Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff
Rosh Hashanah Morning, September 18, 2001
AFTER DISASTER, HOPE AND SPIRIT
I had prepared another sermon for this morning. I wish -- oh, how much I wish -- that I could have delivered it. But like most rabbis, I tore it up. Last Tuesday, exactly one week ago, almost to the hour, our world was changed -- forever. Make no mistake about it: this attack on the United States of America was an attack on civilization. It was an attack on the most basic beliefs and values of decent human beings everywhere in the world.
Unlike the start of World War II, this attack was not the work of two identifiable nations, such as Germany and Japan. The world has changed dramatically since 1941. Now it is possible for a well-financed group of hundreds to pull off an attack that in the past required the effort of a well-orchestrated government, with a national capital and armed force.
B'Rosh Hashanah yikatayvoon, uv'yom tzom kippur yicha-tay-mun.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed.
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;
Who by sword and who by beast;
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.
Those well-known words from our Rosh Hashanah un'taneh tokef prayer take on a meaning today that we could never have imagined before last Tuesday. They express our vulnerability. They speak about our insecurity.
Some will live and some will die. We know that we cannot ever fully control our destiny. But the prayer concludes with these words: tefilah, teshuvah, tzedakah maaveerin et roah ha-gezeirah;
prayer, repentance, and righteous deeds temper the evil decree.
We cannot "fix" it all. We never could and never will. But we CAN be grateful and bless; we can communicate with one another and do better at sharing; we can be smarter and stronger; we can repair our little corner of the world; and we can turn back to our traditions and take another look at what is most important in our lives and we must maintain our faith and hope.
First: Tefilah -- prayer.
Our prayers today are first and foremost with those who lost their lives in this tragedy. Our prayers are with the six families in our own congregation who lost or are missing husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and nephews. We reach out with love and concern to their families and we promise to stand beside You with support and caring.
We pray that the Divine Presence, the Shechinah, will sustain all who suffer and that they will know a time of refuah shleimah.
We are overwhelmed with respect and gratitude for the police officers, firefighters, medical and rescue personnel who lost their lives in their effort to save their fellow human beings. Their commitment to duty and their heroic sacrificial acts were beyond what anyone should ever be asked to do. Zecher tzadeekim l'vracha, the memory of those righteous rescuers will endure as a blessing.
Some of us have found comfort and solace in the amazing acts of kindness that were offered by strangers: carrying physically challenged associates down the stairs of a flaming tower, entering a building near collapse, descending into deep holes to search and rescue.
Second: Tzedakah -- righteous deeds.
Those heroic acts should encourage us to do our small part to swell the goodness in the world. At the least, each of us should relate to one another and to strangers with greater kindness and respect. We should hug our dear ones longer and tighter and more often. In the past week, I have observed people driving more respectfully, relating to people more politely, and waiting more patiently. We require this higher level of menschlichkeit not only in the grand balance sheet on high, but also in the here and now.
Tzedakah, every righteous act, makes the world a better place. This is the best time in our lives to decide to do something that will help repair the world.
This is a time to ask ourselves what is the purpose of our life? What kind of person do I want to be? What should be most important to me and am I living the kind of life that reflects those priorities? For many of us, our entire lives passed before us during those horrendous moments and we need to keep asking those elusive, but, oh so important questions about the meaning of our lives.
This is a time when we need each other. We need to talk with one another, to communicate with family and friends, with teachers, counselors, rabbis and cantor. Some of us handle crisis by keeping things inside of us, by directing the stress to different parts of our bodies, our heads, our shoulders or backs, our G-I, cardio-vascular, or respiratory systems. Internalizing our anxiety is never healthy, and is especially harmful at such a time as this. Nor is it a good model for our children. We need to continue -- to share our anger, to express our sadness, to declare our pride in this nation, and affirm our hope, as we at the Temple have done with your children and with many of you since the attack occurred. And we need to talk about the future.
We have a strong faith community here at Temple Emanu-El. The synagogue and religious life exist for many reasons. But especially -- as Mordecai said to Esther when Haman threatened to slaughter the Jewish people -- who knows but that God intended for us to be here to be able to sustain one another in just such a time as this.
We also need our inter-faith community. The clergy of our towns have organized an inter-faith service to be held tomorrow evening at 7:30 p.m. I am pleased that my colleagues in town wanted to hold the service here at Temple Emanu-El. For many good reasons, try your best to attend with your families. We need you here and you need to be here.
Third: Teshuvah - Repentance. A Turning Back. A Review of where we have been.
There is a temptation to blame God and to ask: how could God have allowed such a calamity to occur? Haven't we asked that same question, over and over again, since the Holocaust? I firmly believe that God is not responsible in any way for what has happened. It is human beings who are responsible -- angry, evil, malevolent human beings -- who claim, in their perverted thinking, that they do this for Allah. This is a distortion of Islam, a perversion of religion, and an act of blasphemy against God.
As a Jew, I believe that what God does expect is that we will respond to this dastardly attack with courage, with resolve, with unity, and with hope. We have paid a horrendous price for not averting this attack. The future is before us and we Jews are a very hopeful people. At every prayer service, we express that hope with the words:
Bayom hahu, yhiyeh Adonai echad, ush'mo echad.
On that day, God shall be One and God's Name shall be One.
These words affirm our belief that one day all people -- each in his or her own way -- will be united in love of God, in respect for tzelem Eloheem, the image of God in every human being, and united in commitment to moral values and to peace. We will sing that verse at least ten times during the Holydays. My hope is based on many things.
It is based on the strength of this nation. We are a strong, unified people. We must express that strength as powerfully now as we did when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. And we shall be more united as a people than ever before -- whether we are white, brown, or black, woman or man, young or old, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, native born or immigrant -- we will stand together. Nor can we permit anyone to condemn or oppress those Arab Americans who are peace-loving citizens of our land. Such acts are scapegoating, imputing to a group the actions of a few individuals. We Jews know only too well how destructive it will be to turn one group of Americans against another.
Now that the initial shock is receding somewhat, it should be possible to start to look at some of the long-term implications of this event for ourselves, our nation, the Jewish people, and the world.
This attack has opened our eyes to the real, ever-present threat to our moral civilization. Our Biblical and rabbinic traditions teach us that we must respond to evil with firmness and with justice. We do not believe in turning the other cheek. This nation must become tougher and more vigilant than ever before.
We need to forge a serious, effective worldwide coalition that will take whatever steps are required to root out and destroy every cell of terrorism in the world. For years, the United States has done little or nothing to develop such an international effort. We were attacked at our installations in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, East Africa, and at the World Trade Center in 1993. Until now, we have been unable or unwilling to take the risk to locate and root out every cell of terrorism on the face of the globe. We were too timid to put pressure on countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. Yet, we have received almost no cooperation from President Mubarak and his people. That makes us look and act like a "generous super-power weakling."
This attack demonstrates that we need to be much better educated about security and world affairs than we are. (Although I must tell you I was amazed how much some of our 11 and 12-year-olds know.) On a national and international level, our intelligence operations must function far more effectively. Our airline security has, frankly, been a sham. What genius constructed a system that installs metal detectors at the gate and then provides passengers with steak knives in the air? Who decided that the technology for detecting explosives and blades wrapped in plastic was too expensive to install in most of our airports? Who decided that our personal and national security is not worth a ten or twenty-dollar surcharge on every ticket? We have a right to expect better, including sky marshals on every flight; and if we fail to demand better, we do so at our own peril.
On a personal level, we need to acquire much more knowledge. We Jews are not called the People of the Book without reason! Whatever we have achieved has been because education and knowledge have been at the core of Jewish life. Like most Americans today, we get our information from 20-second TV sound bites, not from thoughtful newspapers, serious magazines, journals, and forums.
Consider that during the past few weeks, there have been penetrating articles in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Jerusalem Report about the serious threat that terrorists pose to New York, Washington, and other U.S. cities. These warnings should have been taken seriously. The danger of far deadlier attacks remains extremely high. Knowledge is indispensable. But only knowledge acted upon is truly powerful.
Our brothers and sisters in Israel have been living in this state of heightened alert for many years. Now America knows what Israel has been experiencing.
Now America knows why Israel had to defend herself by searching out and destroying those responsible for suicidal acts of terrorism. Now America knows, and now America must do the same.
Through all of their travail, the national civic and cultural life of the State of Israel continued, with ongoing debate on issues of civil liberties. America will do the same.
Israel labored selflessly to help improve the quality of life of developing and third world countries and was often rewarded with condemnation. America has experienced the same. We need to find better ways of helping the poor and resolving the disputes that have plunged so many nations into war.
Some of you have expressed the fear that American support for Israel will be blamed for last week's tragedy. My friends, if Israel, God forbid, ceased to exist tomorrow, the poisonous venom of Osama bin Laden and the other terrorists who despise America would continue unabated. Their argument is not simply with Israel. Their argument is with Western values, with democracy, with our respect for human life, with our material success, with our popular culture, and with our commitment to equal rights for women. They were enraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They despise the United States' presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the entire Middle East region. They abhor Hollywood's exports. Israel is just one small, albeit conspicuous, object of their anger.
These evil people are militant Islamic fundamentalists who believe that Allah wants them to destroy any influential person or nation that embraces Western values. They are driven by a theological mission that extends far beyond American support for Israel or any particular nation.
"Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven?"
But…prayer, repentance, and righteous acts can temper the evil decree.
When confronted with Nazism, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver taught us
"to stay sane in the midst of madness,
to stay civilized in the midst of brutality,
to light candles in the midst of darkness."
Someone who experienced a devastating personal loss last week asked me: where am I going to find my strength?
Here was my imperfect response. I said: you will find your strength from your family who love you so much and who will support you in whatever ways you need and who want to share and communicate with you.
You will find your strength from friends and neighbors who are good people and care about you.
You will find strength from your synagogue and from Jewish tradition, which will embrace you and help you find your way.
You will find strength from being a citizen of this great nation which is not perfect, but which is governed by the best system yet devised and which respects and cherishes human life.
You will find strength from your ability to contribute to the common good -- to your family, town and society, to your Jewish faith, and to the national spirit.
And most important of all, you will find faith in the God of our mothers and fathers who is our partner in all the good that we will continue to do.
Rabbi Kroloff is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, NJ, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, past president of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and author of When Elijah Knocks: A Religious Response to Homelessness (Behrman House) and 54 Ways You Can Help the Homeless (MacMillan).