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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

The Life Of Sarah; The Deaths of the Martyrs

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

I knew rabbinical school was going to be difficult. Ancient and Modern Jewish history, Torah chanting, Hebrew grammar, learning all the prayers and their meanings. Learning about difficult lifecycle events, like illness and death, and how we might be a pastoral presence during these difficult times. I knew it was going to be hard.

On Monday, for Liturgy, our class on prayers, our professor sat down and passed out some papers for us. “I apologize,” she said, “but we will have to delay our planned lesson for today. There are more pressing matters. I did not think that I would ever have to do this, but it seems that it is necessary. I need to teach you the blessing to say when Jews are murdered in public for being Jews.”

ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו נמצותו וציונו לקדש את שמך ברבים

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu, l’kadeish et shimcha ba’rabim.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who makes us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us to sanctify his name in multitudes.

We made a covenant with God. We told God, if you will be our God, we will be your people. And this is us holding onto our covenant. Oh God, we will be your people, no matter what.

We Jews have a blessing for everything. The pessimist in me says it’s because we’ve experienced so much hardship, so much pain, so much suffering, that maybe we had to bless everything, or else we’d never be able to experience joy. I said this to my professor. She held me in her gaze, the comfort of a sad smile and soft nod. She then furrowed her brows in a thoughtful expression, looked at me in earnest seriousness, and said, “It hasn’t all been sad.”

We Jews have a blessing for everything. Our early rabbis gave us a blessing for hearing bad news. Baruch da’yan haEmet. Blessed is the true judge. This has also become what is said after hearing that someone has died. What is the rationale behind this? The rabbis said, “A person is obligated to bless upon the bad just as they bless upon the good.”

Our Torah portion this week is called the Life of Sarah, and it begins with Sarah dying. In the very first sentence, it recounts how long Sarah lived, and in the second sentence it confirms that she has died, and Abraham mourns her and weeps for her.

Why is it that a chapter about the death of Sarah is called the Life of Sarah?

Because a person’s life cannot be fully measured until it ends. Although we can get stuck on the end, the true meaning is all that came before it. Sarah’s story is not just about her death, but about her life, about all the things she did and all the people who loved her.

Sarah was lucky. She lived a long, comfortable life, a life full of love and joy. Sarah went peacefully in her old age, and still Abraham mourned and wept for her. It is never easy to lose someone, even under ideal circumstances. Every human life is so precious. We all have that divine spark within us, and each time a soul is taken, the world gets a little darker.

Abraham and Sarah had a pretty ideal life. Sometimes the Jewish people can see ourselves as Abraham and Sarah, living a life of comfort: with land, with wealth, surrounded by family, without anything at all to fear. But at other times we see ourselves as Miriam and Aaron, and the Hebrew slaves of Egypt: downtrodden, despised, and oppressed.

As of 2017, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 902 individuals, 22.5% of whom were Jews, although the total Jewish population is less than 0.2% of the world's population. This means the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is 11,250% above average. – Despite being strangers in strange lands, we have excelled!

In Lithuania in 2016, 23% of Lithuanians said they would not accept a Jew as a fellow citizen. In 2017, 23% of people in the UK said they would not accept a Jew as a member of their family. In 2017, we saw a 57% increase in antisemitic attacks in the United States. We are less than 2% of the population of the US, and yet a whopping 54% of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in the US are against Jews.

Those statistics weren’t just numbers this past weekend. They were names. David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Irving Younger, Daniel Stein, Joyce Fienberg, Melvin Wax, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, and Rose Mallinger.

The Jewish people are a family. We are the children of Israel. When our people are being oppressed because they are Jewish, when our people are being killed because they are Jewish, each one of us feels it in our hearts, in our guts. Just as we all stood at Mount Sinai together when God gave us the Torah, just as we all stood at the shores of the Red Sea together as God parted the waters and we walked on dry land to freedom, so too were we all in that synagogue, the shock, the fear, the horror, the overwhelming sadness. When Jews suffer at the hands of antisemitism, we carry the weight of the loss of a member of our extended family, and we carry the weight of the fear knowing that it could have been us.

As a Jew growing up in a post-Holocaust world, I was told as a small child, “That could have been you.” Since growing up and recounting these memories, I’ve been told that is a horrific thing to tell a small child. I wonder then, what do we tell our children?

I was in Lithuania last spring, on a trip with school, to learn about what Lithuania was like before and after the Holocaust. What a thriving Jewish community Vilna had, and how virtually none of it was left in the wake of the Shoah. I did not just see the antisemitism in the derelict synagogues and closeted Jewish community, I felt it. Even with a beanie covering my kippah, the locals could tell I was Jewish by the way I looked. I got stares and dirty looks. One day we were learning about the center of the Jewish quarters, when a woman who now lived where the great yeshiva once stood opened her shutters to yell at us. She called us evil, said we had a dark aura, and demanded we get far away from her. She was recording us on her cell phone. We couldn’t understand why. Did she actually think we were witches?

That act of antisemitism stung us all. Stunned, we sort of scattered in different directions, not wanting to draw attention to our Jewishness, each of us looking more Jewish next to the others.

As I was walking away, I heard the voice of a stranger. “Shalom Aleichem,” he said. “Peace upon you.” A formal Jewish greeting. I turned and saw a man standing behind me. Neither of us had on any identifiably Jewish markings. My heart was beating fast. Was he friend or foe? “Shalom,” I said, cautiously. Both, “hello,” and, “peace.”

He smiled. I relaxed, and I smiled too. He started speaking to me in Hebrew. Where was I from? I told him I was from America, but I was currently living in Israel for school. He told me he was from Russia, but that he didn’t speak any English, so we continued in Hebrew. He told me he was on a Jewish tour of Lithuania. He said he hoped to go to Israel one day. He asked what I was studying. When I told him I was going to become a rabbi, he didn’t have any words. He raised his eyebrows and smiled really big, like when you’re surprised by joyful news. He clutched his heart and nodded at me, and I nodded at him, and for a moment we just held each other with our expressions, and then we went our separate ways.

The neo-Nazi who shot up that Pittsburgh synagogue would call me a globalist. If I can go to Lithuania and have a conversation with a Russian who doesn’t speak English because we both speak a little Hebrew, and if we can feel as if we have an automatic kinship despite never having met before, and share an honest human connection, and that makes me a globalist, then I’m glad I have the largest extended family that spans all across the globe, and I’m glad I have a connection to them.

The fact that it could be any of us doesn’t just mean we’re connected in our fear. It also means we’re connected in our joy. It hasn’t all been sad.

We Jews have a blessing for everything.

It is so hard to want to bless God right now. My heart feels heavy, my soul feels tired, and I don’t want to be uttering praises. But I think our rabbis understood something. We cannot let our fear, our anger, our sadness, turn into curses. We cannot let them turn into resentment at God.

We are commanded to bless upon the bad just as we bless upon the good. We are commanded to experience joy on Shabbat, even if we are not joyful in our hearts. Our life is a precious gift, and we must appreciate it, even when it is so hard, and we are in so much pain.

It hasn’t all been sad.

Having allies to support us in the wake of this tragedy is proof that love is a powerful motivator. An old friend I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out to me to tell me that she was thinking of me and my community. Many of the Jews in this room have been contacted by non-Jewish family members and friends with words of love and support, and all the non-Jews in this room are here to show their love and support. We are all children of God, we are all made in the image of God, and we all have the divine spark within us. Everywhere the Jewish people have been, we have had allies there beside us, helping us in whatever ways they could. It is in part because of these allies that we are still here as a people. We thank you for standing up in the face of hatred and saying, “You don’t speak for me.”

I’ve had a hard time knowing how to respond to the tragedy. At first, I cried. I cried a lot. And then I hugged people I loved, and I cried more. And then I talked about my feelings, and I cried more.

But our tradition reminds me: bless even the bad. So now I say a blessing, and I praise God, the giver of life. Because although this story began with death, it is really about life. The Life of Sarah – the Life of David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Irving Younger, Daniel Stein, Joyce Fienberg, Melvin Wax, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, and Rose Mallinger. Baruch Dayan HaEmet. Blessed is the true judge. Zichronam Livracha. May their memories be for a blessing. Let us remember them in life, and bless all that is good in their honor.

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