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Hachnasat Orchim

by Rabbi Steven Abraham

Note: Rabbi Abraham shared these words with the 1500 people of many different faiths who came to Beth El for the Tree of Life Memorial service held on Monday, October 29, 2018. This also appeared in the November 9th edition of the Jewish Press.

Friends –

Thank you all for being here tonight.

I want to begin by saying thank you. What we see tonight is an outpouring of love and support that makes a clear statement to the Jewish community and the greater Omaha Community that we are not alone.

Throughout history, Jews have been the focus of hate and vitriol; yet all too often when our relatives looked around for support, there was no one to call. Please know how honored we are to call you our friends and neighbors.

We come together tonight not as distinct faith traditions, but as one family, one community and with one voice to pay our respects to 11 innocent souls murdered for observing their faith. This hurts so much because as we learn about the dead, we see our own community members; it hurts so much because when we look up our majestic flag waving at half-staff, we know full well it is because they came after us. He came into our synagogue, our home and murdered our people.

Rabbi David Wolpe wrote that “Anti-Semitism is a different sort of hatred, the most durable and versatile in history. You can hate Jews because they are communists, capitalists, foreigners, residents, immigrants, elitists, have strange ways, are too assimilated, bankroll the left or bankroll the right. You can hate them because they were weak and stateless or now because they are Zionists and defend Israel. There is always a reason and, of course, it is never just because they are Jews.”

As Jews, we know the power of hate speech and we must call it out when we hear it. We know better than most the dangers of unchecked hatred which must be confronted wherever it appears, whether that be online or in the workplace or at our own dinner tables or in the words of our elected officials. When we allow hate to be present in our midst, when we allow homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism and sexism to exist in our presence, we create the space for anti-Semitism to live and breathe.

This past week in synagogues across the globe we read parshat Vayera, the specific section of Torah, that speaks of two poignant events in our peoples past.

We read that our forefather Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent and saw three men standing nearby. Abraham, we are told, runs from his tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, said, ‘Friends, if it is OK with you, do not rush ahead and leave. Let me bring you some water; bathe your feet and rest under the tree.’ He went on to offer them something to eat since they had traveled such a long distance.

From this singular incident in the Torah we learn the value of Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality or welcoming guests. The welcoming that Abraham and Sarah provided these “strangers” is a model for what it takes to make people feel welcome in our community. Abraham didn’t wait. He rushed to greet his visitors. He made sure that they were comfortable and taken care of. And when his guests were done with their meal, he walked them out, away from his tent, to make sure they were headed in the right direction.

The concept of welcoming is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. The members of the Tree of Life synagogue knew it, that is why they were participating in the HIAS Refugee Shabbat. The gunman before entering the Tree of Life synagogue posted his disdain for organizations like HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, for their work helping bringing refugees to the United States. HIAS is one of nine agencies that works with the State Department to help in refugee
resettlement, one of the others being Lutheran Family Services with whom we have partnered and will continue to do so in the future.

How ironic that the same parsha, the same section of Torah that speaks of Abraham and Sarah welcoming guests, discusses the city of Sodom being destroyed. Destroyed, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us, because of a lack of hospitality, a lack of human decency, a lack of civility. We are told that if there were even 10 righteous souls found in Sodom that the city would have been spared, and this week the city of Pittsburgh lost 11. This importance of welcoming is as applicable
today as it was in the Talmud.

I thank you all for being here tonight. We are blessed in the Jewish Community to have incredible friends and partners. This week we will bury our dead and then go back to the work that God commanded us, but let us never forget this sense of community. My prayer is that just as you are with us today, that we continue to be here for each other. Be it a church or a mosque, a concert or a theater, wherever we gather in community – that we will stand as one, embracing our differences,
honoring the memories of those 11 innocent souls who were senselessly murdered this past Shabbat morning.

May their souls be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.

Sun, January 29 2023 7 Shevat 5783