful, more vital life. In the face of the presence of death in the world and with awareness of our own personal mortality, our mission is to affirm life -- and God as the source of Life -- at all times. It is for this reason that the Talmud (Yoma 85b) makes this verse the basis for פיקוח נפש, saying, וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם--We should live through [performance of mitzvot] and not die through them.
In the face of a world in which such senseless hatred exists, and in which such a tragedy and injustice can occur, this verse insists that the memory of these martyrs must indeed be a source of life. When acts of hatred take away life and challenge God's life-giving and life-affirming presence in the world, living lives of mitzvot are the antidote. As rabbis, there is no greater moment of need than today for us to inspire meaning and purpose, and affirm love and beauty in the world, through the pursuit of תורה, עבודה, וגמילות חסדים.
As we turn this week to פרשת בראשית, imagining and seeking to connect with the original עץ החיים, may we feel even more connected to God as Creator, Source of Life. In the face of rising antisemitism and hatred in the world, may we reaffirm our commitments as colleagues to doing mitzvot and bringing Torah into the world in each of our settings, fulfilling the teaching of our sages, מרבה תורה מרבה חיים.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
Chief Executive, Rabbinical Assembly
PS: There are resources which we can bring to our personal and communal commemorations throughout the world, such as the AJC Rabbinic Guide, the Show Up for Shabbat initiative, the Pause for Pittsburgh commemoration, and beautiful materials originally for Eileh Ezkerah by our rabbinic colleagues Jonathan Perlman and Jeffrey Meyers.