David Azen: We are not alone | TheUnion.com

David Azen: We are not alone

David Azen
Guest columnist

For millenia, the Jewish community has been isolated and alone, and the response to last week’s shooting at Tree of Life synagogue has shown that is no longer the case, even as the vestiges of the age old hatred of our people rears its ugly head.

We are not alone, as millions of Americans joined in solidarity with Friday’s Shabbat across the country. We are not alone, as Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center for Pittsburgh, raised $70,000 from the Muslim community toward the care and support of the local Jewish community. We are not alone, when we remember Mr. Rogers, who lived in the neighborhood near the synagogue, who recalled seeing scary things in the news, and his mother would say: “Look for the helpers, You will always find people who are helping.”

We are not alone, as we stand together and declare that we will not change our values, we will stand with all who are attacked and oppressed unjustly, we will welcome the stranger and look after the widow and the orphan, we will work for tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

And yet, for all our fortitude and resilience, our commitment to social justice and making the world a better place, our resolve to respond with love to hate, there still needs to be an acknowledgment that underneath it all, there is anger, fury and rage. We want to be more civilized than those who act out their unbridled and horrific beliefs and to demonstrate our commitment to the better angels of our nature.

Still and nonetheless, I am with the essayist Michel de Montaigne who said that those who strive to be angels often end up as beasts. While I stand in some awe of the Amish who were ready to forgive a murderer who mowed down dozens of their people, and while I know that forgiveness does as much or more for we who forgive, we must find a way to acknowledge and allow for what lies in the volcanic depths of the soul when confronted with the evil humans can do.


I’m sure I’m supposed to be here only to provide a message of hope and confidence that the good in us will win, but in order to get there, there is a valley in the shadow of death that I must walk through, and if I do, I have to imagine that some of you do as well.

If we hurry through, we will carry unresolved emotions that can sabotage everything good we wish to do. I am sure I am not alone in this, and so when I tell the truth about how I feel this week, I am enraged. I am enraged about the history that has led to this moment, to being cast as villains and evil manipulators of the world, rather than the thoughtful, caring, justice and peace seeking people almost all of us are.

I am enraged that those of us who are the exception to that rule are enraged that beautiful souls, ready to welcome the stranger to the shul, the synagogue, are cut down by a stranger: who does not know who we really are, only what propaganda he has been fed and dined upon; who posts, “I’m going in,” as if heading into an enemy bunker rather than people who were ready to read the story of how Abraham and Sarah welcome strangers into their tent, washing their feet, feeding them, providing shelter from the desert sun, and were ready to treat everyone who came their way in the same manner.

So, we take a moment to acknowledge that time does not heal all wounds — it just allows the intensity to fade. The scar may not be as prominent after some time, but it still represents loss, tragic, awful loss which cannot be undone.

And we acknowledge this not just for the Jewish people, but for all people who have been attacked and oppressed in the name of misguided ideologies and hateful messaging that protects the privileges of the powerful by turning us against each other. We want to say about America that this is not who we are, but unfortunately, this is part of the history of humanity and we have not been immune to it here — the nation is built on a history of driving supposedly lesser cultures out, on a history of oppressing new immigrants from other places and religions, on a history of enslaving black people and others of different colors.


Saying this isn’t who we are isn’t accurate. It’s not who we want us to be, we who know to our core that each of us comes from one source. Call it God, call it the singularity from which the universe emerged, we are all made from the same stuff and in the same image of something greater than all of us. We can advocate for gun control and that can help. We can vote and that can help. Yet until we uproot the atavistic, primal, reptilian response to “others” and see all of us as an us and not a us and them, we cannot be completely at ease.

As the Torah reading for this week continues the story of Abraham, it is to his story I turn for some guidance in dealing with all of these mixed emotions.

The story is told that Abraham’s father was an idol maker and one day left Abraham in charge of the shop, and when he returned all the idols lay in pieces on the ground, except for the largest one, who had a broom in his hand.

Terach yelled at Abraham, “What have you done?”

Abraham replied, “It wasn’t me, they all started arguing over which one was best, and this one took the broom and smashed all the others.”

His father, astonished, said, “They don’t have the power to do that.”

And Abraham said, “Listen to what you say, how can you assign any power to these at all?”

Note that Abraham does not smash other people, he smashes the idols they believe in. That’s lesson number one: attack the idolatry, not the idolaters.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. His father takes Abraham and gives him over to the ruler, Nimrod.

Nimrod said to him, “Let us worship the fire!”

Abraham said to him: “Should we not then worship water, which extinguishes fire?”

“Then, let us worship the water!” Nimrod said.

“Should we not then worship the clouds, which carry the water?” Abraham said.

“Then, let us worship the cloud! ”

“If so, should we not then worship the wind, which scatters the clouds?”

“Then,” Nimrod said to him, “let us worship the wind!”

“Should we not then worship the human,” Abraham said, “who withstands the wind?

“You are merely piling words,” Nimrod said. “We should bow to none other than the fire. I shall therefore cast you in it, and let your God to whom you bow come and save you from it!”

Haran (Abraham’s brother) was standing there. He said (to himself): what shall I do? If Abraham wins, I shall say: “I am of Abraham’s (followers),” if Nimrod wins I shall say, “I am of Nimrod’s (followers).” When Abraham went into the furnace and survived, Haran was asked: “Whose (follower) are you?” and he answered: “I am Abraham’s (follower)!” So, they took him and threw him into the furnace, and his innards were burned and he died and predeceased Terah, his father. This is the meaning of the verse (Gen 11:28), “And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah.”


Supernatural physical salvation aside, the fire can stand as a metaphor for our rage and fury. Abraham has an authentic connection to the One from whom all things arise and comes out of the furnace intact, whereas his brother, merely following in the footsteps of whoever he thinks is winning in the moment, burns up. The lesson for us: The furnace is real and the fire can be deadly. Yet if our minds, hearts and souls are bound up with the Eternal, with the enduring and timeless understanding that all of us are one, that everyone and everything is interconnected, we pass through the flames still whole, still loving life, still serving witness to the One.

Joyce Feinberg, Rich Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger are not victims — that gives power to the perpetrator. They are martyrs.

They died al kiddush hashem as we say, they died sanctifying God’s name, coming to worship at the Tree of Life synagogue, coming to welcome all who would come to worship in peace with them, coming in order to be fortified with the message of the Torah, that we are all one and we welcome all who are on the journey through the wilderness we call this world.

May we never let our fear of the furnace stop us from coming to our place of worship; and may we never let our fear stop us from welcoming others; and may we never let our fear stop us from being witnesses to the oneness of all humankind. May we honor their memory by stepping out even further and working for the day when God’s name will be One, when we will all be one. Amen.

Rabbi David Azen of Congregation B’nai Harim in Grass Valley shared these words during the Nov. 2 Solidarity Shabbat at the Jewish Community Center, as community members across all faiths came together in peace and solidarity in response to the Oct. 27 mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

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