Rabbi David Lerner (2)

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 G. Lerner
North Suburban Synagogue Beth El - Highland Park, Illinois

What Are You Willing To Die For?
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5762

What are you willing to do die for?

What is so important that you would give your life for it?

These questions have haunted me for the last week, as I have seen the faces of New York’s finest and bravest. Countless people told of how they escaped the burning infernos of the World Trade Center towers by running down the stairs and, at the same time, they saw dozens and dozens of New York City firefighters running up the stairs in an effort to save lives.

“The toll last Tuesday would have been much higher were it not for the extraordinary valor of the firefighters, police officers and emergency service workers who ran to the scene to help. Some dashed into the collapsing towers to pull out people trapped in the chaos and falling debris. Pushing aside thoughts about their own personal safety and grief for fallen colleagues, they gave the world a vision of valor and selflessness.” (NY Times)

But the firefighters and rescue workers are not the only ones who knew what they were ready to die for, the hijackers knew as well. They believed that they were acting in accordance with their understanding of God’s will in killing the infidels, in striking at American power. Their misreading of Islam motivated their behavior.

And so I ask you, as I ask myself: what would you be willing to die for?

For us, in this sanctuary tonight the question may seem a bit less than immediate. But the time to think about this is not in the split-second when we are forced to make a decision, but throughout our lives as we clarify our values. While taking one’s own life is strictly forbidden in our Torah, there are three instances where the rabbis made an exception. These are called‚”yeihareig v’al ya’avor “ surrender your own life and
do not commit these transgressions. They include: taking another, innocent life, or committing an act of sexual depravity, or committing an act of gross idolatry. But barring those three, we can never give up our own life.

The rabbis have offered us criteria for our values. They have separated out these three areas as of paramount in importance. Note that in the categories of mitzvot some are considered “Bein adam laMakom, between humans and God;” others as “bein Adam lehaveiro, between one person and another.” Among these three acts that we must give our lives for, only one defines behavior between humans and God. The rabbis did not decide, for example, that being forced at gunpoint to eat on Yom Kippur or violate Shabbat required us to surrender our lives. These three reflect the deeply held values of our sacred tradition.

But what about other people? Whom would you be ready to die for? Would you be willing to die so that others may live?

Would you give your life to save your child? Your spouse? Your parents or your leader?

The secret service takes an oath to defend the president’s life, even at the cost of their own. Throughout Jewish history there have been moments when Jews were asked to surrender our lives. In the Shoah, in the Holocaust, many times people had to weigh awful options. The Nazis forced our people to endure terrible decisions in a calculus of life and death beyond our comprehension. Should we kill another to save ourselves? An enemy? An innocent?

Whose life is more valuable yours or someone else’s?

Last week’s epic catastrophe reminded us of the two sides of humanity: the side of pure evil and hate and the glorious self-sacrifice of the bravest of human souls. We saw how people become so engulfed with hate that they would kill thousands for fundamentalist ideals and we saw how people gave their own lives so that others may live.

What are you willing to die for?

Many of the firefighters who risked all to rescue others went up a staircase, up the tower, and, in essence, they never stopped ascending, all the way to heaven. My wife Sharon’s youngest brother Gary was a volunteer fireman and emergency medical technician on Long Island. Many of his friends responded immediately to the call for help last Tuesday morning. They rushed in from Long Island in an attempt to save lives; tragically, one of Gary’s best friends, Jonathan, 23 years old, was killed when the second building collapsed. May God bless his soul and those of countless others who did likewise. May their stories and memories be an inspiration to us all.

* * *

What are you willing to die for?

For the past 53years, citizens of the State of Israel have answered that they would die protecting other Jews and the Jewish state from her enemies. Since last Rosh Hashanah hundreds of Jews have been killed defending their right to exist and several soldiers were taken hostage by terrorists. We wear blue ribbons in their honor and pray for their safety. Many Jews have been killed by a determined effort by Palestinian terrorists to destroy our people. Israelis have been shot at in their homes in Gilo, in the road to school or work, all in cold blood.

What are you willing to die for?

Dozens of Palestinian suicide bombers have answered that they will die for the cause of liberating the land of Israel of its Jews. They are willing to kill innocent Jewish men, women and children to further their cause. Like their counterparts in the Attack on America, these terrorists are filled with fundamentalist hate that fuels their diabolical deeds.

We have been taught to champion human life over all else, not to kill, nor to hate. We believe that every human being was created “b’tzelem Elohim ‚in the image of God.” That means that every human being is sacred, a piece of the Divine. For that reason we must be constantly vigilant in our relationships with others and, when appropriate, preserve human life.

We should kill only when we must to save lives or to prevent disaster. During this past year of Palestinian attacks, Israel did not intentionally and indiscriminately kill Palestinians. Palestinians have died because they were human shields for gunners firing on Israelis. Other Palestinians were vicious terrorists. In many instances Israel first asked the Palestinian Authority to bring these terrorists to justice. Only after they do not act, is Israel forced to take action. Israel has tried to kill terrorists by helicopter missile in a manner that prevents the loss of innocent lives. Israel should be praised for its restraint, not condemned.
How Israelis and Palestinians terrorists are willing to die differs dramatically. While Israel warns the Palestinians that it will destroy buildings used to launch terrorist attacks, the Palestinians wait for lunchtime in a family-filled pizza restaurant.
Also, the Attack on America was given with no warning; its purpose was not only to destroy those buildings, but to kill thousands.

What are you willing to die for?

All three of the great Abrahamic religions, in their purest forms, affirm life. Islam should not be read as encouraging mass murder. Thomas Friedman wrote the following in the New York Times last Thursday:
“Where are the Muslim leaders who will tell their sons to resist the Israelis but NOT to kill themselves or non-combatants? No matter how bad, life is sacred. Surely Islam, a grand religion that never perpetrated the sort of Holocaust against the Jews in its midst that Europe did, is being distorted when it is treated as a guidebook for suicide bombing. How is it that not a single Muslim leader will say that?”

And I must recall the footage of the celebrations after the Attack on America in Gaza and the West Bank. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a Reform leader, cautions us:
“The image of Palestinians dancing in the streets in the West Bank and Gaza during America’s darkest hour will be etched in the collective memory of all Americans. While this does not reflect on all Palestinians, on the day in which America’s freedom was under attack, too many chose to celebrate with murderers and the enemies of freedom.

As Americans, what are we willing to die for? We must decide and in so doing, we will know what we have to live for.

If the forthcoming American-led war against Afghanistan and the Taliban is something we are willing to die for, we should enlist and fight, and if that is not possible, we should support the effort in other material ways. If affirming life in the face of death is important, then we must figure out how to help the five thousand bereaved families in meaningful ways. At the very least, we must donate blood, donate funds and pray. We must strengthen our community and reconnect with friends and family around the globe. We must sign our driver’s licenses to become organ donors.

As Jews, what are we willing to die for? Are we prepared to help other Jews? If so, we must do more to protect other Jews. This coming Sunday was supposed to be a massive rally in support of Israel. A hundred thousand or more American Jews were going to descend upon New York and the UN. Given recent events, that rally has been cancelled. I am proud to say that dozens of Beth El families signed up to attend. But is it enough?

If Israel is important enough to us, should we be willing to live in Israel? Or fight in its army? At the very least, we should do things that involve less commitment than fighting in its armed forces. Our theme for 5762 at Beth El is Israel and we must demonstrate that it is our priority. If thousands of Jews gave their lives for the State of Israel, should we not visit? If so many Israelis are willing to die to protect the land and its citizens, can we not be more vocal activists in the public relations fight for Israel. We need to be active and protest distorted coverage of the events, be they on CNN or in the Tribune or on our tax-supported National Public Radio. We must challenge them to present the truth.

* * *

After the rebellion of the Golden Calf, Moshe calls out: “Mi LaAdonai Elai -- whoever is for God, come together with me.” There was much commotion in the Israelite camp. What should have been the high moment for the Jewish people receiving God’s Torah at Sinai, became shattered as many in the community left the path of God and turned back to idol worship. Moshe calls out and the Levites, being ever faithful to the Holy One and their Divine mission, respond and they are able to turn the camp back to God and monotheism and away from idol worship.

“Mi Ladonai Elai” became a rallying cry for our people throughout the millennia. Unfortunately, as the year 5762 begins tonight, we realize that this is such a moment where we need to come together again as Jews and Americans.

What are you willing to die for? Just two decades ago, Jewish activists were imprisoned in the USSR because they demanded to live with the freedom to be Jewish. Is freedom a cause worth dying for? If it is, then we must lift our voices in protest of the Palestinian atrocities and in support of Israel.

What are you willing to die for?

Are truth and hate and anti-Semitism serious problems? With the support of the Arab world, anti-Semitic cartoons appear daily, Holocaust denial is normal and hatred of Jews is in force. The UN Durban conference on human rights demonstrated this. You might think it is insignificant, but any people, when marginalized become less than human. It is much easier to attack someone who is less than human. The European Union, which has thousands of years of terrible anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on its record books, sadly has returned to its anti-Semitic ways, favoring the Palestinians in a war and violence that they started and they continue to perpetuate.

What are you willing to die for? Is peace a cause to die for?

Those who fight in peace-keeping missions must believe so. When my good friends, Matt and Sara, may their memories be blessed, were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem some five years ago, they were called “sacrifices for peace.” But they were murdered and there is no peace. That is the dangers of dying for something against your will.

What are we willing to die for? What are we willing to live for?

We hope we never have to answer those questions. But I am asking you to do something everyday this year to help Israel and to assist America and to help justice. As we enter the ten days of repentance, we should think about these questions seriously: Who are the people and what are the values that I am willing to die for?

Our lives, not just our deaths, should be about our values. If you know what you are willing to do die for, then you know what you are willing to live for.

Go out tonight and resolve to live the life you are committed to.

Shanah Tovah.

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