Rabbi Esther Reed

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Esther Reed

A few weeks ago, I thought about what words I would want to share with you all this evening, on Erev Rosh Hashana. Seeing that Rosh Hashana was coming up in the next few weeks, I brainstormed what topic I would talk about. I decided back then to focus on terrorist attacks, innocent lives being lost, and senseless hatred. I had decided to talk about Israel. The constant bombings, suicide missions, and loss of life in the Middle East prompted me to want to talk to you, American Jews, about terror in Israel.

But now I stand here today and we all know that terror does not only strike in Israel. Nearly a week ago, American lives were shattered by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As soon as we heard the news, we jammed the phone lines with our calls of worry—dialing cell phones, office phones, home phones—praying that our friends and family were ok. This is the same ritual Israelis go through each time a bomb explodes in Israel.

We turned on our television sets and sat there, wide-eyed and full of tears, watching as the first tower fell, and then the second. We were gripped by fear. A student came to the Hillel. She cried as we spoke, saying, “Where will they hit next? Will they bomb Rutgers? None of us are safe!”

No one felt safe. We had no idea what would happen next. So we called those we love, we tried to make sense of the news. We tried to understand it all, but it was so incomprehensible.

Since September 28, 2001, nearly a full year, Israel has been the victim of what is being called an intifada. Children and Palestinians of all ages have been trained to send stones, bullets, or their own bodies as a sacrifice to wreak havoc on Israeli society. The anxiety we felt on Tuesday is what Israelis put up with in a smaller magnitude on a regular basis. They ask. “Where will they hit next? Will they bomb my home? None of us are safe…”

There is a split in the American Jewish heart. How do we as American Jews respond? We were affected by this disaster just like any other religious or ethnic group in the US. But we also have our own way of reacting to it, because of our Jewish identity. The day after the attack in NY, there were three separate articles in the front section of the New York Times comparing this attack to the constant attacks Israelis have faced. It is impossible not to compare the two.

Lately, I have heard suggestions of how American society may change as a result of this tragedy. We will need to be ever more vigilant and aware of suspicious objects and persons in our midst. In Israel they call this a “hefetz hashud.” A forgotten briefcase in Jerusalem is the cause for the street to be blocked and the bomb squad to come investigate. Will we need to watch for similar suspicious objects in New York, too? People are talking about increased airport security. Have you ever taken a flight to Israel? If so, you know how security checks differ between US flights and flights to Israel. Perhaps our society will be transformed, such that we will be forced to live the way Israelis have been living for years.

Martin Buber said that “when hatred and division reign on earth, and men refuse to see each other as brothers, even Heaven is forced to hide its face.” Was Heaven’s face hiding last week? Certainly there was hatred and division on earth. Certainly a number of people refused to see Americans as brothers and sisters. But what of our relationship with Heaven? Is God hiding from us? What does the tradition teach us about where God is today, on this day?

The second Mishna in the tractate of Rosh Hashana teaches that B’Rosh Hashana, Kol bayei olam ovrin l’fanav k’vnei maron, on Rosh Hashana all inhabitants of the world pass before God as sheep before a shepherd, to be judged. The shepherd decides which sheep are to be slaughtered and which are granted one more year. God is present today. On Rosh Hashana we are judged and on Yom Kippur the judgment is sealed. Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, of 11th century Egypt, said “Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgment.” God is judging each sheep, watching each one pass under his staff, and making a decision.

In our liturgy, we ask for one more year, but we ask for more than that. Surviving is not enough. We must want to live a life of holiness in the face of all this. We strive to be better Jews, and better humans. On a secular new year, many people make resolutions, to lose weight, to stop smoking. Jews have a different take on the new year. Rosh Hashana is a time for reflection: How have I treated those I love? How have I treated those around me? Have I been a good person, a good Jew? Based on that introspection, we make our own resolutions. We strive to improve our behavior in the new year.

We pray for one more year. Tomorrow we will read the unetaneh tokef prayer. The text is chilling, particularly in light of terrorist attacks. The prayer describes how God decides our fate for the coming year. It says, “on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die…who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by famine, who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest, and who shall wander.” Today, and throughout this holiday we pray for life. We pray that the terrorism and violence will end. We pray for victims here, and in Israel.

The front page of yesterday’s Jerusalem Post told the story of an Israeli motorist who died in the hospital after being shot in the chest by terrorists on Route 9 between Jerusalem's French Hill and Ramot neighborhoods. A second Israeli man traveling in the same car was hit in the ear, and though wounded, he has survived. Terrorism has struck America one day last week, but nearly every day in Israel this past year. We pray for life.

In the tractate of the Talmud devoted to Rosh Hashana, we learn that there is a book of life in which our names may be inscribed. We pray on this day that God will inscribe our names into the book of life, so that we may live another year. At this time I ask us to read together as we pray for life:

“Source of all life, we pray for life. Bless us, once more, with a year of life so that we may be privileged to complete the year we have just begun.

Depite the burdens and the heartbreaks, the pains and perils, we want to live; we ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

But even as we pray that years may be added to our lives, we ask, too, that true life may be added to our years.

May the new year be for us a time for enhancing the quality of our lives, enriching their content, deepening their meaning.

Help us to keep our minds alive. May we be open to new ideas, entertain challenging doubts, reexamine long-held opinions, nurture a lively curiosity, and strive to add to our store of knowledge.

Help us to keep our hearts alive. May we develop greater compassion, be receptive to new friendships, sustain a buoyant enthusiasm, grow more sensitive to the beauty which surrounds us.

Help us to keep our souls alive. May we be more responsive to the needs of others, less vulnerable to consuming greed, more attentive to the craving for fellowship, and more devoted to truth.

Help us to keep our spirits alive. May we face the future with confidence, knowing that every age has its unique joys and satisfactions, each period in our lives a glory of its own.

Help us to keep our faith alive. May we be sustained by the knowledge that You have planted within us life eternal and have given us the power to live beyond our years.

Whether our years be few or many, help us to link our lives to the life of our people and to our eternal faith.”(p. 54 of Mahzor Hadash, 1978 edition.)

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