Rabbi Allen Juda
New Realities Bring New Meanings
Why pray from a fixed liturgy? Why come back here year after year on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and recite the same prayers time after time? In the past, on more than one occasion, I have suggested that although the prayers remain the same, we, or our environment, change. After the national tragedy we experienced last week, an act of inhuman terror that has changed our lives and our world, and no doubt our perspective, I am even more confident in the eternity and relevancy of the words we find in our Bible and in our prayer books.
Last year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I explored the issue of suffering and the Biblical, liturgical and theological responses to it. Last Rosh Hashanah, I focused my comments primarily on the suffering we experience from disease and on these words from the makhzor: “on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: me yekhyeh ume yamut – who will live and who will die, me vehkeetzo ume loh vehkeetzo – who will die in his time and who before his time.” And if we read this prayer, the unesahneh tokef, carefully, it would be no stretch of the imagination to think that the coming year’s cancer and heart patients, the next twelve months car and plane crash victims, are all being decided as we sit here, praying fervently for life and fearing the alternatives.”
Once again, this past year has seen members of this congregation suffer from disease, and loved ones die from cancer and other illnesses. I had intended to focus this morning on the same few words from the makhzor, “on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: me yekhyeh ume yamut – who will live and who will die, me vehkeetzo ume loh vehkeetzo – who will die in his time and who before his time” and ask you to think, for a few minutes, how these words, this year in particular, must resonate with our brothers and sisters in the land of Israel.
On Thursday, September 6, rabbis and cantors from around the Lehigh Valley and, indeed, from around the United States and the world, gathered at various locations to hear divrei Torah, arranged by the UJC, the United Jewish Communities, from four rabbinic colleagues in Israel. One of the four was Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Hammer gave a wonderful d’var Torah including a perspective on two Psalms and I will refer to it again later. But at one point, he asked his international audience, if we could imagine the level of anxiety in Israel. If we understood what it meant every time you went for a haircut, if it was the wrong time to be on a bus or on the street. On September 6th, I didn’t think very many of us could understand this level of anxiety, but after September 11th, I am confident that every one of us does. Our lives were spared on September the eleventh, but with the death of thousands, our innocence and security were irreparably shattered like the walls of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
As some of you know, I first became aware of the unfolding tragedy while on a phone call in our main office. A call came in on the second line and our office manager, Kathy Manziano, answered. Suddenly, I was aware that Kathy was yelling “No, no,” into the phone and crying. As I abrutly ended my call to determine what had happened, I feared that Kathy’s husband, Ed, had suffered a heart attack. But as Kathy hung up, she told me that Ed had called to tell her about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers where their son, Scott worked, and where, for obvious reasons, no one was answering the phone. And so anxiety prevailed in our little world, until word came that Scott had arrived after the second crash that morning and had run with many others to safety on the West Side Highway. Then Toby couldn’t reach her sister, Goldie, in Manhattan and we had to wait several hours for her to call us to say that she and our niece were safe. I know that many of you had similar hours of anxiety. Then, word came on Wednesday, that Athena Shapiro’s mother was missing. Athena was a student at Lehigh and came often enough to services here to remain a member after she accepted a job in New York. Athena’s mother worked in the Twin Towers. Sitting here in Bethlehem, I could only imagine the anxiety Athena and her father and family were feeling as they awaited word – word which still hasn’t come. For us, the immediate anxiety was a matter of hours and days. For our Israeli brothers and sisters, this anxiety has been intense, on a daily basis, for over a year. What would it be like if we woke up every day and somewhere, even if it was in the back of our mind, we thought about whether today was the day when a trip to the supermarket, or the ride to school, would end in tragedy for ourselves or for one we love?
There is no doubt that we have been whipsawed by Israeli governments and their policies over the past thirteen months. In August of 2000, it seemed to be important to prepare world Jewry for the possibility of sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians. I never thought that any Israeli politician in my lifetime would propose dividing Jerusalem in any way with anyone. And yet, I stood on this pulpit, and in support of then Prime Minister Barak, suggested that if this one, final concession would make peace, we could swallow this bitter pill. Within weeks, peace had disappeared like a puff of smoke in the eye of a hurricane. And soon we were faced with a new Prime Minister, new “get-tough” policies and a continuous slaughter of our Israeli brothers and sisters of all ages, punctuated by bombings at a disco for young people in Tel Aviv and at a pizzeria in Jerusalem. “Who will live and who will die … me va-aysh ume vamayim -who by fire and who by [the] water.” The words are ancient, but our images are tragically new and fresh; wounds that will not heal quickly and for some, never at all.
God has given humans free will and we pay a mighty price for our humanity. We have the ability to save or destroy, build or demolish. How should we view the perpetrators of evil, the indiscriminate emissaries of death and destruction? I believe that the Torah gave us a better answer than we have realized at the end of parshat Kee Tetze, which we read only a little more than two weeks ago. The maftir reading for Kee Tetze is also read the Shabbat before Purim, as the maftir reading for Shabbat Zakhor, the “Shabbat of Remembrance;” it is Deuteronomy, chapter 25, verses 17-19.
“Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at the rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be when your God gives you rest from all your enemies, all around, in the Land your God gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget!” For generations, this passage and some later ones about Amalek, and the need to wipe them out completely, left many rabbis uncomfortable.
But today, I understand it differently from years ago, and from one year ago, and even from two weeks ago. Because last Wednesday, as I listened to Secretary of State Colin Powell talk about our response to the terrorists, I heard him say to the world that we need to destroy them “root and branch.” “Root and branch” to me means that we need to wipe them out competely, because if we do not, we run the risk that they will come back to terrorize us again and again. Today’s terrorists are surely the spiritual descendents of Amalek! Amalek attacked us on the way – and that is what the terrorists have done. They have attacked our Israeli brothers and sisters on the way to work and school, in cars and busses and trains. They have attacked our fellow Americans on their way to Los Angeles by plane and on their way to work at the World Trade Center. Amalek attacked our ancestors who were in the rear, faint and exhausted and unable to defend themselves. That is exactly what terrorists do. They are not brave enough to fight an army – instead they look for teenagers in a Tel Aviv discoteque, or women and children eating in a pizzeria in Jerusalem, or businessmen and women along with shoppers and tourists at the World Trade Center in New York and attack those unable to defend themselves.
Amalek were not God fearers – v’lo yaray Elohim – this phrase is written in the singular, perhaps to emphasize that not even one of these cowards understands what it means to “fear God.” They want to give the impression that they carry out these heinous acts in the name of their God, but terrorists are simply fanatics and fanatical distorters of religious tradition. We must not fall into their psychological trap; surely we know that not every Muslim or Arab is a terrorist. We Jews, of all people, know the dangers of stereotyping and bigotry. Ironically, we must be in the forefront of condemning any act of prejudice or violence against American Muslims and Arabs. Even in the larger world, not every Muslim or Arab is a terrorist, but every terrorist is Amalek and Amalek must be wiped out. And only when there is no more Amalek can there be peace in the land, and then we will no longer need to remember Amalek, and we can blot even their memory from the collective consciousness of all decent and peace loving peoples.
For us as Jews, this is a season of repentance and forgiveness. But I want to emphasize that in Judaism, unlike in some religious traditions, that is the sequence: repentance and forgiveness. Even before the victims of terror had been unearthed in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, I heard some Christian clergy call for forgiveness for the perpetrators. If that is what their tradition and theology requires, I respect them and their pronouncements. But candidly, I do not understand them, nor do they represent a Jewish perspective. If the agents of terror repented their actions, one would need to grapple with forgiveness. But those who destroyed themselves, even as they slaughtered thousands, have no ability to repent. And as far as I am concerned, we have no right to forgive.
We do, however, have a tradition that understands fear. We each have fears, from the fictional drain monsters and under the bed monsters and closet monsters that fill our heads as children to the very real illnesses that plague us in adulthood and old age. We have had fears before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, just as our brothers and sisters have had fears long before the uprising of this past year in Israel. Those fears, for many of us, may now be increased. And especially at this time, we turn to our tradition for words of comfort. In his d’var Torah, Rabbi Hammer drew our attention to some similarities between the 23rd and 27th Psalms. I know that everyone here is familiar with the words of Psalm 23, but I want to draw your attention especially to the second half which reads: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me. You prepare before me a table in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This is a psalm of supreme confidence. Even as we approach death, we do not fear evil. If, as has been widely reported, the passengers aboard United flight 93, the flight that crashed in western Pennsylvania, voted to attack the skyjackers and save a target and many lives in Washington, we might not only pray for their souls, but also marvel at their confidence and courage to face death and not fear the evil around them. Psalm 27 is the one we read at the end of the morning and evening services starting with the first of Elul and continuing through Hoshanah Rabbah. It also begins with confidence: “God is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” This is similar to the 23rd Psalm. But toward the end of Psalm 27, the psalmist seems to have some troubling doubts: “Teach me, O Lord; guide me on the right path, Do not abandon me to enemies who mock me. False witnesses rise up to testify against me, People who do violence as readily as they breathe.” Our enemies have now mocked us Americans. They have said, in effect, take all your sophisticated intelligence equipment and experts and stuff them. We will train in your flight schools and use your planes as our bombs. Our enemies bear false witness against us as they contort to shift blame for this atrocity onto Israel and its supporters. But how does the psalmist end Psalm 27? “Hope in the Lord and be strong. Take courage, hope in the Lord.” The phrase, kavay el Adonai – “hope in the Lord” is repeated twice. We need to pray to God over and over. Our prayers may not be answered the first time, not for Israel, and not for the United States, but we need to continue to pray and to hope. After all, we are the people of Hatikvah, THE HOPE, the hope that carried our ancestors for two thousand years until we were able to re-establish our homeland in Israel.
Last year, I suggested that we translate the climatic line of the u’nehsahneh tokef prayer, “and repentance, prayer and righteousness help us transcend the evil decree.” Once again, that seems like a felicitous translation. Even with the most sophisticated and expensive intelligence gathering in the history of the world, we were not able to avert the severe decree. Even with the most sophisticated and powerful military in the Middle East, Israel has not been able to avert the severe decree. But with hope in God and faith in the power of healing, we may transcend the evils that have afflicted us in this past year, so that we may indeed look forward to the coming year and years with hope. Indeed, even as we receive hope from God, we must also serve as sources of hope – to each other and especially to all children. Our lives will not be the same after September 11th, but we cannot allow terrorists to shatter our dreams or turn them into nightmares.
kavay el Adonai, khazak vehya-amatz leebekhah v’ kavay el Adonai –
“Hope in the Lord and be strong. Take courage, hope in the Lord.” May God bless us and our world with a year of peace; a year of safety and a year of undiminished hope for the future.