What should we be thinking as we prepare to go to synagogue this Saturday, this Shabbat, Sabbath morning? Should we be reviewing our security training? Wondering if the guard showed up? Telling ourselves that what happened in Colleyville is an anomaly, as was, Poway, as was Pittsburgh…? And what about our children; what do we tell them with images from last Saturday still fresh in our minds?
By now we all know, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the terrorist and made a run for it with the two others being held hostage in his synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, this Shabbat, this Saturday. I would bet that that was the first time in his life that he threw a chair at someone. In his CBS interview, he comes across as a gentle soul, serving his congregation with love and intentionality. That love and care moved him to open the door in a gracious act of generosity, to help a fellow human being. He was rewarded for that gesture with violence and threats to his life and to the life of three of his congregants. He describes the moment in prayer, as his back was turned - hearing the alarming click of a gun. He knew right away that the situation was taking a menacing turn.
You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, Deuteronomy 10:19
This Biblical exhortation is taken seriously by the Jewish community. Our doors open, as did the doors of the tent of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah; their tent doors are said to have been open on four sides.
We teach our children this practice from when they are very young. We construct that tent yearly, the week that we read the Torah story of the radical hospitality that they offered to the three strangers. A sign is placed over those tents that we fashion: “Welcome to Abraham and Sarah’s Tent.” Teachers show the students the four doors; open to all directions; ready to welcome guests from far away. We invite our children to play-act how they will welcome the stranger—how they will open one of the four doors to let outsiders in. What shall we teach them now?
Jewish Family Service, here in Seattle, actively welcomes refugees from all over the world. This fall intensely those from Afghanistan, in response to the humanitarian crisis brought on by the fall of Kabul. A representative from JFS was our speaker at our very first Middle School assembly this year. After months of no guest speakers on account of Covid, we made an exception. How could we not share this new pressing information with our students? We Jews know what it is to seek refuge. My own parents found refuge here in America, as did my in-laws. We teach our students, as we were welcomed, so must we welcome. What should we teach them now?
I’m from Pittsburgh. I grew up in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. My heart still aches from the shooting that happened in Squirrel Hill on October 27, 2018. Used to be, I’d say where I was from and there would be a lively exchange of folksy banter, now there is, instead, a deep breath; “Oh my.” Tree of Life Synagogue was hosting Refugee Shabbat on the Saturday that they were attacked. Are we fools for continuing this addiction to helping others?
On one of the holiest nights of the year, the Passover Seder, we begin our ritual meal with an invitation, “Let all who are hungry come eat.” We symbolically open our doors, teaching our children from generation to generation that we do not sit at a festive table laden with plenty, without thinking of others. This is core to our beliefs. Maimonides writes, “One must be more meticulous toward the commandment of charity than any other commandment, any other mitzvah. For charity is a sign of a righteous person, the offspring of Abraham.”
“More meticulous” led Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker to open the door and “more meticulous” will compel us to do the same. Let us hope the world will deal kindly with us.