About noon Saturday, Oct. 27 — Shabbat morning. As the service was nearing its conclusion, the head of my synagogue’s security team pulled me aside.
“Rabbi,” he said in a hushed tone, “I just got a message that there is an active shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Some are dead, many are wounded. It appears that the motive was anti-Semitic.”
Still absorbing his words, I whispered in Hebrew: “Blessed is the True Judge,” the Talmudic response to terrible news. I looked out the window and was stunned to see two Raleigh Police SUVs parked outside of our front doors.
“What is the world coming to?” I screamed inside.
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Last year, I wrote about the annual dilemma the Jewish community faces when it comes to celebrating Hanukkah.
Do we place the candelabra (hanukkiah) in the window for all to see? Or, do we place it on an inner table, worried that anti-Semites might see the lights as an invitation to attack?
This year, given the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, this age-old question for Jews is even more poignant. Now, it has taken a more somber edge.
How can the Jewish community celebrate the Festival of Lights when it feels like our people’s inner candles, 11 of them, have been snuffed out?
One of Hanukkah’s customs might provide an answer.
In Jewish law, a hanukkiah is only acceptable for use if its eight candles are all on the same level.
The one exception is the “helper” candle, the shamash, a ninth whose job is to kindle all of the others.
Sometimes, helper candles come as human beings who help bring light to places of darkness.
Within 36 hours of the Tree of Life shooting, more than 1,100 fellow Raleigh residents, dozens of clergy, leading public officials including Gov. Roy Cooper and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, participated in our vigil of solidarity. Familiar faces and strangers from throughout the Triangle area knew and shared our horror and grief. You were our helper candles.
Caring citizens sent flowers and cards to our synagogue. You offered prayers and heartfelt condolences. You were our helper candles.
When faith communities offered to stand guard outside of our Shabbat services — you were our helper candles.
In this volatile time every minority group is in need of helper candles: immigrants; Muslims; people of color; the LGBTQ community; and so many others.
While we are deeply grateful for the many acts of support and kindness, there is still one more thing all Americans can do.
When you hear bigoted words shared against the vulnerable — whether from the lips of politicians, religious leaders, co-workers, family members, or the tapped key strokes to social media friends —the hateful rhetoric must be nipped in the bud.
You must raise your voice.
As the Book of Proverbs says, “Life and Death are in the power of the tongue.”
This Hanukkah, as the Jewish community goes to light the first candle, we will feel Americans’ collective hand helping us kindle that first light.
You will be our shamash, a helper candle filled with love.
A month ago, when I first heard about the massacre of 11 precious souls, I asked: “What is the world coming to?”
Now, I’ve seen the answer.
The world is coming to help.