Rabbi Daniel Nevins

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website and retains the copyright of its author.

Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins
Adat Shalom Synagogue – Farmington Hills, Michigan

A Sweet and Sour New Year

Tapuchim u’dvash l’Rosh HaShanah. Apples and honey for Rosh HaShanah. Shanah tovah, Shanah metuka, A good new year, a sweet new year, Tapuchim u’dvash l’Rosh HaShanah. I can’t get this song out of my head. I won’t let it out of my head. Better the sweetness than that sorrow which has enveloped us all.

In these crazy days, some images won’t leave us be. They say that in the absence of good there is evil. We are feeling both a physical and a moral absence since last Tuesday. Looking at where the towers stood, we feel a wound made more painful by the knowledge of how they came down. I treasure a photograph of my wife Lynn holding our baby Sam this summer on the East River with the Twin Towers over their shoulders…and now they are gone.

So I have tried to focus instead on apples and honey. You see, sweetness is a lovely goal for the New Year. Sweetness is the association we make with Torah, Mitzvot and all things Jewish. This is why medieval Jews made cookies in the shapes of Hebrew letters and painted them with honey, so that the words of Torah would be sweet in the mouths of our children. This is why the ushers stuff candy into the hands and pockets of children here in shul each Shabbat—so that the kinder will always remember their synagogue as a place of sweetness. This is why we celebrate Rosh HaShanah with apples and honey. A good New Year, a sweet new year.

But we Jews are not the only people who celebrate with sweets. They were handing out candy last Tuesday in Nablus, and Ramallah, in Gaza, and in East Jerusalem—the Palestinians were handing out candy to celebrate the great victory of jihad versus America. Well, according to Arafat and his advisers, this didn’t really happen—for them, the footage of celebrating Palestinians was a Zionist conspiracy. Indeed, if you were caught videotaping these phantom expressions of giddy support for Osama bin Laden, including crowds parading his portrait through the streets of Gaza, then you had better be ready to give up your film … or your life. Then the celebration could continue. At least this New Year is sweet for somebody.

As I grappled with the enormity of the horror last week, and shredded up my prepared sermon, it was this cloying image of sweetness that stuck in my mind. On that horrible Tuesday we were gripped in collective fear, many of us watching the news in stunned silence or with panicked tears. For many of us, the day was consumed with anxious waiting, as it was in my family as we tried to contact my brother, Teddy, who was trapped in a basement near the World Trade Center. I quoted my brother’s account last Shabbat. When he was finally evacuated from the financial district, this is what Teddy saw:

Thousands of us, covered with ash, walked in silence through the wreckage in stunned disbelief. This image of a ghost-like column of people walking through hell will remain with me forever.

So, we as a family, a community and a nation, have survived this terror attack, but we are living with terror nonetheless. We are trying to make sense of this crazy world and to wrest human decency from the evil vortex unleashed by bin Laden.

What is there to say? What is there to do?

There isn’t a rabbi in the world who wanted to talk about this today. Rosh Hashanah is a day for introspection, for looking after our own flaws, rather than raging at the world. And yet there is no avoiding the intrusion of tragedy upon our quiet. Our joy, our sweet anticipation of the New Year has been thoroughly soured. But that’s the least of it. The terrorists have succeeded not only in taking the lives of their victims, more than 5,000 of them, but have also somehow compromised their deaths.

Monday was the end of Shiva for the dead who will never be buried. But their families are still caught in limbo, wondering whether they will yet recover remains. When do rescue efforts turn to recovery? When do we concede that those unaccounted for are never coming back? Jewish families do not know whether to start shiva or to wait. The normal mechanisms of bereavement are unavailable, and there is continued chaos after the outrageous slaughter of the innocent. The tragedy continues and will continue for decades to come.
Quote Amichai poem, “The Diameter of the Bomb”

We can of course look for a silver lining, even in this calamity. The heroism of the rescue workers has been extraordinary; yet so many have lost their lives in the attempt to save others. People have connected with strangers in many unexpected ways. I was particularly moved by the testimony of a young Pakistani man who had stumbled in his flight from the falling debris, and was helped up by a black-hatted Chasid. New Yorkers have discovered that they are not so cold and hard after all. But to paraphrase Abe Foxman, this was too high a price to learn such a lesson.

It is also no great comfort to realize, as many have observed, that America is finally shedding its complacency and even insensitivity to the terror experienced daily in Israel, as well as in England and other places where democracy is abused by fanatical terror. Indeed, we know that the situation in Israel has been considerably worse, for there the terror has been sustained, year after year, and the frantic final phone calls to family and friends after an attack are a frequent routine.

But America did change last week, and the cliches don’t quite capture the shift. It’s not just that we lost innocence or a sense of invulnerability. I think that this tragedy also opened our hearts as a nation to the reality of terror and the requirement to sacrifice in order to salvage our freedom. Our freedom seems suddenly more precious, and our patriotism more pronounced. We have been complacent about the power of democracy, and too indulgent of those who scorn our country. Yet we are resilient people, and we won’t allow the terrorists to win. We can’t let them win. But what next? What can we say to make sense of this moment on the 5762 annual celebration of Rosh HaShanah?

First, let us recall the nature of the day. It goes by several names. Yom Teruah—the day of shofar blasts. That is, today is dedicated to making us alert, to shocking us out of routine and forcing us to face the challenge of revising our identity. Yom Teruah—the day of shofar blasts, seems particularly appropriate today as we have been startled to discover how powerful and pervasive are the threats to freedom in our world. The shofar, like a siren, indicates the presence of danger, and it goads us into action. Today is a day for seeking shelter and safety in community and kindness.

Another name for the day: Yom HaZikaron. The day of remembrance. Today we look into our past and, painful as it is, we try to break old habits and become better people. We also implore God to remember today the great dedication and heroism of our ancestors, and to have mercy on us for their sake.

Yom HaZikaron—on this day of remembrance—Zachor v’al nishkach. We Jews do not forget the past. We do not forget the dead. We do not forget the murderers…. And we try not to forget our own flaws either. Our government must be forced to remember the perfidy which we have endured. Too often we have allowed terrorist attacks such as those committed by bin Laden on the USS Cole less than a year ago, and on our embassies in Africa, to pass quickly out of our mind. I am comforted that the Bush Administration is speaking about an extended and global effort. We must remember the victims and we must remember the perpetrators on this Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance.

Finally, today is also known as Yom HaDin, the day of judgment. For all our pleas for mercy, we know that God is also intent on justice. Tzedek tzedek tirdof—justice, justice shall thou pursue, we are commanded. Looking at the rise of terror in Israel and now in America between last Rosh HaShannah and today, we are outraged and we demand justice. Since the so called al aksa intifada began one year ago, we have endured countless suicide bombings and drive by shootings in Israel.

I want to remind the congregation that the suicide bombers in Israel are just as evil as those who attacked the WTC and Pentagon. We are hearing a lot of rubbish about distinctions between political terror and civilizational terror. Remember that at the height of the Oslo peace process, when Prime Minister Rabin z”l was withdrawing Israeli troops from one Palestinian center after another, that is when Hamas and Islamic Jihad began their contest of who could launch more suicide attacks. When Israel persisted in the peace process, and they persisted in the bombings, it was quite evident that this terror is not a reflection of lack of alternatives for the Palestinians. Peaceful independence alongside Israel was less palatable for the bombers than promises of paradise. There is peace and there is war; there is decency and there is terror. The line between them is laser-clear. This is a point which we must emphasize on Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment..

In our New Year prayers, we implore God, ki taavor memshelet zadon minhaaretz—wipe out the rule of evil from this world. The word zadon can mean arrogance or just evil. It implies malicious intent. By now the terrorists have made their intent quite clear—they wish to wipe out Israel, America, European democracies, and even Muslim dictatorships that fail to kowtow to them.

A few days ago, thousands of Muslim Arabs rallied in Nablus to declare their thoughts on the conflict. The New York Times reported that,

Ra'ed Salah, the leader of the Islamic movement, had a particular message for President Bush. If the American president wanted to achieve peace and security, Mr. Salah said, "the only solution is for Bush to convert to Islam." He added that "there is no war between Islam and America."

There is no war between Islam and America, as long as America converts to Islam. Likewise, there is no war between Islam and Israel, so long as Israel joins dar al-Islam, the Muslim world. So these fanatics are pro-peace and anti-terror, as long as everyone else becomes exactly like them.

On this day of Rosh HaShanah, we know better than we have in the past what memshelet zadon, the Kingdom of Evil is. We do not, of course, accuse all Muslims of applauding this terror. We as a community have sought to build bridges to the Muslim community here in Detroit, and we know that most Muslims want nothing more than to live in peace in this country. Anyone who thinks that we should attack or terrorize people for being Arab or Muslim is of course wrong. Period. We also hear foolish things said in our own community about indiscriminately attacking Arab lands. I intend to participate in the prayer service at Joe Louis arena this Sunday together with Christian and Muslim clergy. You are all invited. We will look for friends and build alliances in favor of decency and democracy, and against the tyranny of terror and triumphalism.

However, let it not be said that these heinous acts were the work of a few deranged individuals. It took a large international network, with broad popular support to wreak the havoc of last Tuesday. The terrorists are real, and they have employed the language of Islam to recruit suicide bombers and to justify acts of mass murder. I have no doubt that the American Muslim community can be the best resource in a fight against terror. If they want, they can help change the culture which justifies murder and suicide and identifies America, Israel and other democracies as the enemy.

But the Muslims will need to decide for themselves. What is there for us to do? Here are a few suggestions:

1. No more excuses. When apologists try to distinguish between political operations and terror, we must expose their ruse. PA spokesmen recently defended the bombing of the Dolphinium disco in Tel Aviv as an act of resistance to the Israeli occupation. This is utter nonsense. Any action whose purpose is to kill civilians is terror.

2. A second thing we must do is to register our outrage at the United Nations, and at the associated NGOs that have provided moral cover for the terrorist states. It is ludicrous that in Durbin they accepted denunciations of Israel as racist, even as thousands of participants chanted slogans such as “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” What a moral perversion! The UN and the NGOs must sharpen their moral discernment, or the democracies of the world may need to establish an alternative international body which is open only to free countries. We should lobby Amnesty International and other well-meaning organizations to stop scapegoating Israel and ignoring the abuses of human rights in the Arab world.

3. A third course of action is to assist in the rescue and relief operations. We are commanded, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa, “don’t stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” Charitable funds have been established to help the victims and their families. I encourage all of us to bring a donation next week ear-marked for the UJC Relief fund together with your Yad Ezra food bags. Anyone who is eligible to donate blood should also be doing so. If you gave at our picnic last week, you will be eligible again at the community blood drive which has just been announced for November 25. Supplies are expected to fall low again by then, so please come help.

4. A fourth course of action is to demonstrate to the world that American Jews are not so easily cowed. What are we going to do, hide in our houses for the rest of our lives? I have plans to visit New York & Washington DC, in the next few months. It’s important to show our faces and our support. Moreover, I have been planning two congregational trips, one to New York, and the other to Israel, to which you are all cordially invited. In April, we will fly to New York City for a three-day Jewish heritage tour. We will visit the Jewish neighborhoods, historic synagogues and museums, JTS and will also make time for theater and other entertainment. Look for information in the December Voice.

In July, we are planning a two-week tour of Israel which is for all members of the congregation. This trip will be family friendly, and we will celebrate several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Israel, but it is not limited to people traveling with children. We will see the beauty of the land and celebrate our great fortune to live in this day of Independence for Israel. We will also see our teens, who are signing up in large numbers for the fourth Teen Mission.

I can see your reaction—travel to Israel now? Isn’t that crazy? Shouldn’t we wait until things settle down? As it happens, we had eight members of Adat Shalom in Israel last week. They returned with an incredible perspective. When they were in Israel, they felt safe, but not only safe—they felt embraced by family. Whether it was their first visit or their fourteenth, they felt so lucky to have been in Israel. The irony of course, is that while they went to Israel to comfort our cousins, after Tuesday, it was the Israelis comforting the Americans. As Nancy Schostak told me, there isn’t a place in the world she’d rather have been last week. Micky Levin, who went on his first trip ever, had that instant sensation of homecoming that many of us have experienced. And his daughter Sarah, who made her third trip in 13 months, was a reminder that Israel is not only the homeland of the Jewish people’s past, but is also the greatest hope for our future.

This is the ideal time to plan a trip to Israel, and I encourage you to come to an informational meeting which will be announced next week. Look, it’s a dangerous world we live in, and no one here knows what the year will bring. Will we cower in our suburban homes, then, and not venture forth into the world? Frankly, I feel safer traveling to Israel than to Europe at this point. So another thing you can do this year, is to take reasonable precautions, and to resume living a full life. For a Jew, no life is full without spending time in Israel.

This has been and sweet and sour new year. We celebrate with the same foods and music, but our hearts are heavy, and our joy seems strained. We have been reminded of the potency of evil, and we have prayed that God banish the kingdom of evil from the world. President Bush said a few days ago that his goal is to remove evil from the world. I applaud him for that grand ambition, but he’s going to need a lot of help from each of us.

• Each of us can help by resolving to confront evil and support democratic values.
• Each of can help by discussing the situation with non-Jewish colleagues and neighbors, and by rejecting intolerant remarks toward any ethnic group.
• Each of us can help by donating to relief funds such as that established by the UJC.
• Each of us can help by making plans to identify with this country, visiting New York and DC, and by planning a visit home to Israel in this year.

We often speak of Rosh HaShanah as the birthday of the world, but that’s not quite precise. The ancient Midrash claims that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. Rosh HaShanah thus commemorates the sixth day, the birthday of humanity. All people were created equal in the eyes of God. Each of has a distinct facet of the divine within our souls. Each of us has the same obligations to avoid falsehood and violence and to build a just society.
Today is a day of teruah—shofar blasts, zikaron—remembrance, and din--justice. In truth, our New Year has not begun with the sweetness which we had desired. But there is satisfaction in understanding, and in the identification of good and evil. Our two halves, the American and the Jew, have seldom complemented each other so naturally. Let us start the new year with courage, with outrage at the evil, and with hope that good will ultimately prevail. V’chein yihei l’ratzon—May this be God’s will. Amen.

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