A Rabbi Encourages Her Congregation

(Photo: Entryway to Beth Sholom)

Rabbi Amanda Russell of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco wrote an email to her congregants. She acknowledged their fears. Then she offered a small simple teaching that all of us can do. Look for her suggestion of how to help at the end of her letter. (Thank you Rabbi Russell for allowing me to share this.)

Dear friends,

I’m writing to you after three long and painful weeks. Hundreds of hostages are still missing. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives. We are still in shloshim  the first thirty days of mourning — from the brutal and devastating terrorist attack on October 7. And now, we are seeing the reverberations in the diaspora and even here in San Francisco, as anti-Semitism is on the rise — Jewish-owned storefronts being vandalized, families attacked in their homes for being Jewish.

One thing that I have noticed is that our hearts are so full — full of grief, fear, and uncertainty about a path forward. And when our hearts are full — truly at capacity, as mine feels most of the time these days — it means that we have less and less to give. Less compassion, less trust and less love. It is a very unsettling place to be.

On top of our pain, this horrific war raises questions that are impossibly hard to answer. It has caused our world to become overwhelmingly polarized, feeling almost exclusively black and white. You can either believe this or that. You can identify as left or right. So many feel the need to pick a side and make a statement about this terribly complex and devastating situation.

Here is what I believe to be true:

  • I want each and every hostage to be returned safely to their families.

  • I want a path forward that guarantees life for Israelis and Palestinians.

  • I want to end the cycle of violence.

  • I want to feel safe to live outwardly as a Jew.

  • I want our synagogue to be bustling with people, without the need for an armed guard at the front door.

  • I want every person at Beth Sholom to feel held and welcome by the community.

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is a parsha with many narratives. It begins petakh ha’ohel (at the entrance of the tent) where Abraham sits and waits to welcome guests as they pass by, all while recovering from his circumcision. Abraham then witnesses the destruction of the city of Sodom, much as he tried to convince God otherwise. Then, God informs Abraham and Sarah that they are going to have a son, whom they will name Yitzhak because of how Sarah laughed when she heard the news. And the parsha ends with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son to God.

Imagine for a moment that you are Abraham — suffering physical pain, carrying the anguish of having watched the destruction of a city, receiving news that you are going to have a child, and soon after, being asked to sacrifice that child. It is exhausting, confusing and likely difficult to move through the day. And yet it says about Abraham: that “[he] rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood (amad) before God” (Genesis 19:27). Standing in this case – the Hebrew word amad, like “the Amidah” – is understood to mean “he prayed.”

In these devastating times, we are all asking ourselves, what can we do to help? I hope you will search for the small openings in your heart and lead with love and compassion. Please continue to speak out about the values that you feel to be true and stay curious and inquisitive about views that are not your own. Like Abraham, pray — on your own and in community — for the safe release of the hostages and for a future of peace, which seems so distant.

בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶךָ
B’khol levav’kha uv’khol nafsh’kha uv’khol m’odekha
Together we listen. Together we pray. Together we act.

Sending you strength, Rabbi Amanda Russell