Gathering the Sparks
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as a palace in time. In his mind, the hours from sundown to sundown knit together to form sacred architecture which is then fortified by our intentions, our study, and our prayers. Each week, we enter Shabbat as if we are opening the doors into a sanctuary of time, as if we are exchanging the reality of the world for the protected space of Shabbat.
Last Saturday morning, an enemy brought hatred and violence into the sacred sanctuary of Shabbat. Three congregations, Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Chadash, had only just begun their worship services when malice and bigotry shattered and profaned their palace of time. Men and women- brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents- all of whom had come together to celebrate the Sabbath were torn from this world. And with their deaths, it was as if every Jewish person in this country felt the foundations of our sanctuaries shake and tremble.
The mishnah teaches us that when God created humanity, God began with a single human being, ha-Adam, the earthling, in order to teach future generations that, “anyone who destroys a life is considered...to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if they have saved an entire world.” Last Saturday morning, in what was both a physical and spiritual sanctuary, eleven worlds were destroyed by the hatred that has stalked the Jewish people for millennia.
For many of us, this attack has awakened feelings of fear and vulnerability, feelings that we had hoped belonged solely to the past. We looked at pictures of Tree of Life Synagogue and saw instead photos of synagogues desecrated in pogroms or during the devastation of the Holocaust. I heard from many people over the past week who are wondering if these are the moments we are supposed to be watching for- if now is the time that signals impending danger. These are questions I never imagined the Jewish community would be grappling with in 2018.
Inside of our ark, there is a Torah scroll that once belonged to a synagogue in Ceske Budejovice, the largest city in its region of the Czech Republic. Jewish people had been living in the area since the 14th century, and in the 1930’s, the town’s Jewish community had climbed to more than one thousand members. The photos of the town’s synagogue show a cathedral like building with beautiful gothic arches and massive windows. This is the community to which our Torah scroll belonged for one hundred years. As a part of such a large congregation, our Torah most likely witnessed scores of weddings and B’nai Mitzvah. It must have been read and lifted at hundreds of Shabbat services. It must have been carried in the arms of dancing men during annual Simchat Torah celebrations. It must have been a centerpiece for a thriving congregation in that far away land.
But in 1939, the Nazis invaded the town, and one year later, Jewish residents were forced to give up their homes. In April of 1942, almost one thousand of Jewish people living in Ceske Budejovice were deported to concentration camps. Two months later, after looting the sacred space, Nazi soldiers blew up the grand and historic synagogue- effectively ending six centuries of Jewish life in the town. Our Torah scroll could have been lost when the people who cherished it were lost, but in an almost miraculous twist, it was saved along with fifteen hundred other scrolls that had been stolen by Nazi soldiers. It was carefully checked and repaired by scribes working in London’s Westminster Synagogue, and in 1978 it was sent to what I’m sure its previous community would have considered an unlikely spiritual successor, a Reform synagogue in Georgetown, Connecticut.
Every Saturday that we celebrate with B’nai Mitzvah families at TBC, I tell an abridged version of this story. I explain the Torah’s history right before I ask the student’s parents, grandparents, and sometimes even great-grandparents to join me on the bimah so that we can pass the scroll, the symbol of our tradition’s wisdom, from generation to generation until it is placed in the arms of our Bar or Bat Mitzvah student. I tell the congregation that by passing this particular scroll, we are linking our students not only to the generations standing on the bimah but also to the numberless generations of Jewish people in Ceske Budejovice- people who we will never know, people who we have claimed as our family.
Torahs are made of parchment wrapped around wooden posts, called eitzai chayim. This same Hebrew phrase is referenced in a prayer that we sing when we return the Torah the ark, “Eitz Chayim hi.” It is also the name of the synagogue where last Saturday’s attack happened, Tree of Life.
The eitzai chayim of the Ceske Budejovice scroll bear the imprint of the hatred that it experienced. On the bottom of one of the rollers is the red paint that the Nazis used to catalogue the scroll before adding it to their collection of stolen treasures. This mark looks as if it was carelessly applied and stands in sharp contrast to the painstaking neatness of the Hebrew lettering of the scroll. But, in addition to this mark, there is also a small brass plaque that identifies our Torah as one of the hundreds that were rescued and repaired before being sent back into the world.
Both of these additions- the ugly red paint of the Nazis and the discreet and dignified plaque of the Memorial Scrolls Trust- have forever changed the Eitz Chayim, the tree of life, the heart of the Torah. Both have become permanent pieces of the story of our community, linking us to generations of people that we will never have the chance to know.
Violence, hatred, bigotry- these forces have an undeniable ability to scar us, to leave lasting reminders of moments when we were overcome by fear and pain. But, these scars, they are not what defines our story.
We are trees of life. Our roots are interwoven with those of the ones who surround us- those who may not be like us, but who stand with us, resolute and compassionate. Our branches reach up to lofty goals and sunny skies even as they provide shelter for those who find themselves unprotected in raging storms. We are trees of life, and while we are scarred by moments of fear and vulnerability, we will not be defined by them. We are so much more than our scars.
We are Or Chadash, a New Light. We are a new light that will shine in the world- a light that will scatter the shadows of prejudice and bigotry. We are Or Chadash, a New Light.
We are Dor Hadash. We are a new generation- a generation who will protect the vulnerable and embrace those who are unlike us. We are Dor Chadash.
We are Eitz Chayim. We are a Tree of Life. We are rooted in the strength of those who came before us, and we are surrounded and protected by the sheltering arms of our neighbors. We are a tree of life.
“Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar. D’rachehah darchei no-am, v’chol n’tivoteha shalom.”
“It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”
Tonight and always, I pray that we will hold fast to one another and to our commitment to repair this world. I want to thank everyone who have joined us in our sanctuary of time- Thank you for lending us your strength and for giving us your friendship.
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek. Be strong. Be strong. And, let us strengthen one another. Amen.