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The Pittsburgh Eleven

The Pittsburgh Eleven


I don’t know what happens when people die

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

that I can’t sing

I can’t help listening

-Jackson Browne


This week’s Torah portion is sadly and ironically called Chayei Sara – The Life of Sarah. Sad because it speaks of the death of Sarah and her burial. Ironic because it seems quite odd that we would define her life with a description of her death. The Torah mentions that Avraham eulogized her and I am sure, as with any eulogy, when we speak of a person’s life and their accomplishments – what they meant to us and how they effected us – we generally do not speak of their death but of what they did whilst alive.


A simple solution to the unusual parsha title might be when some these days refer to a funeral as a “celebration of life” ceremony. Maybe the term, “Chayei Sara” – the life of Sarah – was the first time this notion came into play.


Really there is a much deeper meaning to the naming of the parsha, for indeed one of the highlights of the life of Sarah and perhaps her most monumental accomplishment occurred because of her passing. For 62 long years, Abraham was told that he would be given the land of Israel. From the time that Abraham was 75 and left his home to go to the land of Canaan, he was repeatedly assured of the Promised Land. And indeed that is how Israel got that nickname. Over and over and over again, Abraham is promised that the land of Canaan will be a home for his many descendants.


The only problem is that for over six decades since, Abraham had not seen that promise fulfilled nor realized an inch of land coming into his possession. He has faithfully spread the teaching of One God while travelling from one place to another, but as yet was still a “resident and alien”, as he calls himself, within the land of Canaan. He did not outright own an acre of the land that he had been promised.


That is, until now. Until it comes time to bury his wife. And then the Torah is quite emphatic and specific as to the details of Abraham’s first acquisition of a piece of what will later become the Land of Israel.


So, in a large sense, one of, and perhaps the biggest impact Sarah had on the future nation of Israel happens through her demise. Only when Abraham acquires the Machpelah cave in Chevron/Kiryat Arba (a place holy until this day) does he finally see God’s promises fulfilled and become a reality. Only though his wife Sarah – at her passing – does Abraham begins to get an inkling and taste of those long-ago promises coming to fruition. And so in an odd, sad and tragic sort of way, Sarah’s death becomes her life, her definition and one of her greatest accomplishments. The beginning of the future Jewish nation having a homeland to live in, to develop, to be exiled from only to return over 2000 years later – and hence the greatest prophecy ever fulfilled – starts here and it starts now, with the death – or shall we say, the life – of Sarah. 


That someone’s death can overshadow almost everything else that they did in life is not a completely strange phenomenon and we got a glimpse of it this week. The reaction to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting has been overwhelming and perhaps nation-changing. These eleven simple Jews who regularly attended their Shabbat service have transformed and changed American Jewry forever. How it will all play out in the coming months and years remains to be seen and certainly they never chose to play this role nor would their families ever want them to. But one thing is for certain, I am sure none of them ever thought they would have the impact they are presently having on America, on American Jewry and on the world at large.


The outpouring of shock, horror, sympathy, tears, unity, prayers, events, vigils, campaigns to attend shul this week, etc. has been a huge and spontaneous reaction. Focus about disrespectful and hateful speech whether from lowly websites or as high as the presidential office has now come into sharp view. Once again the clear need to strike war weaponry such as the AR-15 from inclusion in the second amendment has become all too obvious. Football stars and hockey teams alike took time to recognize the atrocity, and more and more people are expressing their alarm and disillusionment at what kind of nation America is becoming.


Sarah unwittingly transformed the future of the great nation of Israel through no act of choice but simply through her passing. She altered the course of Jewish history in a way that that neither she nor anyone else could ever have anticipated. Her death became her legacy and, in a large sense, the definition of her life. So too it is our hope and prayer that these eleven beautiful Jewish souls did not die in vain but are similarly transforming this nation, our people and the world to become better, to recognize evil, and to take steps to combat it. For as Rabbi Sacks points out, “The hate that begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews.”


Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

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