A reflection in prayer on the victims from Tree of Life
On Sunday our nation learned the names of the 11 victims claimed in our nation’s latest round of senseless, hate-driven gun violence. An anti-Semite, armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, murdered our brothers and sisters while they were worshiping and celebrating the naming of a child at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. The dead range in age from 54 to 97 and include a married couple and two brothers.
I first became aware of these 11 martyrs’ names in a post on social media, listing their names, ages and urging people of all faiths to “pray their names.”
I read through their names several times, prayed extemporaneously and from the Book of Common Prayer (the prayer book of the Episcopal Church) and lit a candle for them while reciting prayers of intercession to Saints Mary and Joseph.
This all felt right, and I know I was one of millions saying prayers in any number of different faith traditions, for the dead, for peace and an end to hatred in our society. But, I kept coming back to what it means to “pray their names,” and I landed on a sermon I wrote back in January for the Feast of the Holy Name, also sometimes called the Feast of the Circumcision.
It felt appropriate, since that feast day recalls Jesus’ own naming ceremony in the Jewish tradition – a sacred tradition to all spiritual descendants of Abraham. And, that sermon focused on the meaning of the name Jesus, and its significance when spoken. The name “Jesus” is from the Hebrew יהושע, Yehoshuah, meaning “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh will save.” The name Jesus, then, literally means “God saves.”
When we speak the name Jesus we are praying: “Yahweh will save.” The name is itself a prayer. That inspired me to research the root meaning of each of the victims’ names, and to find Old Testament passages, holy to all “children of the Book,” that reflect the names of the dead. In essence, I wanted to find the prayer within their names.
I pray I make no offense in this undertaking. I am Christian, and do not seek to appropriate the rich faith and traditions of the Jewish victims. Nor do I claim to know their nature. I did not know them, in any other way than the connection shared by all children of God. And, I’m only working with their common names released to the public. I wish only to honor them, and to find a way to pray their names through the Word of God. I pray all people, of all faith traditions, will find ways through their own language of communion with the Almighty to remember and honor these dead, and to pray for peace among God’s children.
Praying their names
Joyce Feinberg, 75
Joyce means “Cheerful.” It can be hard to imagine cheer in the midst of this tragedy. Grief, anger, disbelief, shock – and that’s just my understanding as an outsider. But, Joyce’s name reminds us that God is a loving God, who forever desires His children to be cheerful. Our inner peace with God reflects outward to others, as we’re reminded in Proverbs 15:13: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.”
Almighty God, we praise you for the cheer that your daughter Joyce brought into this world, and we pray her loved ones may know the healing balm of your love, to be lifted from the crushing weight of heartache, and in due time again reflect that cheerfulness into your creation. For them, Lord, we pray Psalm 31:9: “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.” Amen.
Richard Gotfried, 65
Richard means “powerful,” or “strong in rule.” In times of tragedy, it can be hard to recall that our loving God remains sovereign, powerfully seated in rule over all creation. Senseless violence, hatred and bigotry can make us feel adrift in a world that doesn’t look like God. But this world does not define or limit the Almighty. Like the psalmist, in times of trouble we may ask “Who is this King of glory?” and find the immediate answer: “The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory.”
In a world that makes us feel lost, the prophet Samuel gives us comfort: “For who is God except the Lord? Who but our God is a solid rock? God is my strong fortress, and he makes my way perfect.” 2 Samuel 22:33
For Richard’s loved ones, we pray for the peace that comes in resting on the strength of God, using the words the Almighty gave to the prophet Isaiah (41:10): “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Amen.
Rose Malinger, 97
Rose has a literal meaning, referring to the flower, and has long signified love and beauty. Rose’s name reminds us that all the ugliness and hatred of this world cannot stifle the beauty and love that God holds for each of us, and that He calls us to share with each other. Rose’s name is imprinted in the words of Song of Songs 2:1-2: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. / Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women.”
This exchange between a young woman and her groom reflects the loving relationship between each of us and the Eternal. Love is the essence of that relationship, and when we cultivate it and let it bloom, it is a beauty crafted by divine hands, which no hatred, no bullet and no death can destroy.
For Rose’s loved ones, we pray the healing power of God’s love will rest on them, and the beauty of God’s love shine through the darkness of this time, praying the words of Song of Songs 2:4: “His banner over me is love.” Amen.
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Jerry, derived from Jeremiah, means “may Jehovah exalt.” The prophet Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” bore the weight of much grief for the people of Israel, but also gave them hope in God’s peace and love.
“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Israel. I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile. Jacob will again have peace and security, and no one will make him afraid.” Jeremiah 46:27
In the midst of suffering and grief, Jeremiah reminds us God remains in supreme power, and “A glorious throne, exalted from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary.”
For Jerry’s loved ones, we pray for the healing power of God’s love, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah 17:14: “Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” Amen.
Cesil Rosenthal, 59
Cesil is a name of Hebrew origin, taken from the name for the Orion constellation, found in Job 9:5-10: “He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger. He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble. He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars. He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.”
Cesil’s name reminds us that we constantly, even in the midst of tragedy and grief, are surrounded by the miracles of God’s creation – “wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” God continues to move mountains, to work in the seas, in the earth and the stars, and in the love with which he crafted his servant Cesil.
For Cesil’s loved ones, we pray for the healing presence of God’s love, a love greater than the mountains, deeper than the seas and brighter than the stars, praying in the words of Psalm 136:7-9, “To Him who made the great lights, For His lovingkindness is everlasting: The sun to rule by day, For His lovingkindness is everlasting, The moon and stars to rule by night, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.” Amen.
David Rosenthal, 54
David, brother of Cesil, takes his name from the second king of the united Israel, and his name means “Beloved.” Throughout his Psalms, David speaks intimately and unashamedly of his fears, his anguish – and his joy. Through trials and persecutions before becoming king, to overcoming his transgressions and accepting God’s loving forgiveness as king, David gives us a rich prayer book for facing grief in the bosom of a loving God. David calls us to a closer, more intimate relationship with God, calling out “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” Psalm 4:1
In Psalm 6, David cries out in anguish beside the victims’ families: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.” In the midst of this anguish, David reminds us God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3
For David’s loved ones, we pray that the hand of God will work for healing and peace in their lives, praying King David’s words in Psalm 108:6: “Save us and help us with your right hand, that those you love may be delivered.” Amen.
Bernice Simon, 84
Bernice means “one who brings victory.” Bernice’s name reminds us in the midst of tragedy that no suffering in this world can undo the victory that God has for His faithful children. Bernice, “one who brings victory,” reminds us that God’s victorious love remains in control on the other side of, and cannot be undone by, hatred and violence. “For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” Deuteronomy 20:4
When we’re left feeling helpless by senseless violence and darkness, God reminds us He is fighting for us, and for those we’ve lost: “Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s.” 2 Chronicles 20:15
For Bernice’s loved ones, we pray for the victory that comes in righteousness, for the peace that comes in knowing God continues to fight alongside and ahead of us, praying the words of Psalm 60:11-12: “O give us help against the adversary, For deliverance by man is in vain. Through God we shall do valiantly, And it is He who will tread down our adversaries.” Amen.
Sylvan Simon, 86
Sylvan, husband of Bernice, bore a name meaning “of the forest.” The forest could be a place of danger, as in the “lion of the forest” that threatens in Jeremiah. But, the forest also was a place and a symbol of God’s provision. The forests of Lebanon yielded to Solomon the timbers for the temple, and the forest of Hareth provided sanctuary to David from Saul.
Sylvan’s name reminds us that, even in the midst of the lions and Sauls of this world, even when tragedy strikes, God loves us and provides sanctuary in the abundance of His creation. The forest that at first offers danger is turned to a haven of joy, as David tells us in Psalm 96:12: “Let the field exult, and all that is in it, Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.”
For Sylvan’s loved ones, we pray for them to find peace and love in God’s sanctuary, secure in the knowledge that God will wipe clean all hatred and violence from His creation, praying the words of 1 Chronicles 16:33: “Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD; For He is coming to judge the earth.”
Daniel Stein, 71
Daniel takes his name from the prophet Daniel, and their shared name means “God is my Judge.” We’re reminded of Daniel’s courage in the lion’s den, born of his faith that danger and death could not overcome the power of God. King Darius, in remorse for condemning Daniel, cried out “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” When Daniel emerged unscathed, Darius proclaimed faith in the God of Israel. In the midst of this tragedy, and the loss of God’s servant Daniel Stein, we still find reassurance in God’s, and Daniel’s, ultimate victory:
“For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.”
For Daniel’s loved ones, we pray they find peace and comfort in God’s love, and reassurance in the ultimate victory God has for our brother Daniel and for us all in His righteous judgment, praying the words of Psalm 98:7-9: “Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Amen
Melvin Wax, 88
Melvin’s name comes from a Celtic origin and means “gentle chieftain.” The chieftain is a head of a clan of families, not unlike the tribal social structure of the ancient Israelites. A chieftain, in ancient times, had supreme power over subordinates. He could rule with absolute cruelty, with no recourse for those being ruled. Only through a beneficent heart would a chieftain or tribal ruler govern gently, with love and kindness.
Melvin’s name reminds us that God, who is in supreme power over us all, rules with gentle lovingkindness, even in our darkest days. In the depths of our worldly suffering, God remains not only in control, but lovingly so.
For Melvin’s loved ones, let us pray they find solace in God’s power and his gentle lovingkindness, praying the words of the 23rd Psalm:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.
Irving Youngner, 69
Irving’s is another name of Celtic origin, meaning “sea friend” or “of green water.” The seas, like the forests, were to the people of Israel both a place of danger and of God’s provision. There was life to be found there, in the teeming fish and trade on which many people based their livelihoods. But, the sea also could just as easily claim life as sustain it. Power of life and death could be found in the green water.
But, Irving’s name reminds us that in the dangerous waters of this life, when we get tossed about by tragedy and grief, we have both God’s provision and His friendship. In the darkness we now face, God remains with us, amidst the stormy waves. God tells us, through the prophet Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
For Irving’s loved ones, let us pray for God’s eternal love to quell their distress, praying the words of Psalm 107:28-31:
“They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.” Amen.
For God’s martyrs, for the Jewish people, for all God’s children, for peace to conquer hatred in our hearts and in our society, and for these children of Israel we have named, we pray to You, Almighty God of us all. Amen.
May their memories be for a blessing.