Friday, September 9, 2016

Rosh HaShanah sermon from September 2001

As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I am posting my remarks to my community in Hoboken NJ on Rosh HaShanah 2001, exactly one week after the attacks.
יהי זכרם ברוך - 
may the memories of those who were murdered on that day always be for a blessing.


The High Holiday services are among the most important opportunities for any rabbi
to share a vision and a message and words of inspiration with the Jewish community.
As soon as one High Holiday season begins,
I start thinking about what topics I’ll want to address the following year.

And whereas I am often the kind of person who works down to the wire, this year I was concerned because, as many of you may know,
my wife is pregnant, and her due date is on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah.
So I was faced with - what I thought at the time was - a real crisis -
that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to be present for Rosh HaShanah services
if she delivered exactly on time,
so I did a significant amount of work on my sermons
well in advance.

Let me tell you that every single thought I was going to share with you this High Holiday season
had to be radically transformed
in the light of  -- of --
well, we don’t even know what to CALL it.
The ‘disaster’?   The ‘tragedy’?  The ‘attack’?
These are mere words that cannot account for one ten-thousandth of what we are feeling right now.
In Israel for the past year, they refer to what is essentially the terror-war being waged by the Palestinians
as המצב ha-matzav - “the situation.”
It’s a conscious understatement, knowing that referring to it as “the disaster” or “the tragedy” will end up reducing those terms.

Every single time we look across the river
we will see the view that for some of us is one of the reasons why we moved to this area --
and we will see the gaping holes
that will remind us the pain and horror of this week.
A pain and horror that has affected everything about our lives -
from the gaping holes that now exist in so many families
to the increased levels of anxiety and tension
that have existed this week in every single home,
in every single family, every single relationship.

Almost wherever we are in Manhattan,
we are habituated to using the World Trade Center to orient us -
to help us figure out which way is north and which way is south.
Like many of us here, there have been so many times that I’ve gotten hopelessly lost in New Jersey
And only known which way ‘home’ is
by looking for the tops of those towers and then making an effort to drive in their general direction.

And the -- the --
the ‘situation’
means that we have completely lost that which orients us.
That which orients us spatially,
and that which orients us ethically, emotionally, religiously --
a general belief, as Anne Frank wrote,
‘in spite of everything, that people really are good at heart’ --
a general belief that good and righteous people
are entitled to a reasonable shot at a decent life,
of a decent length.
a general belief that when we call up a loved one and say “I love you.  See you later,”
we probably will.
a general belief that whereas chaos and random violence reign in so many places throughout the world,
our government would never allow such terrible things to happen to us, here.
So it’s no wonder we all feel dis-oriented.

Even on an ordinary Rosh HaShanah
there is one prayer in our machzor
that people invariably find to be especially terrifying.
(sing) Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat hayom.....
In the middle ages, a rabbi and poet
set down words describing the fearsome scene that he pictured
taking place in heaven each Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
With all of creation passing before God for evaluation,
the way a flock of sheep passes by the shepherd.
Even the angels are terrified on this day.
And God writes down each person’s deeds in the Book of Remembrance.
And then it is written - on Rosh HaShanah - and sealed on Yom Kippur -

who shall live and who shall die;
who shall live out the extent of his days, and who shall die too young.
Who will die by fire, and who by water, who by sword and who by famine -
who shall be degraded, and who shall be exalted.

Even on an ordinary Rosh HaShanah,
this prayer fills many of us with dread and discomfort.
Even on an ordinary Rosh HaShanah,
we all know of innocent, wonderful, beloved people
who have died during the previous year.
Even on an ordinary Rosh HaShanah
we struggle to understand the suffering of the innocent.

But this year --
we think of how one member of our congregation, Jeffrey Gardner,
was here davenning with us last Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
A man whose life was full of generosity and gentleness.
A man who travelled last year to Honduras to help to build housing for impoverished people there.
A man who won the complete respect of his family, his friends, his colleagues at Marsh McLennan--
It is inconceivable that his suffering could have been a punishment.

And it is so heart-wrenching for us to read over the last few days
that so-called religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson
have, in fact, said that our nation brought this suffering upon itself -
that organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and gay rights groups,
and the general liberal character of American politics,
have invited divine retribution.
Now this is salt poured on our gaping wounds -
and the gaping wounds of the Gardner family, the Colisanti family, the Robinson family, the Rosenblum family, the McLaughlin family - and so many others in Hoboken alone, and 5 thousand other families around the New York area and around the globe.
It demoralizes and vilifies the families of the deceased and those missing -
at their moment of greatest need.
And this week we have also read of rabbis and Jewish leaders -
fortunately, very few of them -
suggesting that this attack is a punishment on the United States for insufficient support of Israel,
or suggesting that God ordained this tragedy so that the United States would become more sympathetic with Israel.
Once again, the cruelty of these statements
only has the effect of compounding the pain of the bereaved and the survivors.

So yes, there are some who take the theology of Unetaneh Tokef absolutely literally.  Our nation does have some people who say that suffering is always a punishment -- that for every human tragedy, some explanation or justification or purpose can be found.

To be honest, when I hear such explanations, I wonder if these people live in the same world I do.
The grim truth is that our world has often been characterized by terrible and random suffering.
What we’re going through is just an extreme example. 
We could list many others, throughout history and in our own community.
And I - and most authentic religious leaders -
absolutely reject a belief that those who died were in any way less worthy than those who survived.

So, then, what do the words of Unetaneh Tokef mean?
What do we mean when we say that God determines
who shall live and who shall die?
First, the grand metaphor of these words are a statement of our utter lack of control over our lives.
It is an uncomfortable truth, but to a certain extent,
whether we live or die is not in our hands - but in God’s hands.
Unetaneh Tokef reflects the powerlessness that we feel in the face of forces of randomness in the world.

But a pivotal verse in the middle of Unetaneh Tokef does assert that there is a zone that gives us the means to control our own fate.

(sing) Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah

But teshuvah - repentance -
tefillah - prayer -
and tzedakah - acts of charity, generosity and love
have the power to annul the severity of the decree.

So we are not  powerless.
We have the powerful tools of Teshuvah - tefillah - tzedakah -
to wrest blessing away from destruction.
One of my teachers refers to Teshuvah as ‘looking inward’ -
tefillah as ‘looking upward’;
tzedakah as ‘looking outward.’
These are the tools that give us the strength to go forward,
to rebuild our lives as we move toward wholeness.

I learned this week that the original version of this prayer from several hundred years ago
was actually slightly different from what we say today.
The prayer used to say:  ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מבטלין את הגזרה.
 Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah mevatlin et hag’zerah.
teshuvah tefillah and tzedakah cancel out the decree.
But several hundred years ago, our tradition changed this prayer.
Because, as powerful as repentance, prayer and tzedakah are,
they do not always have the power to cancel out the decree.
For reasons we cannot understand - the classic religious conundrum of all time -
living a righteous life, full of repentance, prayer and good deeds,
is no guarantee of living a long life, free from sorrow.
But they DO have the power to change the way we look at and understand
ANY decree -
to annul its severity -
and to help us to endure despite loss and sorrow.

The first item on our list is Teshuvah:
return or renewal or repentance.
or ‘looking inward.’
This is the major goal of the High Holiday season:
taking an honest look at our lives’ imperfections
and embarking on strategies to transform ourselves.
Part of what has given me the strength to go on this week
has been the opportunity to focus on the self-transformation within myself this week.

Just one example.
Beginning immediately at 9am last week,
here at the synagogue, we started making mental lists of those we knew
who worked in the World Trade Center.
And then by 11am, we were making lists
of everyone we knew who worked anywhere downtown.
And now I’ll share with you a troubling insight
into how a rabbi’s mind works:
Throughout the day Tuesday, I couldn’t stop thinking
about how I might be called upon
to officiate at funerals of every single one of them.
And involuntarily I started to think about
how much I treasured them and loved them
And what I might share with a community of mourners about their values, their generosity, their dedication -
And what I could possibly say to their loved ones in so much pain -
and through this process, I received a very small amount of the impact of what my own pain would have been.  And it was overwhelming -
as it was, and continues to be, for so many of us here.

At the same time that I grieve all those who did not survive,
including the many people who died who had connections to our community,
I am so grateful and thankful that so many from our community managed to survive.
And this week I wrote cards to those I knew about
expressing my love and tremendous admiration for them.
So part of my teshuvah this year
is my resolution that  I can’t afford to wait until I’m thinking of someone’s funeral
before I let them know how much I treasure them.
And I know that is a sentiment on the minds of others here as well.

There’s nothing like a brush with death
to prompt introspection and real life change.
Perhaps this is part of why the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is so terrifying -
as it is only through the fear of a confrontation with death
that we get the strength to do Teshuvah -
that we get the strength to take a sustained look at the core of our being
and to motivate sincere transformation.

Next on our list of tools for renewal
is Tefillah - or prayer.
Which my teacher describes as “looking upward.”
I think we all understand prayer a little better this week.
Whether it was the prayers of those trying to escape the horrors
or the prayers for the welfare of loved ones in distress
or the communal gatherings for prayer -- in Hoboken and around the nation -
in synagogues, churches, and interfaith settings -
our week has reminded us of the power of prayer
and the power of gathering together in community.
Prayer may not bring back those we have lost.
But prayer can keep them alive inside of us.
And prayer that involves a regular enunciation of our most sacred values -
including our belief that every person is created in God’s image -
our high regard for the sanctity of every human life -
and our yearning for peace -
help to create a society such as ours in which acts of terror are unthinkable.
If only the terrorists upheld values such as these -
there would have been no terror.
At a time of great loss,
sometimes the only thing that can be a source of consolation
is for those who are stricken by grief
to know that there are so many who share their pain.
As the rabbinic sages taught:
צרת רבים חצי נחמה.
‘tzarat rabim chatzi nechama.’
sorrow - when shared with the community - is halfway on the road to consolation.
The strength of community gives us the power to endure.

And our third tool for renewal is Tzedakah:
acts of charity and acts of lovingkindness.
or “looking outward.”

On the very same day that I learned just how depraved and evil the human soul can be --
on that very same day, I learned how elevated, generous and angelic the human soul can be.
Just a few stories.  We don’t need to go to stories from the press; we can restrict ourselves to stories of people we know.
Like the story of one of the many people who got emergency housing from someone from our congregation last Tuesday night -- a woman who was evacuated from her daughter’s home in Battery Park City and then stopped during the evacuation to assist an elderly neighbor who was having a heart attack at the same time.  She knew she was risking her life - and while she survived, she got separated from her daughter - thank God, both mother and daughter are okay -- and the elderly neighbor survived as well.
Or the story that I heard on Tuesday when I spent much of the day at St. Mary’s Hospital here in Hoboken, visiting people who had been brought over with injuries -- I spoke with a woman who described how her office mates in the World Financial Center carried her wheelchair down the stairs, putting their own lives at risk.
Or the story I received by e-mail - from a man who is Pakistani - and Muslim - 21 years old - who had been working in building #5 of the World Trade Center.  The first tower collapsed as they were evacuating their building.  And he stumbled and fell, and would surely have died had it not been for a man who extended his hand and assisted him to safety out of the path of falling debris.  And what surprised this Pakistani man all the more was that the man who saved him was a Hasidic Jew. 
Or the stories of the long lines for blood donations all over the country -
or the extraordinary sacrifice of rescue workers - risking their lives - and in some cases, giving their lives - for the opportunity to save others.
And this is just the beginning. 
The Talmud tells us that one of our primary responsibilities as human beings
is to study the Torah, and then to imitate God’s actions in the Torah.
In the Torah, God feeds the hungry - so we feed the hungry.
In the Torah, God visits the sick - so we visit the sick.
In the Torah, God consoles the mourners - so we console the mourners.
It is through acts of Tzedakah - righteousness - and Gemilut Hasadim - lovingkindness - that God’s presence is most palpable today.

(sing) Uteshuvah utefillah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah.

But looking inward - looking upward - and looking outward
can help us to annul the severity of any decree.

Dear God,
With overwhelming sorrow,
with deep fear,
we approach you on this new year’s day -
the birthday of the world.
Dear God, we pray for healing for our fractured world
and healing for our broken hearts
and the hearts of our families and friends.
In the face of terrible tragedy,
may your three precious gifts to us -
Teshuvah - Tefillah - and Tzedakah -
help us to stave off despair
and emerge whole and renewed
as you renew creation each day. .... Amen.

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