Trees of Life
Responding to trauma and grief
This week, the Jewish people mourned the 3rd anniversary of the terrorist attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The ways in which its pain manifests ripple differently with each passing year. This particular incident strikes at our hearts because we know the people who come to shul right at the opening of the doors and who sit in the back row. We see the names of those killed in Pittsburgh and we see the faces of their counterparts in our community.
This tragedy rocked us, left us reeling and filled with grief, and even still, three years later, I wonder what our response should be?
Trauma and grief are not foreign concepts to the part of the Torah that we find ourselves reading. Parshat Hayyei Sarah leads off with the unfortunate news that our matriarch Sarah has perished without giving an explicit reason, though many tie it directly to the events of the binding of Isaac.
Isaac, on his own reentry to the world, finds out that Sarah dies. That’s a serious dose of reality with which to be hit. Maybe his and Abraham’s responses can offer us a lens through which to view our own current struggles. Although, the truth is, Isaac’s reaction is much more interesting than Abraham’s.
Part of the reason it’s so interesting is that it’s incredibly hard to find. From the ending of the almost sacrifice, Isaac seems to vanish. He becomes a ghost.
If the tumultuousness of this event brought upon Sarah’s death what must it have done for Isaac? Perhaps that’s why we don’t hear from Isaac for a good period of time. He was totally lost in mind and spirit. While many a commentator speculate on his departure, I believe the best insight into his response to this trauma comes on his return to our portion.
Isaac finally resurfaces in chapter 24: 62. Isaac coming from a place called Be’er Le’hai Ro’ee, where, coincidentally, Hagar (Abraham and Sarah’s maidservant) had been banished earlier in our story line. And Rashi1 suggests that it’s from here that Isaac brings Hagar, now known as Keturah, back to remarry Abraham.
We don’t explicitly read this but we can imagine that Abraham is also feeling the intense sadness of Sarah’s death, and Isaac picks up on that and reunites him with Hagar.
From there, he goes out into the field to meditate and pray. He prays because his return is a moment, once again, of many emotions within his mind and heart. And finally, he meets Rebecca, his wife to be, and the text tells us the following:
וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶ֑הָ: He took Rebeccah, she became his wife, and he loved her.
Or, to fit it into with our construct here, Nachmanides2 tell us:
This is why it says that “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort.” To hint to us that he had been in profound suffering over his mother’s death, and 'comfort was far away from him...’ Until he was comforted by his wife - by his love for her.
It is a beautiful image that much captures the struggle of what we had surmised from Isaac’s absence. He felt such difficulty with the pull of his emotions from his near death and then to his mother’s death and simply put, he couldn’t cope. He longed for an escape, to run away from it all until, that is, he found love again.
But, it wasn’t complete until he did one more thing. Perhaps you noticed the unnecessary insertion of the place from which Isaac arrived, Be’er Lechai Roi. Our Midrash wonders why the text needed to add this locale.
The answer given by Rabbi Oshaya is:
When Isaac saw that his father had sent out to find him a wife, he said: “Is it possible that I will cohabit with my new wife and my father will remain alone?! Rather, I will go and bring back Hagar and I will lighten his soul and he will not have to refrain from the fulfillment of the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
His love was not simply a love for himself. It was a love amplified by action, with life for another. He could’ve just responded to his own sadness and provide himself with comfort. He knew that the love that he felt was only helpful if others had that opportunity too.
So often, in response to events like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, people frame their response as “love is stronger than hate.” I get it. But it often strikes me as lacking because hate seems overpowering in these moments. Hate took the lives of 11 Jewish souls and continues to do so over and over again in various attacks. That type of love seems amorphous and vague.
How is that love actualized? How does it really counteract the hate?
Here, we have the example of when love is more powerful than hate, than grief, or than trauma. Isaac knew that for love to be felt, it needed to come with real action. In his case, it was doing a concrete act for his father in his time of need. It’s a love that builds on the legacy of Sarah for whom they were still mourning.
The true test of whether a person indeed lives on, of whether the deceased person is still present, is whether the memory of the person remains alive. Does the person’s heritage still have the breath of life, develop and grow, even after the person’s death. According to this way of elucidating the text, the Torah seeks to tell us in Parashat Hayyei Sarah that even though Sarah died physically, upon deeper examination we see precisely in this week’s reading that in actual fact she remained alive. What delivers that is a love that is fueled by action.
That action can also come in the form of learning. We must understand the history of anti-semitism. To know that it stretches far back in time, yet is powerfully resurfacing today with sometimes dog whistles and other times full throated barks.
During the weekly Torah service, we sing the prayer that is taken from the book of Proverbs when we put our Torahs away. We say
עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה---she is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her.
The “she” there is the Torah. That is, the Torah, our wisdom tradition, in and of itself, is a mechanism through which we can be given life.
It unfortunately is no coincidence that the synagogue that was terrorized was called Tree of Life, the translation of those Hebrew words. These holy souls have now been added as leaves to the branches of the living Torah.
When a person comes to the synagogue to mark a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of death of a loved one, we recite a prayer called el malei rachamim, a memorial prayer in which the relative holds on to the Torah while this is being recited.
In a very explicit way, the Torah serve as proxy for the absence of the physical form of the deceased. Yet anybody who’s held this Torah knows that the person whom you are mourning is there, in those words, in the scrolls, in your arms.
The same is now true of the Tree of Life martyrs. We sit here today and wonder what do we do? How can we move forward. They were, in life, members of Tree of Life and now in their death, they have become our עצי חיים, our trees of life. Every time you hold on to a Torah from now on, see their faces. Remember their stories.
Be a welcomer in life like Irv Younger. Be a leader like Melvin Wax. Keep your family together like Rose Mallinger. Be giving like Sylvan and Bernice Simon. Be an embracer like Jerry Rabinowitz.
Be a home opener like Joyce Fienberg. Spread love like Richard Gottfried. Make people smile like Daniel Stein. Help in your community like David and Cecil Rosenthal.
Promise to yourself that you will live for them. Heed the message of Isaac in our portion this week. Grief and tragedy will always strike. We will always mourn. We may even be silent for awhile. Our trees of life urge and inspire us to live a life filled with love but not some ethereal love.
Live a love that is grounded, that involves working with others, and helps bring morality into the world. Don’t just look for the helpers. Be a helper with every fiber of your being.
יהי זכרם ברוך–May their memories be for a blessing
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki-France-11th Century.
The Ramban-13th Century-Spain and Israel.