Rabbi Burt Visotzky

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 Burton L. Visotzky

Rosh HaShannah 5762

We All Live in Jerusalem

I begin with a story by way of explanation. This past Thursday, just five days ago, and two days following the horrible disasters at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, I overheard the following conversation in the halls of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I teach. One colleague was worrying, as we all were, about what to preach to his congregation on Rosh HaShannah this shocking year. He observed that all over America, thousands of rabbis had to tear up the sermons they had written. "Well," my other colleague thoughtfully observed, "they always say that some good comes from a terrible situation."

I joke with you for it is Rosh HaShannah and, therefore, chag - a festival, and the Torah commands us to rejoice on the festivals. And I begin with a small laugh, for if we do not laugh, there are but tears. I'll talk more about loss and tears in the minutes ahead, but I also want to talk about courage and hope. As the Hebrew idiom goes, Goodbye to the old year and all its curses, and welcome the New Year with the hopes it nurses.

I will try to enter into this delicate and painful attempt at Beginning, and I emphasize that what I have to offer is at best a Beginning of an attempt to understand what has happened to all of us this past week - for it will take us months if not years to fully comprehend and assimilate how the evil genius that was unleashed against us has forever scarred and changed us. To begin, then, let me recall a personal moment from half a year ago, just after Passover. In that week following Pesach, I sent my 13 year old son off to Israel for his 8th grade class trip.

I tell you as a rabbi that this was the right thing to do. I wanted to have a family presence in Israel this of all years. I wanted my son, my only son, whom I love, to be there in our country - to share the sorrow and the joy of daily life in the promised land - even though the security situation was and remains far from good. As a father, however, I was full of trepidition. Would Alex be safe? Should I not protect him by keeping him home? Did I have a right to keep him home when his classmates went to Israel wili-nili ? Did I have a right to keep my boy here in safety while the children of my Israeli friends were subject to terrorism daily? Schwer zu sein a Yid - we Jews must make difficult decisions if we are to be Jews. From the time of the Aqedah - the binding of Isaac, we have known it will not be easy for us, or for our children.

But Alexander went to Israel and, thank God, came home safely. Little did I realize then that what he and we learned about assessing security in Israel would become Torah for life in New York and Washington, before the Jewish year was out.

Only two weeks ago, one of my good friends - a senior professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was visiting New York. He has served as a professor with distinction, as an archeologist, as chairman of various departments at the University, as head of the Conservative Movement's academic institution in Jerusalem, as a congregational rabbi for the conservative synagogue in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood, and as the father of children who served with pride and distinction in the Israeli military.

Given his many many years as an Israeli I was surprised, even shocked to hear my friend say, and I quote, "This has been the most difficult year ever in the almost forty years I have lived there." Let me quote him some more, for he said, "Only the week immediately preceeding the six day war in 1967 has been as tension filled as Every Single Day of this past year." I was, and remain extraordinarily sympathetic. Living in Jerusalem is fraught with difficulty at the best of times, and this past year has been far from the best of times in the history of our State.

And yet, I cannot conceive of being in Israel without being in Jerusalem. For security's sake, my son's trip avoided Jerusalem. As a father, I breathed a sigh of relief and told myself it was okay, for Alex, indeed virtually every kid in his class, had been to Jerusalem before. They would, God willing, go many times again. Better to be safe.

The irony, of course, was that a week before we sent our precious children off to Israel, we all prayed - Next year in Jerusalem - and I am certain that each of us thought - next year, but not this one.

My Israeli colleague hugged me and prepared to make the rest of his rounds greeting old friends before he returned home that evening. His last words chilled me, for he said, "You know, last week, for the first time in years, a bomb exploded in the French Hill. All the other explosions worry us, because we all know someone, or someone who knows someone, who gets hurt. And even if we do not know someone directly, we feel that the bomb was directed at us. But for all that, it's different when it happens in your own neighborhood."

My friends, the explosions in Washington and New York last week happened in our own neighborhood. WE ALL LIVE IN JERUSALEM NOW. Our great country has become the Jew of the world, the target, the object of disdain - although it is the hatred and disdain of the most despicable, execrable and evil terrorists on the face of the earth. Enemies seek to harm us - they wage war against us. Not because we are soldiers, but because we are citizens.

I come from New York City, to Potomac just a hop from the smoldering Pentagon, to say to you this Rosh HaShannah: we all live in the same small village - it is our neighborhood where the explosion happened, we all know someone, or someone who knows someone, this congregation where we pray lost a member, and even if we don't personally know who was lost in the tragedy, we all know that the enormous infamy that was unleashed last Tuesday was aimed at us - at each and every one of us. No more complacent safety in our homes or workplace, we are under siege. We all live in Jerusalem.

On Thursday of last week, the day on which I first drafted this sermon, I began the day, as I always do, reading the New York Times. There I read with horror the report that two engine companies of fire fighters, all five of the city's elite Fire Rescue companies, and Ten other fire fighting companies which had entered the inferno never returned to their stations. Not individuals, but entire companies. Our fire department was estimating the loss of 350 men and women. The police force was estimating the loss of 60-70 police officers. At the Pentagon they were estimating the toll at 190 deaths. And the mayor of New York had ordered 6,000 body bags. I will refrain from any more grim statistics, each of us knows the enormity of what was perpetrated. But never in our wildest nightmares did we ever imagine that 5762 might be a body count.

I will confess to you this - I could not easily listen to individual stories of loss. I had no room in my mind, let alone my heart, to even begin then to put faces and families to all of those who were sacrificed. It will take a long while for that to happen. Indeed, the closest moment I came to apprehending the enormity was when I read about those entire companies of fire fighters who had never returned. But I will also tell you that on the same day I read of the fire fighters' decimation, I also heard on the news of a trapped SUV with two fire fighters inside, each of whom who came out of the wreckage alive.

On the day after the tragedy, at the morning minyan at my own schul on Manhattan's Upper West Side I saw one of my students, a regular at the minyan. She told me that she is interning at a synagogue downtown and that on Tuesday morning she presided over the conversion ceremony of one of the young children in the congregation. To become Jewish, this young child had to go immerse in the Mikveh and miss day care. Her day care center was housed in the World Trade Center. She lives now as a Jew, but the day care center is gone.

That same Wednesday morning I heard this morning-after story, New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote a column. Mr. Haberman has written on the Metro beat for a long time, a perspicacious writer. But over the summer, Haberman had been the Times correspondent in Israel, and regularly datelined from Jerusalem. He returned to New York - I guess - for the start of the school year. After months in Israel he writes of and to his beloved New York, opening and closing his column with this chilling question: "DO YOU GET IT NOW?" Haberman goes on to ask, "Remember the suicide bomber who killed 15 innocent people at a Sbarro's pizza outlet in downtown Jerusalem last month? ...We certainly have no shortage of Sbarro outlets in New York. Do you get it now?" Yes, Clyde, we get it. We all live in Jerusalem now, whether our zip code is 10025 or 20854.

During this past year I e-mailed regularly to my Jerusalem friends, I would estimate every couple of weeks, expressing my sympathies about the most recent explosion, asking them, "Are you all ok? All accounted for?" and telling them I was thinking of them. Last week, I received those e-mails from my colleagues and friends in Israel: "Burt, we are worried about you. Are you ok? Is your family ok? We are thinking of you and send our love." We all live in Jerusalem now.

In many Jewish communities, it is the custom at the beginning of the year to recite a cycle of Psalms at Shabbat minchah time - the Songs of the Temple Stairs - the Shir HaMaalot Psalms. They begin with Psalm 120:

Shir HaMaalot, A Psalm of the Stairs,

In my distress I called to the Lord and God answered me

Psalm 121: Shir LaMaalot, I turn my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth.

Psalm 122:Shir HaMaalot, a Psalm of the Stairs

Our feet stood at your gates, Jerusalem

Jerusalem built like a city twinned together...

There where the seats of judgment sat...

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

for quietude for those who love her

For the sake of my family and friends

I speak about her peace

For the sake of the house of God

I ask for her to know goodness.

Indeed, in this new Jerusalem that encompasses New York and metropolitan Washington, we have known goodness. In the midst of unconscionable tragedy, we have witnessed acts of heroism and goodness that encompass a vision of a mythic Jerusalem we all yearn for. Shortly after the plane hit the Pentagon, our Secretary of Defense was helping the wounded. Just after the planes hit the World Trade Center, New York's firefighters ran INTO the inferno, to battle the blaze and to help people leave.

Shir HaMaalot - a Psalm of the Stairs, the hundred and ten flights of stairs in each tower, that led so many of the fortunate to their saftey.

And let us add a Psalm of Thanksgiving for the iron and steel workers who volunteered to witness unspeakable horrors as they handed beams from one man to the next to try to save whoever might have survived in the wreckage. For the thousands of Washingtonians and New Yorkers who brought water, sandwiches, dry socks and underwear to the rescue teams. For the xerox stores which graciously duplicated pages to help loved ones find their missing. For the people all over the world, Jews, Christians and MUSLIMS, who donated blood for the wounded. For the police of both cities for their indefatigable labor in helping, and keeping our cities safe from further disasters. For the airline employees who worked unceasingly to redirect, to refund, to console and help. For the firefighters in every major city of Europe who visibly showed their support for their fallen colleagues in New York. Even for the Queen of England, who had the Star Spangled Banner played by the royal guards at Buckingham Palace for the first time in history. Let us give thanks for all these and more, for all who show their common humanity now and always. A Psalm of thanksgiving for Menschlichkeit.

I am sure we have all heard the stories of the rescue workers who commented to the news media, "I have never been prouder to be an American. Men and women, people of every race and color and background worked together. Complete strangers cared for one another as we faced this tragedy together. We were united, truly one." On Friday morning I heard of one volunteer, a guy who worked in an art supply store, who had brought water and sandwiches to the rescue workers. When he had distributed his goods, he asked them if there was anything else he could do for them. They said, "No, but there is something you can do for yourself." And they handed him a shovel. He spent the rest of that night digging in the rubble, helping. When he emerged from the ashes, dripping wet from the pouring rain, he told a reporter, "I have never seen such unimaginable horror. But I also have never seen such immense good will. From the most depraved act has come the most heroic and admirable humanity."

In the brief moment of history following this unspeakable act of terror, we all live in that city on the hill - New York, Washington, Jerusalem, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing - we stand together as a united humanity, we shudder together as we all say Conrad's terrible words, "The horror, the horror."

From the ashes of the Pentagon and the World Trade Centers, there swirls a new movement of hope, of courage, of determination, of alliance. A vision of a future like that of Torah (Lev. 26:6) when God promises, "I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down unafraid." But also a near future like the visions of Isaiah (61:2-4) who calls upon us ,"to proclaim a year of God's favor, a year of our Lord's revenge, to give comfort to the mourners, ... and to rebuild the ruins, to raise up the desolation." (Isa. 33:14-20) "For who of us can live with the devouring fire? Who of us can dwell with this endless blaze? ...where is the one who can count? or weigh? where is the one who can count the towers? "

Isaiah's vision continues, "...May your eyes behold Jerusalem as a secure homeland, an unflappable dwelling. (Isa. 52:9) Raise a shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the Lord will comfort His people, God will redeem Jerusalem. The Lord will bare His sacred arm in the sight of all the nations. And the very ends of the earth shall see the victory of the Lord."

We all live in Jerusalem now, and we are all Mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. It is a Jerusalem of the spirit, both like and unlike the cities where we dwell and mourn on earth.

One of my colleagues reminded me that in Jewish mourning ritual we go through different stages of mourning. There is the first stage, called Aninut - when we must tend to the dead. During that period, all our focus is on honoring our dead.

Friends, now in New York and Washington we tend to our dead. Many of our dead will never, ever have a proper funeral. Some will be buried with the rubble. Some will never even be found. But we must mourn them. Now, in this twilight zone of Aninut, we remain incohate in our thoughts and emotions. We surely cannot make sense of what has occurred. Many of us are still in some form of denial, others let the tears seep out one by one, still others have dissolved into hysteria - we each cope as we best know how, we quite literally feel our way through.

The confusion we each may feel is normal, the enormity of this trauma will not easily be apprehended. Emotionally, we all have a long path to tread back to a sense of security and ease. Our being here, together, in this Har Shalom community helps us on this path.

We still have much mourning to do, memorial services and funerals to attend, shiva to sit, sheloshim to observe, kaddish to say. Rosh HaShannah will suspend, but for a few brief hours, the collective national grief we all share. After this most miserable week, we let a bit of light seep back into our lives, to illuminate the surrounding darkness. We take refuge in our community, our religion, our God.

As we recite every morning and evening at this time of the year,

A Psalm of David,

The Lord is my light and my help
Whom shall I fear?
God is the strength of my life
Whom shall I dread?
When evil ones draw near to devour me, when enemies threaten
they shall fail and fall
Though they are arrayed against me
my heart shall not fear...
for God will shelter me on that evil day,
God will raise my head above the enemies surrounding me...
Hope in the Lord,
be strong and courageous,
hope in the Lord.

That is my prayer for each of us this Rosh HaShannah, be strong and courageous, hope in the Lord. Let us all pray for a year of
peace and tranquility,
hope and courage.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
for the Jerusalem in Israel
and the Jerusalem which is New York and Washington.

Pray that all of us may have a Shannah Tovah Umetukah

A year of sweetness and goodness.

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