Purim and Divine Inspiration

There’s only one book in the Hebrew Bible that doesn’t mention God’s name: The book of Esther, which we read on Purim. Instead of emphasizing the supernatural, the focus of this story is the human capacity to take brave and decisive action.

The absence of any explicit reference to God in the book of Esther makes the Rabbis, who are the earliest interpreters of the Bible, pretty uncomfortable. A sacred book without God’s name? It just doesn’t feel quite right.

But many of the Rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah, 7a) argue that although God doesn’t appear as a character in Esther, the book was divinely inspired nonetheless. Many pull examples from the text, including the following: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: “The book of Esther was said with the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, as it is stated: ‘And Haman thought in his heart.’ (Esther 6:6) If the book of Esther was not divinely inspired, how was it known what Haman thought in his heart?”

Rabbi Akiva says: “The book of Esther was said with the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, as it is stated: ‘And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her.’ (Esther 2:15) This could have been known only through divine inspiration.”

Though the Rabbis use technical logic to prove that God must be present in the story, their arguments prove a larger point, which is one of the main lessons of Purim: Things aren’t always as they appear. Many of the human characters hide and reveal their identities throughout the story. After all, Esther’s name comes from the Hebrew word nistar, which means “hidden” or “concealed.” Though God does not appear in the story, the Rabbis see traces of God’s presence hidden just below the surface, visible if you look hard enough. 

In many ways, I connect to this portrayal of God as One for whom we have to search. In all the other books of the Hebrew Bible, the characters meet God face to face or witness miracles that are undeniably the work of God’s hand. But any contact we may have with the Divine is subtler. Just like the characters in the book of Esther, we navigate the world by relying on our own skills and judgment, and can only wonder about God’s place in it all. 

As Purim approaches, I hope this joyful holiday helps us discover new aspects of ourselves and our world. You never know—they might be hidden just below the surface. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

My Government, It Has Three Branches

The holiday of Purim, which is coming up in just a few weeks, is a festive and joyful one, filled with costumes, carnivals, and revelry. But the celebrations belie the seriousness of the Book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim. While we read about vain kings, wicked courtiers, and evil plots, the Book of Esther is ultimately about a woman who reveals her previously hidden identity, approaches those in power despite the risk to herself, and uses her platform to protect the Jewish people.  

When Queen Esther’s uncle urges her to inform her husband, King Achashverosh, about a plot to annihilate the Jews of the Persian Empire, he says the following: “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14). 

With these powerful words in mind, Esther steps up, informs the king that she is Jewish, and tells him that someone in the palace has devised a plot against her people. The king is receptive to her plea, and he orders the evil edict reversed. 

Timing is always interesting. Just as we are about to recount an ancient protest, we are currently witnessing a modern protest to safeguard democracy in Israel. 

If you have been following the news in Israel, you will know that hundreds of thousands of people are gathering in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and all over the country to protest legislation that will overhaul the judicial system. Supporters of the new legislation say that it will provide a check on the Supreme Court. But critics–including the many protestors—fear that it will render the Supreme Court completely powerless, stripping it of the ability to operate independently of the ruling government. The political party in power would have carte blanche to pass any and all legislation, without an institution to check its legality. 

Outside the Knesset (Parliament), people are singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and holding huge printouts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Videos of the demonstrations show seas of blue and white flags. One of the chants is a parody of a Purim song that we teach at HSP. The legend is that Haman, the evil courtier who devised the plot, wore a triangular hat. The song goes: “My hat, it has three corners.” The chant, modified for these protests, states: “My government, it has three branches.” 

These protests are political, but they are not really about any particular politician. Instead, they are about the principles outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: that Israel is to be a place of “Jewish immigration…for the Ingathering of Exiles…[of] complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” In other words, from its inception, the State of Israel was to be both a Jewish nation and a democratic nation. It has always been a point of pride that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It has to stay that way. 

Those of us who live in the United States know how scary it is when democracy is tested. Now, it’s happening in another country that we love. When something of such a magnitude unfolds thousands of miles away, it can make us feel powerless. But instead of removing ourselves or watching in despair, we should remember Mordechai’s message to Esther. If Haman’s plot to kill the Jews were to be successful, her status as Queen wouldn’t protect her. She would perish, too. Today, I fear that the international community would blame all Jews—including those who live in the Diaspora—if Israel were to become an undemocratic country. It could trigger renewed waves of global antisemitism. 

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough news coverage of this important moment which, in many ways, is an example of Zionism at its best: Jews living in the Jewish State exercising their sacred right—safeguarded by a Jewish democracy—to protest against the government.  

So many Israelis are stepping up to the challenge, just as Queen Esther did in the story of Purim. As Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, our partner in Israel who serves Congregation Kodesh v’Chol, recently reminded me, this is a moment to keep faith in the kind of country we want the Jewish homeland to be: a place that safeguards the rights to free speech and religion (including non-orthodox Judaism, practiced in communities like ours, which is also under attack), and, to quote the Declaration of Independence, a place of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena 

On Eagles Wings

Perhaps it was preordained that the Eagles are in the Super Bowl this year. Of all 54 Torah portions, who knew that we would read Parashat Yitro this very week, in which God invokes the powerful bird?

The coming weekend will undoubtedly be a big one for Philly fans, but this Shabbat marks something even greater in the narrative of our Torah: The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. 

As God prepares Moses and the Israelites for this momentous and transformative experience, God shares the purpose behind these sacred commandments: 

“‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings (עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים) and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

Before God gives the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, Moses is instructed to remind the people of God’s devotion and love during the Israelites’ most trying and terrifying moments. The metaphor that God employs—carrying the Israelites on eagles’ wings—is a resonant one. In a difficult time, imagine being scooped up and swiftly carried out of danger, protected and embraced by the wings of a mighty bird. There’s something comforting and profound about this image. 

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, elaborates on the metaphor:

Scripture uses this metaphor because all other birds place their young between their feet since they are afraid of another bird that flies above them, but the eagle fears none except humans — apprehending that perhaps he may cast an arrow at it — since no bird can fly above it; therefore he places it (its young) upon its wings, saying, “Better that the arrow should pierce me than my young!” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 18:4:3). — “I, too”, said God, “did thus”: (Exodus 14:19, 20) “And the angel of God … journeyed etc…. And he came between the camp of Egypt etc.” … and the Egyptians were casting arrows and stone missiles and the cloud caught these (cf. Rashi on these verses).

Just as the eagle protects its young from above and below—by flying high over the other birds and by shielding them from the arrows that humans might cast—God did the same for the Israelites, completely enveloping them in the Divine embrace as they escaped Pharaoh’s army.

With this reminder of God’s commitment and faithfulness to the Israelites, they are now ready to accept the responsibilities and obligations that will establish a sacred and everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people. After all, what is the purpose of the Ten Commandments, and of all the rules set forth in the Torah? While the first five commandments describe the obligations of humans toward God, the last five outline human obligations to each other: To build a society of freedom, where we support and show up for one another, ready to carry each other through hard times, on eagles’ wings, just as God did for us during the exodus from Egypt. 

No matter who we are rooting for this weekend, may we all feel united in our shared story, and in our commitments to each other. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

Blessings Part Three: Wow, Oops, Please, Thanks

There’s a well-known saying in the world of religion: We pray for four reasons: To say,  

“Wow!” 

“Oops!” 

“Please!” 

“Thanks!” 

While it might seem a little too simple of a formula, this saying brilliantly captures what it means to express ourselves in prayer, to communicate our basic human needs to a figure or force that is more than human. What is often pressing on our minds and hearts? Our sense of wonder about the world and our existence within it, our hope to be forgiven for our mistakes, our desires and dreams for ourselves and our loved ones, and our gratitude for the gifts that we receive. 

No Jewish prayer captures all four of these modes better than the Amidah. The climax of each of the three traditional daily prayer services, the Amidah contains 19 blessings, each one expressing one of these four sentiments. To recite the Amidah, we rise (amidah means “standing” in Hebrew), some people cover their heads with their tallit (prayer shawl), and most of the prayer is said silently, all in an effort to increase focus and concentration. 

One of my teachers in Rabbinical School, Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, who is one of the world’s experts on Jewish prayer, writes the following about the Amidah

Everything about the Amidah is intriguing. We do not know for sure when Jews started saying it or even why. Most puzzling of all is how it came to consist of nineteen benedictions, since the Amidah is also named the Sh’moneh Esreh–that is, “the Eighteen [not nineteen!] Benedictions”…It was the Rabbis’ favorite prayer, after all, known originally as Hat’fillah, that is, “The Prayer.” Literally thousands of learned Jews have spent their lives reading and rereading those few classical texts that purport to explain how it came about (Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, My People’s Prayerbook vol. 2).

In addition to its origins, what fascinates me about the Amidah is how neatly each of the 19 blessings can be organized into our four categories of prayer. Here is a summary of each one: 

Wow! 

We are amazed by…

Blessing 1: Ancestors – Our connection to God through our ancestors. We are part of an ancient story! 

Blessing 2: Might – God’s power over the natural world and over life and death. 

Blessing 3: Holiness – God’s holiness. 

Blessing 4: Knowledge – God as the source of all wisdom.  

Oops! 

Please grant us…

Blessing 5: Repentance – Opportunities for teshuva, the chance to make better choices in the future.

Blessing 6: Forgiveness – Forgiveness for our mistakes (some people lightly tap their chest with their fist when reciting this one). 

Please! 

We hope for…

Blessing 7: Redemption – A better world. 

Blessing 8: Healing – A speedy and complete recovery for those who are ill. 

Blessing 9: Bounty – A good harvest and a healthy planet. 

Blessing 10: Gathering the Exiles – Unity of the Jewish people. 

Blessing 11: Justice – Wise leaders. 

Blessing 12: Elimination of Evil – Floundering of those who seek destruction in our world. 

Blessing 13: The Righteous – Flourishing of those who seek good in our world. 

Blessing 14: Jerusalem – Peace for this sacred city. 

Blessing 15: Deliverance – God to fulfill ancient promises to the Jewish people. 

Blessing 16: Listen! – God to listen to our prayers. 

Blessing 17: Accept! – God to accept and answer our prayers. 

Thanks! 

We are grateful for…

Blessing 18: The miracles that God performs for us, day in and day out. 

Blessing 19: The gift of peace. (Which also serves as a Please! prayer, since we hope to see a world of greater peace.) 

As someone who loves the clarity of lists, I am amazed at how well these main blessings of Jewish liturgy fit so perfectly into these four categories. 

But these are a lot of feelings to feel—and a lot of blessings to recite— every single day! When I was a counselor at a Jewish sleepaway camp, I was responsible for overseeing that the kids in my bunk recited the Amidah each day. Often, the teenaged campers would express how overwhelming it was to get through each of these 19 blessings. After all, you might imagine how long it takes to recite all of the material in the Amidah, especially in Hebrew! 

To help make it more manageable, I sometimes suggested that the campers focus on a single blessing each time they recited this prayer. To me, this exercise turns the recitation of the Amidah from a chore into a grounding ritual, and it’s something I still do when I recite the Amidah today. It gives me a chance to check in with myself: What blessing feels most relevant in this particular moment? Am I feeling a sense of awe? Sorry for a recent mistake? Hopeful for a world filled with more righteousness? Grateful for all that I have? Luckily, there’s an Amidah blessing for any experience and emotion that a given day might bring.

In the (slightly modified) words of the Amidah, may God lovingly and willingly accept our prayers of Wow! Oops! Please! and Thanks! 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

Blessings Part Two: Getting Specific

After over two years of anticipation, it finally happened: The Whole Foods on Wall Street opened last week! Though Jon and I will miss our weekly trip to the Tribeca location—where we loved bumping into and catching up with so many of you!—it was truly amazing to walk down the block, enter a beautiful new store, and see all of the delicious food that a person could ever dream of eating. 

Many faith traditions have a practice of gratitude before (and sometimes after) meals. But one of the most interesting things about Judaism is that our tradition invites us to get specific about our gratitude. Not only do we have the opportunity to give thanks for our food before we eat, but each type of food we consume has a slightly different blessing associated with it: 

For bread: Ha’motzi – Blessed are You, who brings forth bread from the earth

For wine/grape juice: Borei P’ri Ha’gafen – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the vine

For grains: Borei Minei Mezonot – Blessed are You, Creator of all types of foods

For fruits: Borei Pri Ha’etz – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the trees

For veggies: Borei P’ri Ha’adamah – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the earth

For anything else (eggs, meat, fish, beverages, candy, etc.): She’ha’kol Nih’yeh Bidvaro – Blessed are You, by whose word all things come to be 

One of my favorite activities growing up was the annual Hebrew School “Bracha Bee” (Bracha is the Hebrew word for blessing). The teacher would shout out a food, and we had to come up with the corresponding blessing. Some of them were easy. Cheese was “she’ha’kol,” apples were “ha’etz,” cupcakes were “mezonot.” The harder ones were more interesting. Is the blessing for almonds different than the ones for peanuts? (The answer is yes!) Over chocolate covered peanuts, should one say “ha’adamah” (for the peanuts) or “she’ha’kol” (for the chocolate)? Is the blessing over French toast “ha’motzi” (for the bread) or “mezonot” (because we don’t quite treat it as bread)? (The correct answers to these questions are ha’adamah and ha’motzi, respectively.) To me, finding the right blessing for the right food was a fun puzzle to solve. 

But even if you weren’t a bracha nerd like me, it’s easy to see the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis, who grouped foods into distinct categories and created a blessing for each one. Instead of saying a general blessing of thanks, Jewish tradition gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is special about the food we are going to eat, where it comes from, and why we enjoy it. 

The most meaningful expressions of gratitude are specific ones. A good thank-you note might express gratitude for a gift. But a great thank-you note will explain what the person loved most about the gift, when they will use it, and what it means to them. It’s great to hear someone say: “I love you.” But it is even better when they share what they love about you and reflect on the qualities that are unique to you. 

May this Shabbat, and maybe even your next trip to the grocery store, be filled with gratitude for all of the specific gifts and blessings that life has to offer. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena 

Looking Outward | Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, and our perspective changes. We have completed the Book of Genesis (called Beresheet in Hebrew), and this Shabbat, we will begin the Book of Exodus (called Shemot in Hebrew). Though the world is created at the beginning of Genesis, most of the book focuses on the story of the first Jewish family: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Rachel, and Leah; Joseph and his descendants. Throughout this book of the Torah, we look inward, focusing on the special relationship that God forges with this family, and the complicated dynamics—including intense rivalries and reconciliations—that emerge among its members. 
But as we begin the Book of Exodus, we begin to look outward. We shift away from a focus on a single family. Instead, we learn about a large society: The powerful Pharaoh; the Egyptian elite; and the enslaved Israelites. This is an unjust and broken society, where one group benefits from the abuse of another. Throughout the Book of Exodus, we follow the Israelites on their trajectory as they escape a precarious life of slavery in Egypt (Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, comes from the word tzar, which means “narrow” or “constricted”) and begin to build a world of freedom based upon the laws of God. By the end of Exodus, the Israelites are no longer a small family, but a large collective, tasked with creating a society of justice in which the Divine spirit can dwell. 
We retell this story of the exodus from Egypt each year during our Passover Seder. This ritual serves to teach the next generation—and to remind ourselves—of the Jewish dream of a fair and sacred society, and of the Jewish obligation to take the necessary steps to transform that dream into a reality. 
On Monday, we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, along with countless other leaders and activists, fought for civil rights and greater racial equality. Like that of the ancient Israelites, our nation’s transition toward more freedom and equity for all has been challenging, and the work is nowhere near complete. But Dr. King was a religious leader, whose work was inspired and anchored by the narrative of the Book of Exodus, and whose faith allowed him to imagine a world different from the one in which he lived. His famous I Have a Dream speech, which can perhaps more accurately be called a sermon, is brimming with biblical references, not the least of which is his declaration of hope, which comes from the 23rd Psalm: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” 
Just as the Passover Seder is a reminder of our religious obligation to work toward a society free of discrimination and abuse, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day serves as a reminder of our American obligation to reckon with the injustices of our nation’s past and present. It is an opportunity to recognize how much work there is still to do. And it is a chance to commit ourselves to building a society that recognizes and honors the inherent sanctity of all people. 
If you are interested in reading and learning in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I recommend reading an article entitled I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Biblical Prophetic Speech, by Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler, which analyzes the biblical quotes and devices that Dr. King used in this magnificent speech. If you are looking for a community service opportunity over the weekend, UJA has a number of meaningful volunteer activities.
This Shabbat, as we enter the Book of Exodus, we turn outward, and orient ourselves toward the concerns of an entire society. On Monday, we also turn outward, reminding ourselves of our Jewish and American responsibility to heal the brokenness in our own society. 

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom, and a meaningful Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 
Deena 

Hanukkah Part 4: We Came to Banish the Darkness

One of my favorite debates in the Talmud is about how to light Hanukkah candles. (Yes, the Rabbis of the Talmud really did debate everything.

The House of Shammai teaches: “On the first night of Hanukkah, a person kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last night of Hanukkah, they kindle one light.” 

The House of Hillel teaches: “On the first night of Hanukkah, a person kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last night, they kindle eight lights.”

Do you know who wins the argument? 

It’s not a spoiler to share that Hillel’s view is the one that the Talmud accepts. He typically beats Shammai in talmudic arguments. But even if you didn’t know this piece of Talmud trivia, you might’ve guessed the outcome of this argument based upon our contemporary candle lighting ritual. When we light Hanukkah candles, we follow the instructions of Hillel, not of Shammai. We add candles each night, we don’t take them away. 

Hillel’s reasoning, so simple and inspiring, is this: “We elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity, we don’t downgrade.” In other words, we should never diminish the light that we bring into the world. Instead, we should keep adding more, until the whole world shimmers with sparks of holiness. The days might be short, the sky might be dark, but we never lose hope. Each time we light those candles, we make the world a brighter, holier place. 

My favorite Hanukkah song, Banu Choshech, captures this sentiment. It’s less well-known here in the U.S., but very popular in Israel. In English, the words are: 

We came to banish the dark, 

Each of us bearing a spark.  

Alone, every person is just a small light 

But together, we truly shine bright!  

Go away darkness, fear and fright! 

Make way for light! 

May each additional candle in our menorah remind us to embrace our unique sparks of holiness and share them with the world. 

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Hanukkah, 

Deena 

15 Broad Will Fulfill Wishes Again

Two years ago, the good people at 15 Broad joined in a Salvation Army program that fulfills specific wish lists for New Yorkers in need. They answered 200 requests the first year, and last year 388. The families must apply and live at or below the poverty line; all of them live south of 14th Street. The effort, organized by Lissa Hussian, Jessica Grunfeld and Sallyjo Levine, has been fulfilling requests for everything from toys to bedding to tablets for school. And this year they are also fulfilling 50 lists from newly arrived migrant families who are currently living at the Skyline Hotel near Times Square. They also now have a website so they can explain their program.

“One child asked for a toothbrush this year—can you even imagine?” Lissa said. “There’s so much need and we really want to get the word out.”

If you don’t want to shop but want to donate cash, the group at 15 Broad will do the shopping for you. You can also donate new clothing or toys, and the SA will distribute to families who did not sign up in time to secure an angel. The deadline is Dec. 12. Contact the effort here to contribute: 15BroadAngelTree@gmail.com

A Message about Pittsburgh

Dear Friends,

The JCP community expresses its profound shock and sadness at this morning’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. Early reports indicate that there are multiple casualties and deaths and thankfully law enforcement has the suspect in custody.

At JCP, we are in close contact with local law enforcement authorities and our private security firm. This is our top priority each and every day. The safety, health and well-being of our community is always at the forefront of our minds and we will always do everything in our power to protect JCP as a safe haven for our members and neighbors.

Again in our nation, a violent act of hatred has taken innocent lives, this time those of our fellow Jews at a synagogue service on Shabbat morning. The pain of such inexplicable actions is profound. And at such times, we must rely upon our determination to transcend hatred and build the kinds of communities that have always sustained us as Jewish Americans.

As Jews we are reminded of the Torah’s central tenet that every human being is made in the Divine Image. Every nation, every race, every gender has the dignity and sacred privilege of being intimately linked to God.

As Americans, we take great pride in our nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum, From Many, One. We are made great as a country when we honor and respect our friends and neighbors and recognize that each of us as individuals and communities have a sacred civic duty to celebrate our diversity and pluralism as one nation.

Finally, if you have family or friends in Pittsburgh, we hope and pray for their safety and well-being. If there is any support we may offer, please don’t hesitate to ask.

In the meantime, we offer condolences to those who lost loved ones today in Pittsburgh and we remain determined to build together a world of tolerance and love and peace.

Sincerely,
Erin Silvers, Evan Roth, and Rabbi Andy Bachman

How You Get There

Life can be so entangling sometimes. Complications arise on a daily basis. Demands pile up. We make lists to get through. And the structure, the map to getting things done, is actually a comfort, giving order to the chaos of what it can sometimes feel like to be alive.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va’yera, God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, one of the most profoundly challenging notions in the entire Jewish tradition. It’s a story that has provoked, angered, and troubled some; and, paradoxically, has consoled others with its uncommon call to service and faith, exemplifying father and son’s apparent devotion to God by the demonstration of their willingness to accede to the Divine command.

There is doubtless an enormously compelling quality to the story. Abraham and Sarah, Jewish civilization’s founding father and mother, have trouble conceiving. Isaac comes late, practically a miracle. His half-brother Ishmael torments him. The family breaks apart when Hagar and Ishmael are expelled by an angry and protective Sarah. And no sooner does that occur when God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son — by “listing” his demand. “Take your son. Your only son. The one you love. Isaac. Go to the land of Moriah. Offer him as a burnt offering. On one of the mountains I will show you.” The Sages love this listing. They point out that imbedded in it is a dialogue between Abraham and God that is about breaking the news slowly, easing Abraham into the news. And even giving Abraham a chance to argue back, in the space between the words. “Take your son.” “I have two sons.” “Your only son.” “Ishmael is only to his mother and Isaac is only to his.” “The one you love.” “I love them both!” Exasperated, God finally says, “Isaac!”

The listing allows us to see Abraham as hesitant, protective, and a clever negotiator. It shows our forefather in dialogue with his God, pushing back on the command, arguing. How could he not be the first Jew?

And another list, which leads to more dialogue, this time between father and son. Get up in the morning. Saddle the ass. Take two servants. Fetch Isaac. Carry some wood.

Isaac notices and says to Abraham, “My father, I see the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Like two shop owners going over a list of what to do to get the day’s work done, Isaac intuits the moment but chooses not to ask directly what is actually going on. He is a willing participant in the drama. “God will provide Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” It is a chilling, powerful confession of faith.

But for purposes of argument, the lists provide the structure, the form in which the drama plays out. It creates the space not only for Abraham and Isaac to address one another but bequeaths to future generations the opportunity to confront the text, to ask difficult questions, to forge meaning from the moments directly in front of them.

Which leads us to this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah. The parshah begins by announcing Sarah’s death but doesn’t reveal why she died. The midrash says that when Sarah heard the news of Isaac’s near sacrifice, she had a heart attack and died. The underlying assumption, we can assume, is that the event was a deeply traumatizing one, tearing at the fabric of the family. It raises questions about faith and what the price can be for our devotions when they veer toward the extreme. It is a tragic story not only for the result but for the ways in which questions and answers are not always explicitly related but rather are buried and subsumed, left for future generations to learn from.

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred years. And twenty years. And seven years. These were the years of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath Arba. Which is Hebron. Which is in the land of Canaan. And Abraham eulogized her. And cried for her.”

Another list. Rashi says that the Torah delineates Sarah’s age this way to eulogize her as well. “She was as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20 and as sinless at 20 as she was at 7. And each of those 127 years was an expression of her inherent goodness.”

But there is another list is even more instructive. It shows us that first Abraham eulogized Sarah and only then he cried. First he had to tend to the business at hand. He had to buy a plot. He had to make a funeral for his wife. Speeches were made. Food was served. Mourners and consolers gathered together. Only then could the tears really flow. Only then, with time and the beginning of distance from the trauma, could reflection bear the fruit of wisdom. “Time heals all wounds” rings a bit hollow here. We might say that time offers the space to heal, even when scars remain.

Consider Pittsburgh and the precious lives taken last Shabbat in an act of anti-Semitic terror. How do we not, on some level, see these eleven beautiful souls as having offered their lives to God in such a moment? Praying, in synagogue, on Shabbat. Doing what Jews are commanded to do by their God for a thousand generations. It’s mind-boggling, disturbing, challenging, enraging, and yes, deeply moving and inspiring at the same time. How many prior generations of Jews have died simply for being Jews? The tradition says that this death is called “Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of God’s name. From the Romans to the Crusades to the Inquisition and through the Holocaust is the history of Jews who died only because they were Jews. And rather than run from this reality or curse God, our tradition engages with lists of questions and arguments and prayers and theologies and poetry and art — in an ongoing tapestry of what it means to be a Jew: to draw goodness and wisdom from the bitter waters of human suffering.

Malbim, a nineteenth century Polish rabbi, said of this sequence of events, of the dialogue and the lists shared by father, mother and son, “It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there,” an expression of Jewish wisdom that I have personally found to be of profound comfort on countless occasions. And as we watched our extended Jewish family in Pittsburgh come to terms with the outrageous violence and destruction wrought at the Tree of Life synagogue, with an all too acute awareness of the traumatic reverberations that will continue to rock the lives of survivors for the rest of their lives, we have an opportunity to apply Malbim’s wisdom for comfort and for good.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is found in the outpouring of love and support from Jewish communities all over the world.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is found in the outpouring of love and support from Americans of all faiths who gathered not only in Pittsburgh but in communities all over the nation in displays of interfaith solidarity that is the greatest peaceful response to the anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh, to the racism in Charleston, to the hatred of Islam and Sikhism in Oak Creek and on and on.

“It’s not where we are going it’s how we get there” is our call to action to show justice and love and mercy to our neighbors not despite our differences but because of our differences. Our diversity is a blessing, a teaching the rabbis of the Talmud made quite clear two thousand years ago when they said that God made the human in the Divine Image, formed with the breath of life in different colors of earth, in order to teach that no one is better than any other.

This we know. This we Jews have always testified to throughout our history. And so we draw up lists, over and over again to remind people of this wisdom, of these eternal truths.

Be kind to the stranger, for your were strangers in the land of Egypt.

What does God require of you? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Carry the list with you. Read it once in a while. Talk about it. But don’t just talk the talk. Walk it, too.

Because remember: It’s not where we are going, it’s how we get there.

May the best of our humanity shine a light of hope and peace for our city and our nation. May all faiths and nations join as one to refuse the hate and to increase the unlimited capacity for love and justice and peace.