Hayyei Sarah 5779: Great American Alloy
US Steel was an iconic American company that flourished in Pittsburgh in its heyday as an industrial center. Its logo, which also became the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, features three diamonds: yellow for coal, orange for iron ore and blue for steel scrap—the three ingredients of steel. The diamonds represented the great power of an alloy, a combination of different things that was stronger together than any of them were on their own.
What a great metaphor for a community, the kind of community we experienced this week in response to the horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh. Different elements all coming together, stronger than we were before.
Perhaps you saw the image this week of the Steelers logo with the three diamonds, with the yellow one replaced by a yellow Jewish star. That yellow star reminds us of the badge that our enemies in medieval and modern times forced us to wear. But here, it was turned into a symbol of strength and solidarity.
This week was extraordinarily difficult for us as a Jewish community. I can only imagine how hard it was for the people on the ground in Pittsburgh. But the tragedy there hit close to home. Over the last few days I kept finding out all of the ways that I am only one or two degrees of separation from the 11 precious Jews who were killed. Someone cut off one branch, and the entire Tree of Life shook.
So like our ancestor Abraham in this week’s Torah reading, this week we are in mourning. As I wrote to the community this week, Abraham was caught off guard by his wife’s death. He had not prepared a burial plot for her, so all he could do at first was simply to mourn and weep.
But then he turns his attention to finding a final resting place for his wife. This presents a bit of a problem. Abraham was a sojourner. He had traveled to the land of Canaan from his birthplace in Mesopotamia at God’s command and had prospered there. But he did not own any land. He did not have any permanent hold, a place where he knew he could bury his wife Sarah and that her grave would be safe.
So he approaches the Hittite people among whom he lived, telling them: “I am a resident alien, a ger toshav, among you.” With dignity, he asserts his place. Yes, I am not from here. I am a ger, an alien. But I am also a toshav, a resident. I live here, just like you do. I have the right to live here and die here and bury my family here, just like you do.
Abraham asserts this, but cannot demand it. He ends up paying an enormous amount of money to establish ownership over the cave and field that become Sarah’s burial place. He is still dependent on the cooperation and goodwill of his neighbors.
Like Abraham, we too are both a ger, an alien, and a toshav, a resident. We are Americans, deeply committed to this country and what it represents. We blend in as one strand in the fabric that makes up this country. And we are Jews: conscious of our long history of persecution, of the ways in which we stand out from our neighbors, of the ways that we remain vulnerable despite, and sometimes even because, of how our community has flourished here. Such is our lot as Jews; our destiny is to always be both a ger and a toshav.
But this last week has also reminded us that while we may be distinct, we are not alone. Americans of goodwill and of all backgrounds came out in force this week to show their solidarity with our community. On Tuesday night, hundreds of our members and neighbors and friends came here to show their support. Unlike other times in our history, the mainstream and centers of power have stood with us, not against us. Our love and solidarity will be stronger than their hate. We are all part of the great American alloy. May it long stand strong.