By Rabbi David Rosen
Congregation Beth Yeshurun
LIVING WITH UNCERTAINTY
A Sermon for Kol Nidre
September 26, 2001
These have been somber days for us as Jews and as Americans. Our High Holy Days are traditionally calls to a new year of hopefulness and possibility, but understandably we lack our usual enthusiasm and emotional energy.
With our American and Jewish brothers and sisters, we face a new year of great uncertainty.
Our President has declared war on terrorism, but what will that mean for us, and for our children?
We read that germ warfare is almost inevitable and that most American cities are unprepared.
Our economy is slumping; few people, it seems, are in the mood to shop, go to the movies or theater, or, most of all, fly on a plane. Hotels, airlines, rental car companies and travel agencies are crying.
If we knew what we were dealing with, it would be so much easier. We understood taking the battle to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis. But what does it mean to fight “global terrorism”? And what does Bin Ladin mean when he declares a holy war on Americans and Jews?
Has there ever been a time in our lifetimes when there were so many uncertainties in our lives?
We feel like the psalmist surely did when, surrounded by enemies in a world he couldn’t understand, he cried out:
“I am so downcast, and such moanings fill me...My spirit inside me has sunken so low.”
It’s the cry from across the ages that links us with every Jew, every human being, who has felt overwhelmed by life’s crushing blows.
And that to me is why it is good that these holy days in Judaism have closely coincided with these days of national grieving and alarm, for we need this place, this Sanctuary, to which we can come and be encouraged and emboldened.
And we can do that because Judaism commands us to. Our tradition teaches there are 613 commandments, and to them I would add a 614th: Thou shalt not despair!
Never give in. Never give up. Never allow yourself to feel helpless and hopeless. Never shed your optimism for the future and your dream of a world in which peace flourishes and God’s Word is the word of peace.
A woman in our congregation told me that she feels like she’s been thrown overboard and she is now adrift with no resting place in sight, with arms reaching out to grab anything to which she can cling.
Tonight my message is there are wonderful things to which we can cling and keep our spirits stable and our hopes alive, as together we journey on these uncharted waters.
First, let us cling to our American values.
No matter how horrendous was what happened in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, the fabric of American life, the values we espouse and by which we have always lived, the optimistic “can do” spirit that is America, has not been harmed and so long as we remain resolute, cannot be.
We are a nation that is built on tolerance, consensus, respect for law, civic pride, and the pursuit of life and liberty. It might have sounded hokey to say that on Sept. 10, but it’s something we need to remember today. And our children must be reminded of it, too, and understand that we must not allow our pain and fear to diminish the quality of life for which we have worked so hard.
No one has a right to take away from us the freedom to travel around this country, to board an airline, to enjoy a vacation and to visit our families wherever they live in these 50 states; let us not take these privileges away from ourselves out of misplaced fear. That is not America.
No one has a right to turn our stadiums, airports, shopping malls and, yes, our synagogues into armed fortresses; let us see to our security but let us maintain our sense of balance. Let us avoid hysteria and panic, those things which every terrorist act by definition seeks to instill in its victims.
We remain a nation that is safe, yes even after what happened Sept. 11. I love the story about the pilot who allegedly told his passengers last week, “If a terrorist should try to take control of this plane, throw towels on him, throw anything you have at him; remember that it’s 80:1 or 80:2, and those are great odds.”
And after Sept. 11, it’s 250 million against 12 or 20 or 200 or 1000. We are a strong nation, too strong to be brought down from without; let us not do anything that harms and weakens us from within.
We should know the power of American values after what we in Houston witnessed this past June. When Tropical Storm Allison hit our city, do you remember how this disaster pulled us together? How it strengthened our community and forged bonds across ward-and-district lines?
How when we were using buckets to get water out of our flooded houses, we discovered complete strangers and neighbors we had only waved at but never spoken to standing with us and helping us side-by-side?
And the last few days there have been so many heartbreaking stories in newspapers and on television of people who exemplified American values.
One of the many that brought me to tears was the story of Howard Lutnick, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, an important player in America's financial community.
Cantor Fitzgerald lost 700 of its 1000 employees at the World Trade Center.
Did you see Howard Lutnick, this powerful executive, crying his heart out on television?
Mr. Lutnick didn't call for vengeance. He didn't cry out in anger. Rather, he said he would do everything humanly possible to make sure that the families of those who had died would always be provided for. That's America.
And then, he told the 300 surviving employees to go home. He said, "In the scheme of things, your jobs are not what's important. What's important is what you have at home. Go home and hug your children and your loved ones."
That's America, too.
Yes, we’re business and we’re tough and aggressive and we play to win.
But we are also a nation that exalts family, whose measure of giving to charities and philanthropies is the envy of the world, and a nation that doesn’t mind a President who has a tear in his eye. We are an emotional and a sentimental people, and perhaps a bit innocent and naïve too.
But that’s alright. I wouldn’t want us any other way.
America’s values have been our strength. As we journey on these troubled waters, we need to cling to these values now with both hands.
* * * * * *
We need to cling to our Jewish values as well.
Our Jewish faith can guide us in deciding how to respond to all that has happened.
Judaism is a faith built on realism. How did Ecclesiastes put it?
“There is a time for peace and a time for war.”
It’s a reality and always has been that there are times you cannot look away; you must face your adversary in battle or forfeit your independence or your way of life.
The Philistines, the Moabites, the Amalekites, among numerous others, all sought to end Ancient Israel, but it was Saul, Solomon and even David, the poet and player of the harp, who recognized there is a time to stand firm and defend oneself.
We Jews are here today not only because of our Sages and Teachers, but because of those who knew when the time was right for peace and the time was right for war.
And our brothers and sisters in Israel have known this, too, since the Jewish State’s founding 53 years ago.
But even though Judaism permits and even, at times, commands war, our faith sets limits. Our sanctification of life encompasses even that of our enemy’s.
Even when Israel has struggled against horrendous foes, Israel has never bombed Palestinian pizzerias filled with people, never sprayed gunfire into Palestinian nursery schools, never preached hatred nor taught that heavenly rewards might await any Jew who would kill as many Arabs as possible.
Even when Israeli cities and towns have come under fire, Israel has never lobbed its missiles randomly into populated Palestinian centers from which the fire originated.
In the Israel Defence Forces, there is an ethic called “tohar heneshek,” which means purity of arms.
This how Aaron Wolf, a young American who made aliyah to Israel in 1989, described it:
“Tohar haneshek” is an idea we hear about frequently in lectures from our commanders, who make the point that a gun is something more than just a means for defense. There is power in a gun. And attached to power is responsibility, because anyone who has a gun acquires some of God’s power. The power to take a life.
The purity of arms is the moral guideline for behavior in the Israeli Army. Its emphasis is on restraint, on compassion, and its bias is in favor of human life…
To make the idea clear, each of us, when he is sworn in at the Western Wall, will receive his weapon with one hand—and a Bible with the other.
To me, there is something so Jewish in that, and for Israel to maintain that ethic after a half-century of endless strife and terror represents an extraordinary moral accomplishment that encourages and uplifts me.
In recent months, much of the world has condemned Israel’s pre-emptive killing of Palestinians known to be involved in terrorism.
But Israel has responded: Would it be better for us to attack the cities in which these terrorists are hiding when such a battle might leave hundreds if not thousands of men, women and children dead?
Is it not preferable, more humane, moral and ethical, to kill the one man who is planning ways to kill others, and let others in his community remain unharmed?
In my mind, the world should commend, not condemn, Israel for an ethic that affirms the sanctity of life even in war.
And we can learn from Judaism that 614th commandment I mentioned earlier: “Thou shalt not despair.”
The people of modern day Israel never have, nor have our people throughout the ages, living under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.
I recently heard a poignant story from the days of the Holocaust.
A young man in his 20s had grown despondent from all the suffering and death he had witnessed each day in the camps. At last he felt he could take no more. He would run and jump onto the electrified fence that surrounded the camp; death would be instantaneous and he would suffer no more.
The moment arrived when he could break and run, but halfway to the fence, an image came into his mind, the remembrance of one of his teachers in heder back in the village where he had lived.
“Uvacaharta b’hayyim,” his teacher had taught him, “never choose despair; always choose life.”
And this young man realized his obligation to live—as a denial of the hatred that was the cause of his pain; as a rejection of death, which was the goal of his captors; as an affirmation of life, which was his responsibility to those in the camp who needed him; and to the family, he prayed, he might one day have if he lived.
We Jews have always had a thirst for life and a belief that if today was not so good, tomorrow will be better. Not in the next world, but this one.
And that’s an attitude towards life that we need to cling to with each new breath.
* * * * * *
Finally, when times are tough, I think we need to cling to our faith in God—the same God and faith to which our ancestors always turned.
“Do not abandon me, O Lord, to the will of my foes,” the psalmist prayed.
“Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear. Though wars threaten, I remain steadfast in my faith.”
It is precisely when we are under the gun, when we are unable to sleep and we walk around with a sense of dread—it is precisely at those times in all times that we have clung to our faith.
“He is the strength of my life. Whom shall I fear?”
What is faith?
Faith isn’t anything you can see;
It isn’t anything you can touch.
But you can feel it in your heart.
Faith is what keeps you trying
When others would have given up.
It keeps you believing in
The goodness of others
And helps you find it.
Faith is trusting in a power
Greater than yourself
And knowing that whatever happens,
This power will carry you through
It is believing in yourself
And having the courage
To stand up for what you believe in.
Peace in the midst of a storm,
Determination in the midst
And safety in the midst of trouble.
For nothing can touch a soul
That is protected by faith.
I think of these words by Barbara Cage when I welcome so many of you into my study each year at your moment of great uncertainty.
• A diagnosis of cancer or another dreaded disease: What will be the diagnosis and what will be the prognosis?
• A sick parent or spouse or child: We are too afraid to think about what tomorrow might bring.
• A pregnancy that has gone awry; will we have another chance?
• A loveless relationship where the embers have turned cold; rabbi, shall I stay or leave?
At all of these moments, we come to our synagogue, to our faith, to God. I bring people into my office, but more important, into this very Sanctuary. And with the lights out, I open the Aron HaKodesh and the lights from the ark flow down upon us, like the rays that emanated from Moses’ face when he came down from Sinai.
And we stand here and touch the Sifrei Torah, offer words of prayer and hope to illumine our hearts and fill them with confidence and courage.
We come with hearts so heavy, like the psalmist who cried all day, from morning to night and wondered, “where is God.”
But then that same psalmist found himself surrounded by his people, and he felt himself being moved along, swept along, until suddenly he was inside God’s House, the Sanctuary, and then suddenly he too felt courage, felt his heart fill up with optimism and joy. “I will yet praise Him,” he wrote, “My ever-present deliverer and my God.”
The psalmist discovered what every person ultimately does. In the words of Alin Austin—
You are not alone. You never have been, and you never will be. God has been with you every step of the way. Where the path leads, He is lighting lamps to guide you.
And if you ever do feel for a second that He is not right there beside you, it is only because He has gone ahead for a moment or two to build a bridge that will keep you safe from harm and that will lead you on toward the sunlight shining through.
Wherever you go, may you be with God, for God will always be with you.
In difficult times, to whom shall we cling? To God.
* * * * * *
I once heard a wonderful story from the dark days of the Janowska Road labor camp in the Ukraine.
The soldiers had decided to have fun with their Jews. In the middle of a field were two large pits. Said one of the guards: “Each of you who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they deserve!”
It was clear to the inmates that it was impossible to jump over the pits. Among the thousands of Jews there was Rabbi Israel Spira, standing with a frail 16-year-old boy.
“Rabbi,” said the boy, “it’s hopeless. Let’s just sit down and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.”
But Rabbi Spira objected. “We must obey the will of God. If it is decreed that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, then jump we must. And if, God forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, then such too will be God’s will. We must jump.”
As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, “Let us jump!” When they opened their eyes, they found themselves miraculously on the other side of the pit.
“Rabbi, we are here! We are alive!” the young boy shouted over and over. “Tell me, Rebbe, how did you do it?”
Said Rabbi Spira: “I was holding on to my heritage and my faith and everything precious in my life. But tell me, sweet child, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”
Replied the young boy: “Easy, Rebbe, I was holding on to you.”
My friends, no matter what life puts before us, no matter where our journeys lead us, no matter how dark our night and how deep the pits, no matter how scary the unknown, let us hold onto our values, let us hold on to our faith, to our God, and to each other.
And for dear life, let us jump!
And with certainty, we – will – make – it – across!
And to this let us say: Amen!