Don't Delay Me

R. Noa Kushner // Chayyei Sarah 5779

First, we just grieve.

It is one thing to cry alone, and it is one thing to cry in public,

But it is another thing still to cry on Shabbat in a Jewish space. 

Tonight we are not out in the world.

Tonight I want you to feel like when you come home at the end of an unimaginable day, when only those who really know you can see, and you cry.

First, I just want everyone in this room to have permission to cry.

I want to cry for the two brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal, who as far as I can tell were the purest of neshamot, the sweetest of human beings, developmentally disabled. 

David who just went around town shaking everyone’s hands. 

The brothers who were always first to get to shul to greet everyone who came in, who knew the details of everyone’s life. They knew who was sick, whose grandmother had died. 

If they were not malachim, angels, messengers from the one on high,

I am not sure who is more qualified.

And I am not sure we were smart enough to hear their message of sweetness and protecting each other, because we did not build a country where they could be protected. 

And I want to cry for Doctor Jerry Rabinowitz who, when no one would treat AIDS patients, before there was even effective treatment for fighting HIV, let alone public education, Dr. Rabinowitz was the only one who would see AIDS patients. He would hold their hands, it is important to note, without rubber gloves. He would hug everyone as they left the office, unheard of practices at that time. 

If he was not a malach, a divine messenger of healing, I am not sure who is.  

And there are so many more, I could talk about each one.  

And let us also cry that now the phrase, “Eitz Chayyim” / “The Tree of Life,” a phrase we used to use to refer solely to the Torah,

Torah is an Eitz Chayyim / a Tree of Life,

Let’s cry over the fact that now --

“Tree of Life,” will, for most of us, also connote violence and death. 

Let’s just cry that we can’t even say, “Tree of Life” anymore, 

That so much was irretrievably broken last Shabbat. 

So we need to first just be sad

For all of this and so much more.

And I am tempted to leave it at that.

To have a whole night of hearing stories that break us open and allow us to cry together.

And then I am tempted to cry a different kind of tears, tears of relief -

Because of the outpouring of love and affection we have received from so many.

Far different from other times in our history when we would be attacked and the world would turn away, or worse, participate in our destruction,

The amount of leaders and journalists and everyday people who have reached out to the Jewish community is surely unprecedented.

Our pain and loss is national news, international news. 

And right in our neighborhood, Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani wrote us immediately and are here along with members of GLIDE to just pray with us tonight.

And I can tell you that last Sunday at GLIDE, when Rabbi Michael Lezak asked the room of 1500 if they would show up for the Jewish community, the whole room shook with applause, the whole room stood.

And, did you know that up in Marin, there is a Jewish campus with JCC and Brandeis school and a synagogue?

And this week one thousand kids left their public school to physically make a human chain of school children around that Jewish campus as if to symbolize their protection of our community.

And I’m sure you heard about the Muslim community in Pittsburgh that raised so much support -- 

Or you probably didn’t hear about the pastor in Texas who I met only once who gathered 50 people in a coffee shop and sent me a video of them all singing a Jewish Hebrew song (olam chesed yibaneh).

And I am tempted to just stop here 

With the outpouring of chesed, loving kindness that is not required but goes over and above,

I am tempted to just quietly place these acts of chesed before you, to wipe away our tears, to remind you and I that the world is still filled with good people.

It seems like that should be enough.

But with serious times comes serious responsibility.

And our grief tonight is not the kind of grief that follows, god forbid, a natural disaster,

Our grief and confusion is also because we understand that now is a time of danger.

And I don’t just mean anti-Semitism. 

I also mean the way this story is being told and will be told --

I want you to know there is a danger and there is also an opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong --

I am worried about anti-semitism for the first time in a long time. 

I used to think worrying about anti-semitism was about as likely as worrying about the reemergence of the bubonic plague.

But now, with the shattering of the illusion of safety in Squirrel Hill

I can no longer say anti-semitism is only in our past, only in our history.

But to be honest

More than anti Semitism I am afraid of the stories and the assumptions I am hearing from both the right and the left. 

How the events are being used. 

I fear the damage these stories will cause is more permanent and far reaching.

On the right, we have a narrative that we are a haunted people, that anti-Semitism is a unique hatred, the greatest hatred, a hatred that can only be met, with the greatest -- in lock step with the current Israeli government – policy,

As well as healthy contributions to the Trump campaign.

It will not surprise you that I am uncomfortable with this for many reasons.

First, sadly, a hatred of us, a hatred of Jews is not that special.

I hear many groups are hated now.

And I think we can safely say that being on the receiving end of hatred, this is not a unique Jewish problem.

Not to mention that we know,

When there is a vacuum of leadership, a consistent stream of winks and coded language from our president to the alt-right, just enough double entendres,

This vacuum enables hatred and all its siblings and cousins -- 

violence and vile language and prejudice -- they all come out careening into the daylight, 

A parade of living, full color hatred for all to see while trying not to absorb.

And so we mustn’t let those with narrow agendas 

Use our understandable fear in this moment 

To drive wedges between us and the Jewish ideas like welcoming the stranger, like the pursuit of righteousness

The ideas we hold most dear. 

We have to be vigilant, yes, but not succumb wholesale to dark predictions, not give in to those who ask us to abruptly change our moral positions as the entrance fee.

But beyond a knee jerk swing to the right as a response to anti-semitism,

I have another fear.

Frankly, a greater fear for us in this room,

This one comes more from the left. 

I am afraid that we will start to claim our victim status with too much attachment.

I am afraid we will again get really comfortable being victims -- 

Not because the Jewish hysterics are right and we are hated --

No, I am afraid we’ll claim our victim status with attachment 

Because in this political climate where everyone is a victim it is a way of fitting in,

A way of being a little less davka precisely Jewish. 

It requires less explanation to the outside world than say, a bris or even keeping Shabbat.

And I am worried we will claim our victim status with special attachment -- 

in order to downplay our unique powers and places in the world

To cover up the privilege many of us enjoy.

Because no one is threatened by victims,

Everyone has compassion for victims, 

And maybe we prefer to be victims and be loved without question, than to inhabit our power and cause the waves

Don’t get me wrong – something serious and terrible happened -- 

We deserve time to heal.

But I am worried that in America today it is easier for us to stay Jewish victims, 

Than to try and figure out how to be Jewish heroes, 

Than to figure out how to serve our God and make Torah live in the streets.

But if we prize our victimhood but neglect Jewish life, 

If we are more comfortable at a holocaust museum or vigil than in any living Jewish place,

If we only show up when anti-semitism knocks but not when we’re invited to the wedding, let alone the channukah party, the study table, or the shabbos lunch --

Not only is that not a Jewish life, not only is that taxidermy Judaism, a Judaism that only exists in museums and sad sad books, 

It also lets us off the hook for what we are here to do

In this country and this time 

As Jews, as those who do Jewish seriously

As the Jewish community on this very day. 

I love a story that R. David Hartman, z”l used to tell:

He lived in Jerusalem and he would get invited as an Israeli scholar to come and give a talk at Yad V’shem / the Holocaust Education center. 

And he would tell the group who invited him that he would teach them, but not at Yad V’Shem, he would only teach them if they met him in the birth ward of Hadassah hospital up the road. 

He knew: being a victim is a tempting place to stay,

But it cannot be the end of our story, there is too much to say, there is too much to do

There is a small piece in this week’s Torah

Chayyei Sarah 

That you might have missed.

In this week, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.

(This is after a long and winding romantic comedy like story, actually so long that the rabbis themselves remark on how long it is. And these are the same rabbis who wrote the Talmud and have a very high tolerance for digressions so that is indeed saying something, and of course, happy to tell you the whole story over dinner). 

After this story of a test and a well and camels and finding the right kind of woman for Isaac,

The servant is successful (!)

And he runs to Rebecca’s family to get permission for the marriage.

The family even asks Rebecca for her acceptance, which is pretty good for the Torah. 

And then the servant, excited, wanting to return back to Abraham to tell him the news, to complete his mission,

He says to the family, 

“Shalchuni l’adoni”  / “Send me back to my master.”

But Rebecca’s family says something like, “Not so fast, (this is a good idea but) give us some time.”

The family says, “Give us 10 – and the text kind of trails off,”and the rabbis note

Could be 10 days, could be 10 months, could be a year. [1]

And you feel the tension building,

And so the servant says, again,  

“Al t’acharu oti!” / “Don’t hold me back! Don’t delay me!” 

“V’adonai hitzliach oti!” / “Don’t you see? God made me successful! I found her! Against all odds I was successful! This is what I was sent to do and I found her! Let me go! I am on the holy errand of my life!”

“Shalchuni v’eilcha l’adoni” / “Send me and I will go back to my master. My mission is not complete yet.” [2]

I think as American Jews 

This dark and sad week

If we can have the courage to look at our time here in America,

We are maybe like this unnamed servant. 

We have been sent on a wild and unwieldy and holy errand to secure not only our personal future,

But to help grow a new branch of a great vision that deserves to live, a Jewish way to live, a Torah vision that can take root here in this country in unique ways,

That is a tremendous asset to this country.

It is a branch from none other than the tree of life.

We are the servants, we are the messengers.

And we have, against all odds, been successful!

We passed many tests, we have flourished and thrived here.

But as Ha-emek Davar writes on just this verse, 

The shaliach, the messenger, is not a success until the end of the mission.

Because, as he says, “Who knows what waits for this servant on the road?”

And Abraham, he says, the one who sent him, will not stop worrying until the mission is complete. [3]

And I would say, our mission, too, is not yet complete.

We have been sent and we have been successful but we are not done.

And God, just like Abraham, more so this week than others, 

God who sent us,

God also worries about what who we will meet on the road.

God worries we will stay where we are and not try to go further.

That we will give up on what it is we and only we are uniquely capable of doing as a Jewish community.

That we will give up on fighting for justice,

Supporting refugees,

Fighting for prison reform,

Enforcing tax laws,

Healing the sick,

Clothing the naked,

Feeding the hungry,

Keeping Shabbat,

God worries we will give up on raising chuppot / wedding canopies! God loves a good chuppah.

God worries we will stop saying kaddish

Or that we will give up on our idea of l’shon kodesh / Knowing that the words we say have massive implications for creation and destruction,

God worries we will give up on telling the story of leaving Egypt,

Or wandering in the desert,

That we will give up studying our infinite sources and 

Praying, that we will give up our beautiful praying,

God worries we will give up the practice of giving away money until it hurts,

And so many other Jewish demonstrative acts that only we do in just our way.

It is not that God thinks we are the only ones who care about how we are in the world, or who consider justice, or who study.

Of course many people do these things, some better than us.

It is rather 

that just as God loves all peoples,

God also loves our way of doing things

Our very particular way.

The tragedy of Squirrel Hill is yes, of course, another massacre in a holy place, a public place.

Yes, of course, anti-semitism.

Yes, sadly, what our nation has become.

But tonight I want to offer that the tragedy for us this Shabbat, 

is the eleven lost neshamot, the Jewish souls who can no longer sing

Their prayers that were left unfinished.

And I want to suggest that it is our work to pick up where their mission came to an unthinkable end.

We will pick up their mission not in their exact way but in our 

San Francisco 2018 Jewish way.

I want to suggest that we think of ourselves as literally sent on their behalf,

That we understand our collective mission, theirs and ours in this country, is to grow an eitz chayyim, a tree of life here.

That we understand this mission is not yet complete,

So we must do everything in our power to rise beyond this horrible moment,

In order to make our presence in this country mean something.

So that one day

In a generation,

When we meet the baby who --

While the slaughter was taking place

The baby who was being entered into the covenant,

The baby who had his bris at the same time, in the same building, on the same Shabbat morning

So one day when we meet him as an adult,

We can tell him,

“Look! This covenant you entered --

Look what it means!

Look who we are!

Look at our mission!

It is maybe not yet complete,

But taking part in it is our greatest honor.”

Joyce Fienberg

Richard Gottfried

Rose Mallinger

Jerry Rabinowitz 

Cecil Rosenthal 

David Rosenthal 

Bernice Simon

Sylvan Simon

Daniel Stein 

Melvin Wax

Irving Younger


[1] See Rashi to Gen. 24:55, also B. Ketubot 57b

[2] All from Gen. 24: 54-56

[3] See Ha-emek Davar to Gen. 24:56