Rabbi David Gelfand

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 J. Gelfand
The Jewish Center of the Hamptons

Kol Nidre


A story is told of an old man who comes to a Brooklyn shoe store in 1949. He presents a wrinkled, tattered shoe repair ticket. He says, “Mister, you’re not going to believe this, but I brought these shoes to you to have the soles repaired in 1942 before I enlisted in the War. I forgot about them. I enlisted; I served; I got out. Thank God we won. Later I moved to Baltimore, married, had a family. Last week my wife was cleaning out my old suits and found this shoe repair ticket. It jogged my memory. I was going to be here in New York on business today, and thought I’d give it a shot because they were my favorite shoes.” The shoe repair man looks at him incredulously and says, “Unbelievable, how do you expect me to have shoes after seven years?” “Would you please go look?” He comes back 20 minutes later: “Mister, you won’t believe it, we have your shoes!” “After seven years? I can’t believe it. I’m so grateful. Well, can I have them?” The shoe repair man says, “Come back Tuesday, they’ll be ready then.”

We think we have all the time in the world to repair our souls, and, yet, we delay doing it. The powerful prayer, “Who will live and die?” and a tune that haunts our souls and inspires us, the Kol Nidre, both beckon our return. Sadly, we have been reminded this year that we don’t have all the time in the world.

From “Rent”. “Seasons of Love”:

525,600 minutes
525, 600 moments so dear . . .
how do you measure,
measure a year?

in daylights
in sunsets
in midnights
in cups of coffee
in inches
in miles
in laughter and strife

in 525,600 minutes
how do you
measure a year in a life?

We ignore time as if there were an unlimited supply of the stuff, as if for us it were endless. But it is not endless. It is our most precious commodity. It is the floor on which our life dance is performed. It is the arena in which we play out our years.

Each instant is significant; each year, each decade, all the more so.
To realize the value of one year: Ask a student who has failed a final exam.
To realize the value of one month: Ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.
To realize the value of one week: Ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.
To realize the value of one hour: Ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.
To realize the value of one minute: Ask the person who has missed the train, bus or plane.
To realize the value of one second: Ask the person who has survived an accident.
To realize the value of one millisecond: Ask the person who has won the Silver medal.
To realize the value of a lifetime: Ask someone who recently sat Shiva for a loved one.

How Do You Live Your Dash?

At the funeral of a friend, a man noted the dates on her tombstone from the beginning . . . to the end. He noted that first came her date of birth and then slowly and sadly spoke the following date with tears, 1934 – 1998. But, he said, what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

That dash represents all the time that she spent on earth . . . and now only those who loved her know what that little line is worth. For it matters not how much we own: the cars . . . the houses . . . the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash. So think about this long and hard . . . are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left. That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real and always try to understand the way other people feel. If we could only be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved them before.

If we treat each other with respect, and more often wear a smile . . . remembering that this special dash might only last a little while. So, when your eulogy’s being read with your life’s actions to rehash . . . Would you be proud of the things they say about “How you spent your dash?” (Author Anonymous)

As we begin Yom Kippur together this evening, as we begin this “Day of At-one-ment,” we do not have to define our lives as we have. Rather we can define our lives from this moment forth. It is not simply a matter of who will die, but whether or not we will live a life worth living. In the wake of the destruction and mayhem in the life of our country, in the wake of personal loss in our lives, and the losses of so many others in the shadow of September 11th, can we learn how to live in the dash and make every moment count? This Kol Nidre, in the spirit of “At-one-ment,” let us search for a way together.

A parable is told of Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz: “A man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: Brother, show me the way out of this forest! The man replied: Brother, I too am lost. I can only tell you this: The ways I have tried to lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the way together.” Rabbi Chayim would add, “So it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray; so let us join hands and look for the way together.”

As the melody of Kol Nidre yet echoes in our hearts and minds, let us join hands together for there is a profound and sacred strength in the unity of this entire congregation, of the Jewish people, and of the American people. Here, in our hands and hearts, in our minds and souls there is inestimable real power. We are called for a sacred purpose tonight, to re-examine our individual lives, especially in the shadow of recent frightening tragedies.

Yet, here is the paradox! We stand before God as singular people, yet the power is in our large numbers. That’s part of why we feel such awe and holiness. This day culminates the Ten Days of Awe, Yamim Nora-im, when each of us looks into his or her soul as an individual. It is the paradox of each individual soul, joining together with other individual souls, and simultaneously making this community as strong as the faith of ages past.

Just before the Cantor chanted Kol Nidre, before our hushed, awe-struck congregation, we sang the Biblical verse, as we marched with the Torah scrolls.

“Or zarua la-tzaddik, ule-yishray lev simcha.” (Psalm 97:11).
“Light is sewn for the righteous, joy for the upright in heart.”

Ancient Rabbis, noted that the first half of the Biblical verse points to the individual, you and me. The Hebrew word ‘tzaddik’ is written in the singular. Yet, the second half of the verse, “yishray lev”, the “upright in heart”, is the plural, pointing to all of us. The midrash teaches that there are no accidents in Biblical texts. These two grammatical forms were placed here to make a point. It is the strength of the individual ‘tzaddik’, the righteous one, when joined together with other ‘tzaddikim,’ which creates the possibility of a community or nation, a people who are “upright in heart.”

And why is this verse recited prior to Kol Nidre, when we list broken vows, unkept promises and violated oaths? How does a group of people like us, who refer to ourselves in the liturgy as transgressors, on this sacred evening, quote a verse moments before the Kol Nidre, calling ourselves ‘tzaddikim’ and upright of heart?

The message, I believe, is that at heart we have the capacity to act as ‘tzaddikim,’ as righteous individuals. And if we join together and do a ‘cheshbon hanefesh’ - an inner spiritual and moral accounting during these final 24 hours of the Ten Days of Awe, then we can transform ourselves into a people of “yishray lev” - men and women who are all upright in heart. But our Tradition wisely notes, in many places, it is only as individuals that we can achieve the exalted status of ‘tzaddik.’ Only by many individuals doing countless acts of righteousness, do we then become an upright community.

In Maimonides’ “Code of Law” (Hilkot Teshuvah 3:4), in the section “Repentance,” we are reminded that each single act we commit can tip the moral scale of the world one way or the other. Picture in your imagination that the scale of humanness in our society is evenly balanced, and that every act you perform will tip the scale in one direction or the other. That is the importance Maimonides wants to impress upon us in thinking about how we want to act in the days following Yamim Nora-im, in the New Year.

This year, more than most, the world seems so filled with violence, corruption, terrorism, internecine warfare and family and societal disrespect. What possible hope is there of the coming of a messianic age? Are our prayers for naught and do not our songs ring hollow? Are these days more than pageantry and communal ritual? What possible part can any of us really play in bringing that time closer? Don’t we really feel in futility, “I am a single person with little influence on the world.”

Maimonides lambastes that pessimistic belief. We each have power! We each are ‘tzaddikim’ in our hearts, and can make a just and decent society if we but will it. These are very tough, challenging and even frightening times, so let me try to help you with one of my very favorite stories.

Once, there was a traveling Rabbi who had the ability to answer every question. Never once was he wrong. Then, one day, he came to a town where thousands came to hear him. One little girl, a scoffer, raised her hand. “I have the question you can’t answer,” she said. “I have in my hand a little bird. Tell me. Is this bird alive or dead?” She thought, “If he says it’s alive, I’ll close my hand and kill the bird. If he says it’s dead, I’ll open my hand and let the bird live.” The Rabbi, aware of the trick behind the question, was stumped. Here was the question he couldn’t answer. But then, all at once, the answer hit him. Tears came streaming down his cheeks, even as his face broke into a cherubic smile, much like rain falling in the midday sun. Here, he knew, was the secret of Jewish destiny. Looking at the girl in the midst of the huge crowd, he said, “My precious, precious child. You hold in your hand a bird. You ask me if it’s alive or dead. I can only tell you one thing. The question of life and death lies in your hands.” [Peninnah Schram, “Chosen Tales”].

In the hands of each of us sitting in our awe-inspiring tented sanctuary this evening, is the choice of life and death. So too, wherever Jews are worshipping tonight. Each act we perform, each decision we make, for good or evil, can help tip the balance of our society, to salvation or destruction. We have to think of our lives that way, or we will perish in the abyss of pessimism and cynicism, fear and anxiety.

In “Pirkei Avot” we are taught that more than a teacher gives to his students, his students give to his teacher. These past few weeks I have learned a great deal from so many people in our congregation and so many in our community. The countless calls and personal stories have helped me understand better than ever before the strength that each of us holds to be “tzadikkim” and the power that each of us holds in our hands. The events of 9/11 have brought forth a seemingly endless torrent of stories, conversations and calls to reach out and to touch and be touched.

As a Rabbi, I never say to those who have suffered tragedies “I understand.” I say that I am overwhelmed with sadness to see this in your family. I can cry with people and empathize with them, but I am not their teacher when traumatic and terrible things happen; they are my teachers. They are our teachers. This time the teachers are amongst those who died, those who survived the destruction and those who are left behind without husbands, wives, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, best friends and thousands of sons and daughters, and thousands now orphaned.

They were and are not theologians, nor philosophers. I doubt that many of them could tell you about the Biblical Job who lost everything in one fell swoop — his family, his fortune, his health. In person, via phone, fax and e-mail, so many hundreds have shared their stories with me. But their comments, pleas and conversations are as instructive if not more, because they are not theoretical. They are as real as that smoldering pile of concrete, steel and human remains that was once the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and airplanes and some 7,000 people.

Jerry Glick — Todd Beamer — Sandra Bradshaw, Mark Bingham were on Flight 93 over Somerset, Pennsylvania. They were on their cell phones telling their families of the hijacking and their awareness that other planes had been crashed. They told their families that they loved them. “We’re going to try and do something,” they said. “Please have a good life,” said one to his wife. Then with their hands, they saved the world from an even darker day and more untold horrors. Their message was — “I love you. Have courage and go on with your lives.”

Officer John Perry of the 40th Precinct of the Bronx was on his way into the station that morning to file his retirement papers. He dropped his papers off and raced to see how he could help. He never returned. He sent us a clear message. “You may be able to retire from your job, but you don’t retire from responsibility towards your community and toward your fellow human beings. That lasts for a lifetime, no matter how long or short that lifetime may be.”

It was 8:45 in the morning when Officer Jim Lehey and his partner heard the terrible explosion. Twenty minutes later he was carrying oxygen tanks to the 27th floor of Tower One. At 9:35 am Jim called his wife to say that he was OK and was helping people get out. He called back. “It doesn’t look good. Just remember that — I love you.” He sent that personal message to his wife, but also to each of us, that there are people whose jobs are to rush into buildings while everyone else is trying to get out.

Their message to us: “Humankind is capable of incredible goodness and selflessness. Don’t forget that — don’t give up on humanity because if you do you are negating our sacrifice.”

Abe Zalmonovich didn’t take an oath to protect like those who serve in our Fire and Police Departments. Abe was an Orthodox Jew, 55 years old. He had a friend named Edward Bayae, a 42 year old Christian, a quadriplegic. They worked together. After the plane struck it was apparent that the only escape was down the staircase. Stuck in his wheelchair, Ed realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. He told Abe to get out of the building but Abe wouldn’t leave. Abe had taken no oath to leave no soldier behind, no oath to protect and defend. His oath was that of a human being who loved his fellow with all his heart, with all his might and with all his soul. Was there ever a man who carried the name of Abraham who reflected more beautifully and more truly the tradition began by his name sake over 3000 years ago — than Abe Zalmonovich?

Chaplains for the firefighters and police are never put in harms way, but someone forgot to explain that to Reverend Mychael Judge of the NY Fire Department. A Roman Catholic priest, he ran out of his bedroom when he heard the crash. With fires raging about, he saw a dying firefighter and ran over to administer last rites. As he leaned over, the building collapsed on them. The message he sent us was clear — “There are religions that help people soar into the heavens to do the work of God here on this earth — not just versions of religion which exhort people to maim, victimize and kill women, men and children.”

Moments after the jetliner crashed into the Pentagon, Lt. Commander Dave Terrintono heard someone screaming. He didn’t know if it was a co-worker, a visitor, a black, white, or oriental, a Jew, Christian or Muslim. He just heard screams. So this Naval Doctor crawled through a burning 2 x 1 foot hole and saved a man who was pinned to a burning desk. His message was clear – “Whoever saves a person is as if he has saved an entire world” (“Pirkei Avot” and the “Koran”) — and he applied that love indiscriminately while his would be executioners applied hatred indiscriminately.

Where are we now and where, O God, are our heads…and hearts? Many analysts have said that it was because we have been afraid to congregate in large numbers that people have avoided theaters, malls, and places of tourism. I don’t think that’s what happened. Fear probably kept people from flying, but not from everything else. Our traditions can well help us understand that this country began to observe shivah after the attacks. We all felt a profound sense of loss — of lives and of our own sense of security and we retreated into our own homes. There was no entertainment and little traveling. You just don’t do that when you are mourning. But after the shivah is over, you’ve got to pick yourself up and get back to life. Shivah officially ended this week with the raising of the American flags to full staff. We have started to return to life though with a different view to be sure. We were living with a false sense of security enjoying the good life and believing that we would remain immune from the plagues that are afflicting the world today such as radical fundamentalism and ideological terrorism.

The theory that people did not want to congregate in large numbers at obvious targets holds no water when you realize that the synagogues, churches and mosques across America were all crowded during the week immediately following the tragedy of 9/11. Many thought that Rosh Hashanah would find a tremendous drop-off in attendance at synagogues across America but rather they were packed. We came to shul to gain insight and perspective. Now we return during sheloshim in search of healing, to be uplifted, to be given understanding and hope. The synagogue is the anchor of our Jewish community. It is here that we seek to find ourselves when we are lost; it is to the synagogue that we go to for coping with our tragedies as well as for celebrating our simchas and our triumphs.

The cell phone calls and the countless heroic actions are a lesson for us to get a handle on what is important in our lives. We cannot let the things really important to us be weakened or distanced at this time. We need to be stronger as a synagogue, as a community and as a nation in times like this, not weaker. We need to do more, not less.

We can begin tomorrow at Yizkor for this year every one of us is a mourner. It is why in our home we symbolically lit an extra yahrzeit candle tonight. Let us each of us say Yizkor for the firefighters, the police, the security personnel who stayed behind and urged everyone down the stairs to safety, the known heroes and the unknown heroes. Everyone of them deserves that and nothing less. In the face of the “tzaddikim”, of the victims and survivors, we can no longer call ourselves strangers.

The terrorists did not win for we are here tonight and each of us has the power to be a ‘tzaddik,’ to kindle light against the frightening darkness of the unknown, and to create a community of people who are “upright in heart.” If, as Maimonides reminds us, we take each act seriously, if we look upon our lives with the care and concern that one simple act can change the world, then when we walk out of here tomorrow night after the blowing of the shofar, Yom Kippur will have been a personal and communal catharsis and we will feel more hopeful, more powerful, more upright.

In the Mishnah, Hillel taught: “When all is moral chaos, it is time to be a ‘mentsch’. “ Can we summarize our message more succinctly than that? If you want to help combat terrorism, but you can’t join the Delta Force this year, look for 100 ways to be a ‘mentsch!’ If each of us acted as a ‘mentsch,’ we would each bring out the ‘tzaddik’ that is inside of us. Is there really anyone in this sanctuary tonight, who does not have an opportunity, on a regular basis in our daily lives, to perform acts of ‘menschicheit?’ In memoriam and in solidarity with all that we espouse, do not let this Yom Kippur go by without a personal decision to do something important, something life affirming, this week and every week during the New Year. To do something that will let the ‘tzaddik’ within you find its full flowering in a sparkling and generous way, as we strive to make a difference.

Like many of the people on September 11th, we have choices. We almost always have choices. We choose our life’s values on a daily basis. Each of you knows in your heart the ways in which your own inner ‘tzaddik’ wants to come out. Think about it now, and make it your task tomorrow and the next day, and the next! Each of us can make a difference in the struggle for all that we hold dear. Each of us can create light in this New Year!

An old Jewish tale reminds us of our foolish assumptions about not making a difference: A king was planning a wedding for his only daughter, and asked each of the guests to bring a bottle of fine wine from their own vineyards. When they arrived, they were to pour the wine into a huge vat in the royal gardens. When the right moment came, the King stepped forward and drew the wine from the communal wine vat to make a toast to the bride and groom. But when the King turned on the spigot, what came out was not wine but water! (Peninah Schram, “Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another”)

It seems that everyone thought to himself, “If I bring a bottle of water, it will be mixed with all the fine wine, and no one will know the difference.” But since everyone thought the same thing, the whole vat was filled with water!

Too often, we are like the people in that fictional town, who think that our little bottle of wine will not make any significant change in the way things are in the world. So we don’t give our best, and we don’t contribute the pure wine of commitment and generosity, but rather the water of stinginess and self-centeredness, and we dilute the goodness that lies potential in the world. This synagogue needs you, as does Israel and surely this country of ours. And this year, more than most, your family needs you and your friends need you, too.

George Kennan reminds us that we must not assume that only the leaders, the great intellectuals, the spiritual giants of the world, are the ones who have the influence to make significant changes. “If humanity is to have a hopeful future, there is no escape from the preeminent involvement and responsibility of the single human soul, in all its loneliness and frailty.” [“Around the Cragged Hill — A Personal & Political Philosophy”, p.258]

A poet wrote, “I am only one, but I am one. I
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
By the grace of God, I will do.”

Did you ever hear the story of an old man who walked the beach at dawn and noticed a young man picking up starfish, flinging them into the sea? Finally catching up with the youth, he asked him why he was doing this. The answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun rose. “But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish,” countered the old man. “How can your effort make any difference?” The young man looked at the starfish in his hand, and said, “It makes a difference to this one,” and he threw it to safety in the waves. (Rabbi Steven Carr-Reuben)

The waters are dangerous and rough this year. But God knows when it comes to the bright light of righteousness and goodness, we still have the power in our hands and hearts to know what we’ve always known: God is the predicate. Loving is Godly. Doing justice is Godly. Healing broken hearts is Godly. And at the end of the day it makes a difference to this one and to that one (pointing to congregants) and to each one whom we loved or know. To each one who is loved by someone. To each one created in God’s image. Yes, thank God, it makes a difference, the ultimate difference, to each and every one.


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