Rabbi Daniel H. Liben
Temple Israel of Natick
Rosh HaShannah 5762
"On Rosh Hashannah it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live, and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; who shall perish by fire, and who by water..." The poetry of the Unetaneh Tokef, which introduced the Musaf liturgy today, paints a terrifying picture of apocalypse and Judgement. Each year, its drama uproots us out of our complacency and pushes us to confront, if just for a little while, the ultimate questions of life, of death, and of destiny.
This year, however, we do not need the Machzor to remind us that life is fragile and fleeting, or that our security is an illusion. We only needed to watch our television screens last Tuesday, and witness the horror of a terrorist attack on the United States that even now, a week later, leaves us stunned. The constant replaying of the same film loop only added to the sense of unreality. The destruction of the Twin Towers appeared as a high-tech disaster movie, except that no matter how many times we saw it, there was no Bruce Willis to give the script the ending we could have understood.
And how could we comprehend it? Vainly trying to put the unthinkable into a context, the images my mind found were Jewish images. I thought of Auschwitz... raging fire and smoke turning so many thousands to dust, leaving behind not even bones to be buried and mourned.
And then another image came to mind: Hurban Habayit, the destruction of our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, lying in ruins at the hands of the Romans. These towers, too, were like a Temple, great soaring symbols of American capitalism and confidence, testimony to the optimism and power of the American century. All that ended last week, perhaps forever.
And like modern Jerusalem, New York now knows what it is to live with the random terror of suicide bombers. In a sad way, America never felt so Jewish to me. More than five thousand souls lost in a single morning; a death toll higher than American casualties during our worst year in Vietnam.
And it’s personal. Over Shabbas, many of our members told me of losing a co-worker, a boss, a neighbor, all of whom were on one of the two ill fated flights that left Logan Airport on a typical Tuesday morning. Two days ago, a memorial service was held right here in our sanctuary for Robin Kaplan, who lived in Natick. Several of our members worked with her at TJX. They tell me that she was a sweet girl, that she had recovered from life threatening Crones disease, and that she was engaged to be married. Daniel Lewin, cofounder of Akamai...He was a parent of a third grader and a kindergartner at the Maimonides school in Brookline.
Our world is so small. I am sure that every one of us has a personal story to tell either about a loved one or an acquaintance, who was in lower Manhattan on Tuesday. Rachelle Learner's sister worked on the 68th floor of the North Tower. She walked for an hour down those 68 flights, as she quietly repeated "Shema Yisrael," leaving the building only minutes before it collapsed. Marilyn and Joel Feinberg's son Eric was on the 43d floor of the World Financial Center. He witnessed some of the unspeakable carnage, and escaped by boat to the Jersey side of the river. Eric is sitting in the tent today, home for Yontif with his parents. So many near misses. And so many tragic losses.
It is the nature of a disaster to put us in awe of the sheer randomness of evil. For, in spite of the poet's words, "Who shall live and who shall die" is not so neatly determined by Divine decree. A father lived because he took his daughter to kindergarten on the first day of school. A mother died because she worked on the 84th floor of the first tower hit, and not the 81st. People perished, or lived, because of a seemingly trivial last minute decision, or accident of timing. If you slept late, or missed your morning train, than you would live. If your connection was good and you got in early, and you worked on the 101st floor, then you perished. The very randomness of the decree defies our comprehension and leaves us...speechless.
In the Torah reading last week, we see Moses in his final days, preparing the people of Israel who, like us, stand on the edge of an unknown future. He says: "HaNistarot Ladonai Eloheynu,: The hidden things belong to God, Vehaniglot lanu ulvaneynu, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, so that we may observe this Torah." The hidden things belong to God. Some of what we witness in life is simply beyond our comprehension. We can not, dare not, wrap it up in any neat and logical explanation. No book, no philosophy, no religious doctrine can make it right in our minds or in our hearts. However, Moses continues, "Haniglot Lanu:" The revealed things, at least, do belong to us: our Torah of truth, our doctrine of mercy and lovingkindness; this is what has been given to us, and this must be our response.
A few verses later in the same parsha, Moses goes on to say that no matter what happens, it is still about choice. "R'eh, natati l'fanecha hayom et hachayim v'et hatov, v'et hamavet, v'et hara.: Behold, I set before you this day life and good, death, and evil.... u'vacharta bachayim: choose life."
What does it mean to choose life and not death? Certainly no one chooses death. Moses means that, in the face of our experience, we can choose to see the world as random, evil, and filled with death, or we can still choose to see enduring values, godliness, and life, beyond the chaos and pain. And, like a mourner who stands for the Kaddish, affirming the greatness of God's kingdom even at a time of personal loss, we choose life.
In our Machzor, the author of the Unetaneh Tokef offers a practical guide to this path of life. You remember the simple words: "U'TESHUVAH, U'TEFILLA, U'TZEDAKAH, MA'AVIRIN ET ROAH HAGEZERA: BUT REPENTANCE, PRAYER AND DEEDS OF KINDNESS CAN REMOVE THE SEVERITY OF THE DECREE." For many years now, you have heard Rabbi Kushner and me explain how we understand these words. They don't mean that our prayers or good deeds can shield us from harm. Being a mensch can not protect us or our loved ones from the random evil of a terrorist's bomb. Rather, if you listen to the words closely, they teach us that Repentance, Prayer and Righteous Acts can remove "et Roah Hagzerah," they can remove at least some of the sting of the decree. They can give us the courage and comfort that we need to repair the terrified and broken heart. The very way in which we choose to live gives body and flesh to God's power to heal and to give comfort.
If you take a look at the way we responded this past week, as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation, the author of Unetaneh Tokef seems to have gotten it right.
Teshuvah... Repentance. Certainly a soul searching has been awakened within each of us. We know in our guts that any one of us could have been on that plane, or trapped in that inferno, whispering the words, "I love you...take care of the kids," into a cell phone. Who, in these last days, has not looked into the eyes of the people we love and thought, " How could I have taken you for granted? How can I show you now how much you really mean to me?" If you are sitting next to a loved one today, take their hand and let them know that you will listen more, be there more, do more in the coming year to let them know how much they mean to you. That's a kind of Teshuvah.
And Tefillah...Prayer. In Temple Israel, in every Church in Natick, and in houses of worship in countless towns and cities across America, we gathered spontaneously last Tuesday night, for prayer. We came together all week long, as we come together today, for comfort. In times of sadness and uncertainty, our very shared presence together in this room gives us courage. And the words that we pray remind us that we are not the first generation to suffer loss or to be afraid, and that somehow, we will carry on. In the words of the 27th Psalm, "ADONAI ORI V'YISHI; MI'MI YIRA- THE LORD IS MY LIGHT AND MY STRENGTH; WHOM SHALL I FEAR?"
And Tzedakah- Deeds of Lovingkindness. My heart swells at the generosity of people in evil times. In New York City and around the country, people ran to hospitals and blood banks, in an effort to do something, anything to help. Because, in helping others, we affirm our own humanity and we affirm God's presence in the world. Even 6,000 miles away, Israelis gave blood, lit candles at makeshift memorials, and declared a national day of mourning. And they, in a mind boggling reversal, sent rescue teams to New York, specialized teams trained to deal with a terrorist reality with which Israelis have become all too expert.
On a typical day, the Red Cross receives about a thousand dollars from its solicitations from on-line sites, like AOL. Last week, in four days, people sent in to the Red Cross over eighteen million dollars. But the real story of heroism, sacrifice and selflessness was in New York City, at ground zero. We have read of strong young men who could have made it out, who stayed behind rather than abandon physically infirm colleagues, and even strangers. Thousands of workers, descending the endless steps in a state of quiet terror, made room for the injured being carried down, and for the valiant firefighters, who beyond any reasonable definition of courage and valor, continued to ascend. May their souls ascend to heaven and be for a blessing for us all.
Time and again, throughout the week, extraordinary circumstances brought forth extraordinary responses. Teshuvah, Tefillah U'Tzedakah: Repentance, Prayer and Deeds of Kindness Can Remove The Severity of The Decree. They cannot turn back the clock, they cannot give us back the dead, but they can give us a sense of purpose and of continuity as we go forward into a world that will never really be the same.
If the world had not shifted from beneath our feet this week, my words today would obviously have been quite different. I would have spoken to you about the banner hanging in front of the entrance to the synagogue, which reads, "M'Dor L'Dor : From Generation to Generation: a Community Together Building Its Future." Today, however, I have no heart to speak about building campaigns, needs assessments, or architectural designs, as important as they may be.
However, it is still appropriate to talk about the synagogue, because this is where we live. This is where we come to heal in times of trauma. This is where we teach our children the values and the traditions that will gird them with strength and with confidence in the future. When all is said and done, this is where we pick up the pieces and continue our lives together, from one generation to another.
The synagogue, which is the very foundation of Jewish communal life, was itself once a radical reshaping, a response to change, in the days after the Temple was destroyed: When Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple in ruins one day, he burst into tears. "Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of all the people of Israel lies in ruins! Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: 'Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of Godliness even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain Holiness through deeds of lovingkindness." I think that it was at that moment that the role of the synagogue took form.
And so it has always been. In the face of unspeakable disaster, we Jews have always responded by building communities, communities of Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah, of caring and kindness, of prayer and of Torah learning. Communities that have helped us weave the stories of the past into an unknown and unfolding future. From generation to generation.
This synagogue's story began on a Rosh Hashannah, in downtown Natick, in 1944. Eighteen families rented the Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Natick, and gathered for High Holy Day Services. As Yom Kippur ended, they vowed to acquire their own building for a synagogue in Natick. Eighteen families, mostly small businessmen, put up what at the time was the whopping sum of two hundred dollars each, towards the purchase of our first building on North Avenue. That was the gift that their generation bequeathed to ours.
I've often asked myself why they did that- why a synagogue in Natick at that time? The suburban boom that would soon transform Natick, and much of America, was still a few years away. I think they did it as a statement of faith. As World War II was winding down, and the reality of the terrible destruction of European Jewry was becoming known, those eighteen families chose to make a statement of faith about the Jewish future. They built a shul, in which to pray, to study Torah and to teach it to their children, and to build a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community, in the face of loss.
That is how our people have survived for four thousand years. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, time and again we have survived because we were able to look towards the future, and insist on a continuity of meaning, bridging the gap that sometimes separates one generation from another. Or that separates one fateful day from another. And that is how America will survive this current crisis, as well.
At about noon last Tuesday, still reeling from what we had all witnessed on the television screen, I sat in a small park by the Natick railroad station, waiting for my wife's train. Fran works in Boston, and like so many of you, her building was evacuated, and she was on her way home. I had never bothered to notice this park before, really just a small triangle of brick, benches, and planters, sandwiched in between the station and an intersection of streets.
I had never noticed that this small corner of Natick was devoted to monuments to the heroic dead, citizens of Natick who had died in the Second World War, in Korea, and in Vietnam. Each group had its own memorial, representing young men from our town who had fought and died for our country, in different generations within the last century. The nineteen forties, the fifties, the sixties and seventies- each generation had its own terrible loss, and yet, the town of Natick continues on, "M'Dor L'Dor," the same, and yet different, through the years.
As I read each name slowly, picturing the uniqueness of each young man, of each tragic loss, two high school students, young women with spiked hair and multiple body piercing arrived on the scene. With quiet determination, they opened up two large kits of sidewalk chalk, and went to work. One began to write, in clear and bold strokes, the words, "peace now." The other began to transform a circle pattern laid out within the brick, into a huge peace sign. A peace sign, I thought. That icon of the sixties youth revolution, still alive in the 21st century.
The owner of the garage that abuts the park hurried over, and confronted the two in a harsh, tone. "What are you doing here?" he said snapped. You have no business here- go - get going!" One girl responded quietly, "Its side walk chalk. It will wash away with the next rain."
"The park's just fine the way it is. If the town of Natick wanted more it would have done it. Just go now."
"But it’s because of what happened this morning. Don't you know what happened?"
"Of course I know," he said. "But is this the best way you can express your feelings? How about displaying an American flag outside your home?"
"It’s a peace sign. Isn't that what it’s all about?"
"Is that what it’s all about," he echoed, and his voice began to soften. Now, in almost a fatherly tone he addressed the young women one more time, "Well, go ahead and finish what you're doing..."
This small scene left an impression on me. Two generations, each with its own symbols and rituals, yet sharing so much in common, when they bother to listen to one another. Just like our Shul. Just like America. M'Dor L'Dor. The young artists in the park left behind an additional message, next to the words, " Peace Now." In quotation marks, was the phrase," Everything is cracked. That's how the light gets in."
I believe that we will weather the impending and as yet unknown storm that lies ahead of us as a nation, that we will again see the dawn's clear light, shining through the broken places. And I hope that one day the Twin Towers will rise again on the New York skyline. I envision passing through their great entrance halls, and seeing, like the Yartzeit plaques on our synagogue walls that keep faith with our past, enduring memorials to the courage and valor and simple humanity to all those who perished by fire on an unforgettable September morning. In the words of psalm 27: "Adonai ori v'yishi. The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?"
L'SHANNAH TOVAH TIKATEIVU V'TICHATEIMU. May we be written and inscribed for a year of health, and of healing, of reaching out, and of peace. Amen.