Rabbi Batsheva Appel

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 Batsheva Appel

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam dayan ha-emet. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe Judge of the Truth. This is the prayer that is said on hearing bad news. It is familiar to those who have had the sorrow of wearing black k’ri’ah ribbons after the death of a loved one, because it is the prayer that is said as the ribbon is cut.

As a Reform Jew I try various aspects of ritual and practice. Beginning several months ago
I tried saying this whenever I heard bad news. Why? If I remember correctly, I wanted a way to mark bad news so that it would not get lost in the shuffle, so that I would actually hear it and pay attention. And at the same time make some connection with God. I think that I was also intrigued. How many other religions have a blessing for hearing bad news?

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam dayan ha-emet. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, Judge of the Truth. While I knew that saying this blessing would not necessarily be easy to do, there have been times over the last several months when it has been very hard to do. There were some mornings when things happening in Israel meant that I was saying this blessing every day as I got up. Other times I would say it and think,
why does this blessing use the image of God as Judge? Does this mean that God judged and decided that this would happen? To think of God as a Judge is, for me, one of the hardest parts the High Holy Day liturgy. I struggle each year with this image of God and here I was using the image as mine sometimes on a daily basis.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam dayan ha-emet. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, Judge of the Truth. Last Tuesday, I heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center on the radio and I said the blessing but it was difficult. When the radio announced that the second tower had been hit by the second plane, I froze. Right now I can’t tell you whether or not I ever said the blessing. I struggled with what had happened.
I struggled with the idea of God as a Judge who decreed that this tragedy should be so. I struggled with the idea of God who would permit such things to occur. I just struggled with ideas about God.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam dayan ha-emet. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, Judge of the Truth. God has been on our minds a lot this week. We have had our own questions and for some of us, our children’s questions. We have struggled with how to think about what happened, about God. We have been attending prayer services and vigils and Shabbat services. Rabbi Wisnia spoke about God last night.

Usually we don’t speak much about God with our friends and family. I remember my surprise at my second interview here at Beth Chaim. When I got home, I called my friends and said “Well, I think that it went well and you will never believe it, I spoke about God during the interview. I talked with the search committee about how I think of God.” But we are talking about God this week. We are thinking about God. We are singing God Bless America.

I think I know why we have God on our minds, why we are searching so ardently. In the Mechilta, a midrash on the book of Exodus it describes what the 10 commandments look like.
We know from the book of Exodus, that there are two tablets, but we don’t know what the tablets look like. Two copies of the same thing? Equal numbers of words on each tablet? Or the way we usually see them, 5 commandments on each tablet? The midrash in Mechilta suggests that there are 5 commandments on each tablet and then suggests that we read across. Anochi Adonai Eloheicha “I am the Lord your God.” lo tirtzach “Do not murder.” In other words, when someone commits murder they deny that god exists

What happened a week ago was horrific. If it had been some sort of tragic accident, an air traffic control system gone terribly awry it would have been bad enough. But what we saw was murder, over and over again. What we saw was the handiwork of evil people, who, although they might have thought that they were acting in God’s name, effectively denied God’s existence, over and over again. It was enough to sear our souls, whether or not we were there; whether or not we knew someone there; whether or not we only saw. So this past week we have sought ways to reconnect with God, ways to think about God, ways to answer our questions about God, ways to prove that God does indeed exist.

I know that I struggle with my ideas about God. I am not always logical or coherent. Sometimes though it can be helpful to read or hear what other people think about God.
Last night it was fascinating to hear Rabbi Wisnia speak about God and to think about how much he and I, two very different people, agree. I can tell you some of what I believe about God.

I believe that God is the Creator, which is probably how I made the switch from Biology to the rabbinate. It is part of the wonder of biology to see the beauty of God’s design. I believe that God revealed the Torah to us. I don’t think Moses took dictation on Mount Sinai, but I do think that God is in the Torah. I believe that God redeemed us from Egypt. Whether or not the Sea of Reeds actually split, the Exodus from Egypt is too much part of us for me to believe that God was not a part of that. I believe that God is eternal and holy and infinite and all powerful and all knowing. I believe that God gave humanity free will. I believe that we have a relationship with God as human beings and that we have a covenant with God as Jews. I think that God is constant. There have been times when God has felt distant. I have only lately realized that I am the one who moves.

There are many things that I don’t believe about God. I don’t think that God has a favorite sports team, nor has God cursed the Boston Red Sox. I don’t think that God influences the outcome of the lottery, roulette, blackjack, or bingo.

I don’t think that God has a form or body. I don’t think that God is male. I don’t think that God is female. But here is where my theology becomes contradictory. I don’t think that God has eyes, but I want to know that God sees. I don’t think that God has ears,
but I want to know that God hears prayers. I don’t think that God has hands, but I want God to act, to heal, to intervene. I don’t think that God has arms, but I want God to comfort me. I don’t think that God has wings, but I want to be under the shadow of God’s wings when I die, as we read in Eil Malei Rachamim.

It is our liturgy that challenges my thoughts about God the most. Whether the wings in Eil Malei Rachamim, or seeing God as my Rock in Yihiyu L’ratzon, I keep thinking about my ideas of God.

This morning we are about to read the prayer that challenges me the most, Unetaneh tokef.
In this prayer, we speak of God as awesome and fearsome. We stand trembling before God as we are judged. And so we are back to the idea of God as a Judge. We are about to read how God judges all of this day. The evidence is our own words in our very own handwriting about all the things that we have done this year. Troubling enough, but then we read that God considers each soul and sets our destiny and the limits of our life.

“How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by water;”

I do believe that our actions count. I can’t believe that God is a puppet master who determines what my life is to the last detail. I can’t believe that God decided last year all those who were saved and all those who died this week. Or even that God decreed that such a thing would happen. Yet there it is. And I struggle.

It is easy for us to see things as either/or. Either we believe this prayer in its entirety or we are not here. I think that for us as Israel there is another choice. I think that the struggles that I have spoken of are a valid choice. Too often there are those who think that the idea of God is one-size-fits-all, that there is one way to think. And this it not true. Rabbi Wisnia gave you his concept of what God is. I have just shared some of my concept of God. What I really want to share is that I struggle. I wrestle with our texts. I challenge our liturgy. I actively think about God. And I don’t have all the answers and that is fine.

In Genesis we read about Jacob wrestling with a man? an angel? Beside the Jabbok river the night before he sees his brother Esau again. After it is all over, Jacob gets his new name Yisrael, Israel, one who wrestles, who struggles with God. Questioning, challenging, wrestling, thinking about God is very Jewish.

Evil people tried to deny and devalue the existence of God last Tuesday at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. There were many others who affirmed God’s presence in the world. The firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service personnel who died trying to save others affirmed God’s presence by declaring that every life is important. The passengers about flight 93 that crashed outside Pittsburgh, if they did what we believe they did, affirmed God’s presence by preventing other people from being murdered at the cost of their own lives. God does not want us to die, or to commit suicide,
But each life is important.

Many of us this week affirmed God’s presence in much smaller ways, as God’s agents

This past week we have clothed the naked and fed the hungry. We have visited the sick
In the coming weeks we will comfort the mourners and bury the dead. We have affirmed God’s presence and acted as God’s agents. We have raised our standards of how to act in the world and we have the chance to keep those standards.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam hatov v’hameitiv. Blessed are You, Lord our God, the one who is good and beneficent. This is the prayer for good news. This is the blessing that I will be trying on this year as a Reform Jew. I want to be ready as I hear about the wonderful actions of the people in our country and around the world. I want to ready as I hear that we have kept our high standards. Repeat after me. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’Olam hatov v’hameitiv. Blessed are You, Lord our God, the one who is good and beneficent. I want all of us to be ready for a good year with all of the possibilities that a new year brings for us.

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