Rabbi David Cohen

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 David B. Cohen
Congregation Sinai
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Rosh HaShanah 5762 – 2001

For Andy Alameno, z”l

When the children of Israel defeated the Canaanites, Deborah composed a song to bless God and the Jewish people. Near the song’s end, Deborah spoke of the mother of Sisera, the murdered Canaanite general: “The mother of Sisera looked at the window and moaned through the lattice. ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?" (Judges 5:28) The Midrash states that the mother of Sisera cried, screamed, and moaned one hundred times while waiting for her son to come back from battle.

According to the Bible, the Shofar is sounded only nine times on Rosh HaShanah. The rabbis of the Talmud expand the number to thirty times. Yet for two thousand years the tradition has been to sound the Shofar 100 times on Rosh HaShanah. Whence the number one hundred? Every Shofar blast, we are told, corresponds to one of the 100 anguished cries and moans of Sisera’s mother.

If the Bible bewails the death of one of Israel’s enemies, how much more might we cry out for friends and neighbors we’ve lost this past week. How many agonies will our hearts have to bear?

While you and I share so many questions, I have no answers. I cannot tell you what all this means. For all of us, this week has been a long walk through a terrible, lonely fog. I have no answers, but I can speak to you honestly and directly with the hope that, as the Talmud says, “words that come from the heart will enter the heart.” So far, I have come to recognize only this: at the dawn of the year 5762, the Shofar’s blast will signal the myriad losses we’ve suffered.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of this past week’s events. Last Monday we went to bed in peace, believing that terrorism is something that happens far across the sea, assured that we were safe and would never be touched by evil. This Monday, I want to talk about what is happening to us as individuals, as families and as a community.

Many of you know the attack last Tuesday affected my family directly. My sister’s husband, Andy Alameno, worked for the bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center. Their tower was the first to be hit. Andy’s boss managed to call his wife. Don’t worry he said, something hit the building but they are evacuating us now. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me. I’m sure the phones will be out for hours.”

The news reported that several others made such calls. But the building’s top floors were quickly engulfed in smoke and flame. Escape was impossible. We never heard from Andy.

As America watched the spectacle unfold on TV on Tuesday, we hoped and prayed Andy was safe and simply unable to contact us. No word on Wednesday was not a good sign. Sally began to fill out the forms to officially declare Andy a missing person so that dental records could be released. Hair brushes and clothing were collected for DNA analysis. The bureaucracy of death is overwhelming. Especially when there is no body.

Meanwhile in Manhattan, my brother Sam was visiting hospitals, searching for Andy’s name. Sam told me that he saw some amazing things: The mass exodus of dust covered people shuffling slowly uptown. Second Avenue filled with earth moving equipment and emergency vehicles. Retail restaurants and stores giving away food and shoes to those who were walking home.

My mother lives in Manhattan, but last Tuesday she was in Florida visiting her father. Unable to get back, she watched the unfolding story there. She was able finally to return by train on Friday afternoon. As she arrived at Grand Central Station, she saw a group of dust and soot covered firefighters making their way for their train to Connecticut. Spontaneously, everyone in the terminal began to applaud. When my mother arrived back on the Upper East Side at dusk, every street corner had scores of people holding candles in vigil.

When the news broke, my father and step-mother drove to my sister’s home from their house just a few miles away. They have been there ever since, joined by Andy’s brother and sister who live nearby. Together, they’ve helped Sally with difficult issues like how to deal with the various bureaucracies and how to tell Sally’s young children about what happened to their father. On Wednesday, the Governor of New Jersey’s wife came to pay a condolence call. She stayed for 40 minutes. As she left, my father thanked her. “You really didn’t have to do this.” “You don’t understand,” she said.” I have to do something. We all have to do something.”

Julie and I appreciate how many of you have asked how my sister and I and the rest of our family are doing. In truth, we are overcome by an inescapable, enveloping sadness. We don’t yet fully understand how our lives have changed. I never imagined the possibility of calling my younger sister a widow, or that my niece and nephew would grow up without their father. My niece Nina, two and a half years old, spent the first part of the week parading around the house saying, “my daddy always comes home from work.” Yesterday, she dissolved in my sister’s arms, moaning over and over, “My daddy, my daddy…”

100 Shofar blasts do not begin to describe the agonies we bring this Rosh HaShanah. There are so many losses! The sound of the Shofar signals the loss of loved ones, whose families, like Sisera’s mother, wait by the window for a chariot that will not return.

Yet our losses are more than so many individuals. The sound of the Shofar also signals the loss felt by those left behind, the loss of family wholeness. When we told our children that uncle Andy had died, their first question, asked immediately: when will Aunt Sally remarry? For them, family is a puzzle, and a piece is now missing. How do we make it whole again? Sadly, none of us can return to who and where we were just a week ago.

The sound of the Shofar signals a loss of innocence. Our children said: “I think God is sad,” and; “I wish the police had gotten them out of the building sooner.” Our children expressed hope that uncle Andy was in the hospital and would try to get home. Michael said: I hope they catch the bad people who did this. But I hope they don’t hurt them.” How, we might ask, will we be able to preserve that sense of optimism, of sensitivity, in the days and months ahead?

It won’t be easy for, indeed, the sound of the Shofar signals the loss of hope for peace. If you searched every newspaper and magazine in America this week, you’d find no mention of peace. All the rhetoric is about war. It will be a prolonged war, they tell us, one that will require sacrifices. We will need to cede some civil rights, allow the authorities to expand their investigative capacities.

They may be right. This may be a battle between the forces of light and darkness, between those who prize freedom and western notions of liberty and those who demand conformity to the values of Islamic fundamentalism. But in all the talk of war, there is lacking any hint of deliberation and forethought. We might feel the urge for revenge, to wipe countries of the map, to bomb them into the next millennium, but we know that such popular sentiments do nothing to address how difficult it is to find and punish the perpetrators.

As Thomas Friedman warned, we don’t want to inadvertently create a new generation of suicide bombers by inappropriately targeting entire communities for the acts of a few. How to proceed then? It isn’t entirely clear. But we do know what hasn’t worked in the past. Targeting an individual like Osama bin Laden often leads to failure. Muamar Khadaffi, Saddam Hussein, even Pancho Villa, were never caught. And indiscriminate bombing didn’t work in Vietnam or Laos. And a land war? For an answer we need look no further than Afghanistan itself and the terrible quagmire the Soviets created.

One point is clear: Instead of focusing exclusively on war, we should reiterate our ultimate goal, a world of peace. While armed conflict may be a necessary and unavoidable step, we can’t let it overshadow the eventual peace we pray for.

If we do, we may yet see darker days in America. The sound of the Shofar has already signaled a collective loss of tolerance. On the surface, our country is coming together in a spirit of community and patriotism. But even in this moment of drawing together, lines of division are emerging. Already we see pronounced intolerance and violence directed towards Arab Americans and Muslims. This past week, I wrote a statement for by the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis suggesting the anger we feel about last Tuesday’s attacks not be directed at individual Arab Americans and Muslims. As Jews who know something about the injustice of blaming a group for the actions of a few individuals, we should call upon all Wisconsinites to reach out to each other, especially to those rendered most vulnerable by Tuesday’s events.

Sadly, I am having trouble getting all the rabbis to agree to sign the statement (It has since been revised and issued). I understand their ambivalence. I know Arab Americans do not support Israel. I know terrorist groups like Hamas fund raise in Milwaukee. I know there may well be terrorist cells here in Wisconsin, and if not here, certainly in Chicago. I too was sickened to watch some Arabs celebrate as people were still dying. And it was chilling to hear from an acquaintance that her daughter at Purdue University saw Arab students wearing t-shirts that said: this is just the beginning. But blaming the entire group for the actions of a few is just wrong, no matter how odious those actions are. For if we fail to take the moral high road, and reach out to Arab Americans and Muslims, we will have ceded to the terrorists another victory.

In addition to intolerance expressed towards Arab Americans and Muslims, the sound of the Shofar signals the loss of religious tolerance. We’ve already begun to hear the hateful ideas of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who just the other day said that liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility for Tuesday's terrorist attacks because their actions have turned God's anger against America. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," said Falwell, appearing on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club.” "Jerry, that's my feeling," Robertson responded. "I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven't even begun to see what they can do to the major population."

The irony, of course, is that Robertson and Fawell are absolutely right: the Osama bin Ladens of the world can’t stand that our country tolerates and engenders diversity. Our society’s openness is our strength as a nation. To say that civil liberties groups have brought on this tragedy, puts religious fundamentalists like Falwell and Robertson in the same camp with Bin Laden and the Taliban.

Beyond signaling the loss of our hope for peace and religious tolerance, the sound of the Shofar signals the loss of our innocence as American Jews. Among all Americans, American Jews are particularly distressed. This may be due, in part, to the worry that non-Jews will blame our country’s close ties to Israel for the current troubles. Indeed, there have been several published comments, and much more said in private, that suggest that the US reconsider its relationship with Israel.

The answer to such comments is clear. As Rabbi David Saperstein made clear in a recent address, “…this attack was not about Israel. (Indeed it was planned long before the Intifada began.) Osama bin Laden is not consumed about Middle East politics around the cause of the Palestinians. Instead, he has been focused on his extremist Islamist view of the world in which anything connected with Western Civilization, and particularly America, is evil. To blame Tuesday’s attacks on Israel is a canard and a deception; a distraction from what this struggle is really all about. Israel is an issue to Bin Laden primarily because it is an outpost of Western values, of democracy and freedom that has no place in their world-view. That is, of course, one piece of what this was about but it is not the main story and we ought not allow anyone in this nation or this world to make it so.”

Beyond the Israel connection, American Jews are upset for a reason far more complex. As American Jews, our identities are divided: Our Jewish selves feel the historical burden of oppression and persecution. We carry with us the scars of the exile, the inquisition, the Holocaust. Our American selves, in contrast, feel at home here. We’ve been the beneficiaries of America’s unique blend of religious tolerance and economic and social opportunity. The two sides of us – Jews and Americans – have lived together in happy symbiosis.

Tuesday’s events destroyed the balance between our Jewish and American sides. To feel threatened as Americans, not as Jews, is a continental shift in self-understanding. And while some have taken comfort in the thought that at least now Americans understand what Israel has been going through, it is an ephemeral recognition at best. Polling numbers indicate that the same number of people support Israel as did eight months ago. Any expected bump of sympathy has been offset by those who feel that Israel is the root cause of Mideast terrorism. The numbers of people who blame Israel will undoubted grow. As we recover from our shock at last week’s events, we would do well to examine how we can more fully support Israel in its own challenging hour.

This year, the Shofar blasts signal our anguished losses. Not only for friends and family members lost forever, but for the values of religious and racial tolerance, the innocence we had as Americans and Jews, the loss of the hope for peace.

So what do we do? We can’t bring back those who have died, but we can extract from their deaths a sense of purpose. We can rededicate ourselves to the values on which this nation stands. In accord with Jewish tradition we can buttress the religious and racial tolerance currently under threat. Even is our sadness, we can remember that our ultimate goal is not revenge, but justice, and, ultimately, a world of peace.

The other day, our son Jacob said: Rosh HaShanah is the world’s birthday and the world is 5762 years old. Is the world a baby or a grownup?

This Rosh HaShanah, the world is all grown up, with a grown up’s capacity to wreak terrible violence and terror, but also with a grown up’s ability to envision and create a world of peace. On this Rosh HaShanah, 5762, may we turn to each other and comfort each other, even though we ourselves are shaken. And may we remember and be comforted by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then shall you call upon me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will listen to you. And you shall seek me, and find me.” (Jeremiah 23:11-13) AMEN.

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