Tonight, at our service and candlelight vigil, as we come together for the first Shabbat after the attack at Tree of Life Congregation, we’ll sing the words of Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810):
Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’ha’ikar lo l’fached klal
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is to have no fear at all.
These words are beautiful, but they’re easier said than done. As we stand in the shadow of the worst anti-Semitic attack in the United States, we’re a community in grief. We’re angry. The world appears to be a very narrow bridge and many of us are afraid. We’re grasping for something, anything to lift our spirits, to fill us with hope. And many of us feel lost.
At moments like this, Rabbi Nachman teaches us that:
The nature of man is to pull himself towards depression as a result of the wounds and happenings of time…As such, he must force himself with great strength to be joyful, always (Likutei Moharan II, 24).
Again, words that are easier said than done. At this dark moment, how can we force ourselves to be joyful?
Through a story about Rabbi Hiyya and his teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, the Talmud gives us an answer, but this answer challenges Rabbi Nachman:
Rabbi Ḥiyya fell ill. His teacher, Rabbi Yoḥanan, entered to visit him and said to him: “Is your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him, “No, I do not want to suffer!” Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Ḥiyya gave him his hand and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.
Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. His student, Rabbi Ḥanina, entered to visit him and said to him: “Is your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: “No, I do not want suffering!” Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.
Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan need to wait for his student, Rabbi Ḥanina, to restore him to health? Couldn’t the great Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up? No, a prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles. (Berahot 5b)
Through the story of Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Hiyya, the Talmud teaches us what too many of us know too well: when the darkness of the world overtakes us, we become prisoners of this darkness. It’s the hand of a loved one, a friend, a neighbor or other kind soul that can bring us back into the light.
So many of us are in desperate need of a kind hand these days.
Earlier this week, we reached out to local churches in our neighborhood, inviting them to join us at tonight’s service and vigil. The love we got back in return, the eagerness of other faith communities to participate, was an incredibly kind hand reaching into the darkness, touching our souls and lifting us toward the light.
Yesterday, a staff member at Calvary Chapel, one of the churches next to Ramat Shalom, dropped off a care package at Ramat Shalom filled with food (including a challah) and comforting notes. This simple act of kindness from one of our neighbors was another incredibly kind hand lifting us a bit closer to the light.
In our own synagogue family, this week’s Bat Mitzvah came bounding into the sanctuary yesterday with a big smile on her face, eager to practice reading her Torah one more time before her service this Shabbat. This simcha is just one of many joyful moments that Ramat Shalom gets to celebrate at this time. We have a wedding tomorrow evening. I completed a baby naming certificate this morning and scheduled another two namings this week. Four new Jews were just welcomed into the Ramat Shalom family and this month we will welcome another new Jew. All of these Jews by Choice state at their conversion ceremony that they are making the decision to stand with us during the good times and during the bad times. What a powerful time to make such a choice. These Jews by Choice, these babies we’re welcoming, the bride and groom we celebrate tomorrow evening and the bat mitzvah we celebrate tomorrow morning, each of them are incredibly kind hands lifting us out of the darkness and toward the light.
I don’t need to tell you that there’s a lot of darkness out there. It can easily consume us.
Rabbi David de Sola Pool (1885-1970) taught that:
We must not live in a spirit of depression and give our lives up to despair…Our sole hope for the future rests in a change in the human spirit…Therefore, ours must be a resolute self-dedication to live the noblest life to which we can attain.
In order to do this, we must live the words of Pirkei Avot and not separate ourselves from our community. We must put ourselves in situations where others can take our hand, change our spirit and lift us up, giving us the opportunity to find the light amid the darkness. And when we find the light, when we’re back on our feet, we’re obligated to spread and strengthen the light by fighting the forces of darkness. We know, all too well, what these forces of darkness are.
I and many others at Ramat Shalom and in our larger community extend our hands to you. Rise with us. Join us tonight as we fill the darkness with light. #ShowUpForShabbat. Stand together. Love each other more. Surround yourself with kind people. Reach out to others who are lost. Fight hate. Support organizations that speak to your heart. Vote your conscience. And look for the wholeness amid the broken pieces. This is how you’ll live the noblest life. This is how we’ll cross that very narrow bridge. And this is how we’ll overcome the fear, leave the darkness behind and cross the great divide.
I do hope to see you all tonight at 7:30pm. We’ll have books available for you to write messages to the Tree of Life community, especially the 11 families who lost loved ones last Shabbat. If you’re not able to join us, feel free to email your words to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday morning. We’ll be sending the books to Pittsburgh, along with drawings made by our Early Childhood Children, Tuesday afternoon.
May it truly be a Shabbat Shalom