Rabbi Alexis Roberts

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 Alexis Roberts
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5762 Sermon
Congregation Dor Hadash
San Diego, California

I want to speak to you now about recent events.

All of us were hit by the explosions on September 11. Millions knew the tens of thousands who were directly affected. Many of us were thrown into a frenzy of trying to do something about it. Some of us found that all we could do was pray; and that is not a small thing. If terror makes us forget our faith in God and in people, panicking about how vulnerable we feel and what may happen next, then prayer is a way to come back. We pray for calm, for sanity, and for justice.

The morning of September 11, I sent out a notice that we would hold a prayer vigil at Dor Hadash, and I drew on the first words that came to mind to begin to restore calm. If our people could be told this when they stood between a raging army and the sea, it seemed like good words for a moment of desperate panic. I wrote, "In the face of terror, we are commanded, ‘Al tirah v'al tifchad.’ ‘Do not fear or be afraid.’
When there is a crisis, the first order of business is to keep our heads so we can use them.

One of our members wrote back the next morning, saying,
" Seeking something that seemed certain after this horrible day, I took [my son],age 11, to the beach to watch the sunset. We talked about your e-mail message and how the only way to face such horror is with courage and the knowledge that what is good and wonderful about the world (and people) will sustain us. When he got home, he said he had to make something. [He] took a small piece of bamboo, and stuffed into it a small piece of paper, which he plugged up with a shell that he'd found at the beach. When I asked him what was written on the paper, he said, "Do not fear or be afraid." He's made it into a necklace."

Children are quite amazing and resilient. But we parents and grandparents who have some idea of what all this may mean are in the grip of fear too. A mother wrote to me, very beautifully, of her fears for her child and for all the world;
"When I hold my child," she wrote, " I feel that I hold all children who were born to loving arms unable to keep out horror and suffering from that embrace. I measure their days of suffering and ask why we allow their brutalization. I have terrible nightmares and see [my daughter] taken from me, [my daughter] hungry, alone, unprotected, dying, and I am powerless to stop all this."

All America is plagued with nightmares of bombs, of explosions, of helplessness in the face of this attack. We now share this nightmare with people in many parts of the world. We have managed to maintain the illusion of our safety longer than they did, but now that is over. Once someone has broken into your house, you realize locks can’t keep attackers out. Once some disease has broken into your body, you realize your health is not invulnerable. On a personal level, such realizations are frightening enough, and take time to heal and adjust to. And now we are forced to a national realization that there are people who hate us so much and want to hurt us so much that they are willing to die violently, and murder savagely, in order to make their point. Perhaps no one could have foreseen it coming to this.

Or perhaps we could have. From the point of view of those who hate America, their feelings of outrage and desire for retaliation make a kind of sense. We were so disturbed to see Palestinians rejoicing at our losses, but the British journalist Robert Fisk wrote Tuesday, "Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September ­ the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and...executions…"

Once the perpetrators have been brought to justice, America will have to take a share of responsibility for making peace in the world by attending to the human rights of all people, the freedom and prosperity of all people, so that hatred cannot flourish.

I am not an expert on history or policy. I mention these things only because I think it is important for our spiritual integrity not to reduce our attackers to inhuman insane monsters. Does it weaken us to see our enemies as human beings? I hope it makes it us stronger. Even if there is war, and even if it is a war we support, we have lost already if we allow ourselves to hate. Ellen Dannin wrote recently, "Hatred fractures [us] into millions of fragments. It makes it easy to kill them, because we are killing "non people". Jewish tradition says that with each birth the entire world is reborn. The death of each person is the extinction of a world of possibility. We cannot bear the loss of one person….We must restore to our enemies a human face. We must look into that face and recognize ourselves."

I know we want to scream that the perpetrators are not like us; that they represent pure evil. But they are still human beings who are horribly misled in their beliefs and values. My friend Rabbi Goldie Milgrom, who lives across the river from the devastation in New York, observed that "Civilization is a spiritual practice; the ability to choose freedom within boundaries. To realize that religion and text in the hands of those who are zealots and not engaged in spiritual practices that lead to balance, this is the most dangerous combination in the world. That the original Torah values described in the story at Sinai is the basis of our much of modern civilization is not obvious until something so horrible comes along and reveals what is possible in the absence of having such basic agreements about living.”

I keep reading that it’s important to acknowledge the anger we feel about this. Acknowledging it does not mean acting on it, but simply being truthful about how we feel. Many were deeply infuriated that our landmarks and our land and our people were invaded, that their loved ones were harmed or threatened, or even just inconvenienced. The sense of injustice and rage was palpable. In many cities, people were demanding revenge in the form of at least equally violent attacks on the perpetrators.

But as much as it is normal to feel angry when attacked, in the Torah, we are commanded not to exact revenge, but to establish justice. Vengeance would just fuel the flames of violence and intolerance, and increase the number of those who mourn. If our nation decides to go to war, or to engage in some more limited response, let it be as measured and just as possible, as free from rage as possible. So many have already died. And they haven’t only died in New York, Washington, and in a Pennsylvania cornfield.

According to the State Department, and leaving Israel and the Palestinians out of it, terrorist incidents like bombings, shootings, and kidnappings have assaulted the wellbeing of many many countries in the last year alone, including El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, France, Germany, Greece, Bosnia,Yugoslavia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Phillipines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Namibia, Uganda, Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Jordan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Yemen (where the USS Cole was bombed on October 12, 2000).

In other words, we cannot imagine this was a unique kind of event on planet earth. Tribal hatred, ethnic hatred, economic rivalry, political and religious differences, vendettas of all kinds play themselves out all over the globe in cruel and violent ways. Our suffering is not unique, although it is massive. In a sense this draws us closer to all these other people who have felt helpless and horrified as they saw their loved ones, their homes, and their human right to live free and safe destroyed in flames of hatred.

Another predictable urge is to find someone to blame. By Tuesday afternoon last week, some heard grumbling against the Jews, because if America wasn’t trying to help Israel, none of this would have happened. And Arab Americans found it necessary to request that police cars be parked at their mosques because the bomb threats and harassment had begun. Many want to blame the president, or the last president, or the one before that, back to the way the Ottoman Empire was taken apart after World War I. There has even been exhaustive discussion of the engineering of the Twin Towers, and questions as to whether it could have been built to withstand the attack better. And ofcourse there are always those who want to blame God.

"Where was God?" people ask. "Where was God?" I have to side with Rev. William Sloane Coffin, whose son who died in a car crash at age 24. During the eulogy, Rev. Coffin confessed,
"Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths…Violent deaths are a piece of cake to understand…(Someone) blew it. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was NOT the will of God that [my son] die; that God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break."

So where was God? Everywhere! In the lines around the block at the blood bank, in the courageous hearts of police and firefighters who died rushing into crumbling buildings, in the heroism of those who crashed their plane into a cornfield instead of its intended target, in the volunteers who immediately began to clean up, organize, educate, heal and hold one another…God received the souls of all the innocent dead, as well as the guilty, and there is one Court we can trust to sort things out properly. But God did not bring hatred into the world; we did that ourselves with our fearful, selfish unwillingness to live as God commands. Ofcourse no one of us is responsible, but each of us has a membership card in the human race, and each of us needs to commit ourselves to godliness not only on Rosh HaShanah, but every day, and partilcularly when events tempt us to sink beneath the moral demands of our tradition.

Last week, we read in the Torah (Deut 29:28), “The secret things belong to God.” We can’t say we know anything certain about where God was; why this one died and this one walked away unhurt. If God rushed in with the fireman, then God may have plunged in with the terrorists. If God was in the lines and lines of people giving blood, then God may also be in the hearts of men who seek blood. There is a wonderful line in the Thornbirds after a horrible fire has ravaged the land and lives of the family, a priest says that God brought the rain that stopped the fire. Then a woman asks him, who brought the fire?
The only true thing I can say is that God is beyond my understanding, and that I still have faith in God’s good purposes. I have suffered and I do not feel angry with God. I feel...humbled. I feel reminded that there is more to this story than I will ever understand, even if I can keep my feet on the ground and my heart in the dust. There is more to this life than I can knowThe same verse in the Torah says, “those things which are revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of this teaching.” The sanctity of life, the essential importance of justice; these are some of the revealed things we must cling to. My sister wrote to me, “This is what I know for sure. I have buried children. And I have buried parents. I have buried my old self. And I have lost hope, hair, and faith. And when the air is black and filled with smoke and I cannot see or breathe anything but the darkness closing in around me, I still breathe. I breathe in all that dark grief, and despair. But, I breathe. I breathe. In the valley of the incomprehensible I feel the power and the majesty of something more profound than I can speak. I feel connected. I feel enveloped in truth. If God is in all things, and of all things, then we must seek to see the God in our sorrow.”

So without anger and with no single scapegoat to blame, we are left in despair that the world we live in has come to this. That the world we must raise our children in is full of ugliness, fear, and hatred. And now we must feel our heartbreak, and what Rev. Coffin called God’s heartbreak—and the raw fact of the brokenness of the world. We need to take the time to sit and cry. A lot of us build our life around avoiding such painful feelings, but that gets us nowhere. The Jewish approach to grief is to bring it on with the thumping sound of dirt falling on the coffin in the grave, and to allow time and space for it to storm. We know that if we don’t do that, the hurt will never heal. For most of us, our encounters with pain and despair are the source of our compassion for others. . The hasidic master Menahem Mendl of Kotzk taught that the ‘only whole heart is a broken one.’ The broken places turn out to be where the light of holiness can shine in.

Because in the long run, turning toward holiness is the only answer. That is a path that is rarely easy, rarely safe, but which leads us out of meaningless and desperate waste into something worthy and transcendent. The demands of holiness are stringent. Our motive must be to serve God. Our sense of the sacredness of all life is required. Important distinctions must be carefully maintained. In the Torah, God calls for us to offer peace before we attack, and when we attack to leave the fruit trees alone. In other words, if it must sometimes come to armed conflict, be mindful that afterwards we will still have to live together and have something to eat. If it must sometimes come to violence, remember that violence will not finally solve anything. As Wendell Berry has written, "...We are disposed, somewhat by culture and somewhat by nature, to solve our problems by violence, and even to enjoy doing so. And yet by now all of us must at least have suspected that our right to live, to be free, and to be at peace is not guaranteed by any act of violence. It can be guaranteed only by our willingness that all other persons should live, be free, and be at peace — and by our willingness to use or give our own lives to make that possible…"

If we are called to give our lives, things may get very black and white. It would be easy to say this is “us against them”, but it’s more complicated than that. Shimon Peres has cautioned us that, “This is not a clash between civlizations—the Muslim world versus the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish worlds. The real clash today is actually not between civilizations but within them—between those Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook, and those with a medieval one. We make a great mistake if we simply write off the Muslim world and fail to understand how many Muslims feel themselves trapped in failing states, and look to America as a model and inspiration.”

So the struggle is complex. In our anxiety to triumph, we may forget that our final aim is to realize the vision of a world at one. John Kennedy said, "…we must seek, above all, a world of peace; a world in which peoples dwell together in mutual respect and work together in mutual regard; a world where peace is not a mere interlude between wars, but an incentive to the creative energies of humanity. We will not find such a peace today, or even tomorrow. The obstacles to hope are large and menacing. Yet the goal of a peaceful world must, today and tomorrow, shape or decisions and inspire our purposes."

Today and tomorrow are particularly important days for us. Rabbi Deborah Waxman reminds us, "Hayom Harat Olam: Today, on Rosh HaShanah, the world was [born]. When we turn to the first chapter of Genesis, as we will [tomorrow morning], we see that in the beginning there was darkness and ‘tohu vavohu’, formlessness and void, or chaos. God’s spirit moved across the waters, and light was created. Let us, individually, and as a community, nurture the spirit and the light, lest the chaos prevail."

We pray for God to comfort the families and friends of all those who were hurt and killed in the attacks. We pray that our leaders will be guided in wisdom. We pray to have the courage to meet the challenge each day presents. We pray to walk without fear through the darkness, and keep breathing, knowing that we are never alone or abandoned by God. And especially we pray that all those in conflict find the courage to hear eachother’s pain, and to lay down weapons and join in building a world of peace and plenty for all.

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