In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the eternal mission of our father, Avraham, and our mother, Sarah. We could debate the nature of Judaism and whether Avraham and Sarah were “the first Jews,” but it is certainly obvious that Avraham and Sarah were the founders of the Jewish family.
Family is about connections and is about unbreakable bonds. Family also comes with responsibility to each other, to a way of life, and to the continuation of a legacy. Indeed, God Himself attests to the character, the strength, and the nature of that family fabric in Breishit 18:19 — “For I know that because [Avraham] commands his children and his family after him that they must uphold the Way of God to do [that which He determines] is correct and just.” We, the Jewish people, are a family.
A book was recently released about the massacre at the Tree of Life building. (The title of the book notwithstanding, can we please use the correct terminology? It was an attack — a massacre, not a shooting. A shooting is something you do in a gallery or at a range, this event was a massacre!) I was one of the many people interviewed for the book and mentioned in the book. The author presented most of my words and thoughts correctly, but did not present everything accurately. In addition, the manner in which the author chose to color some of the interview, and the context into which he put some of my statements were not reality. They were his chosen perception and were fabricated to fit into the story he wants to tell. There was one thing that he got totally wrong. He suggested that I look at the community through a lens of my people versus not my people, and my kind of Jews versus other kinds of Jews; that I only create real relationships with, and look to help, my kind of Jews. Not only is this incorrect, it is contradicted by quotes from me that appear in the book.
The author correctly pointed out that our Orthodox Chevra Kadisha is different from the non-Orthodox Chevra Kadisha. The two groups have very different Jewish world views and very different understandings of many of the principles of Judaism. One such difference was recently explored in the pages of this paper. Our Chevra Kadisha is a community Chevra Kadisha that serves any member of the Jewish community who asks for our services. It makes no difference if the person or family identifies as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or any else, or is affiliated or unaffiliated. Frankly, we don’t even ask if the person is halachically Jewish. Part of the ritual is that we ask forgiveness from the deceased at the close of every Tahara (ritual washing) that we do and again at the funeral. We appreciate the importance of what we do and the gravity of the holiness of the ritual. Nonetheless, we are humans and humans are fallible. So we ask forgiveness in case we did not live up to the high standard that the ritual demands. We did not, however, have a gathering to ask forgiveness for suspending Taharas during the pandemic because we did not suspend our activities during the pandemic. Even during a pandemic a supermarket does not close, a shul does not close, a hospital does not close, and a Chevra Kadisha does not stop doing Taharas and providing burial rituals and assistance. It is true that in the early days of the pandemic, as we were learning how to manage the situation and we were trying to figure things out, we were forced to take extra precautions and to modify certain practices. Even for those necessary measures and modifications we literally shed tears as we asked forgiveness from the deceased at the end of the Tahara and at the funeral. To us, the suggestion that a Tahara can be performed by lighting candles and getting together on Zoom is an affront to the hallowed ancient tradition. Yet, in the aftermath of the massacre as we prepared for the grim task of what we simply call the clean-up, both of the leaders who were with me step-by-step coordinating the effort, Rabbi Elisar Admon and Mrs. Naomi Balaban, and I unanimously agreed that we should reach out to the members of the non-Orthodox group to join us in the clean-up efforts. Because there are moments in life that family puts aside any differences and comes together as one.
So the legacy of Avraham and Sarah is that we are a family. True, there is no fight like a family fight, and family members can push each other’s buttons more effectively than anyone else. But members of a family are there for each other no matter what, even if we don’t see eye to eye on very serious and important issues. We must remember that and uphold that legacy in our Jewish world today.
Many of you reading these words know that this column is a service of the Vaad HaRabanim of Greater Pittsburgh. I suspect that this will be the last time that I write this column as a member of the Vaad and on behalf of the Vaad. I wish to thank those who have taken the time over the years to read my words and to discuss them with me. I look forward to greeting each of you in Israel as my wife and I hope that we will merit to make Aliyah this summer. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Torah and President of the Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.