Rabbi David Steinberg
BE NOT AFRAID
In the spring of 1996, when my grandmother Elsie Steinberg passed away, my family asked me if I would officiate at her funeral. A natural request – after all, I was only one year away from being ordained as a rabbi. But I said no --- my personal policy has been and continues to be that I won’t officiate at the funeral of a close relative. When such tragedy strikes so close to me, I need to be able to mourn. And when that happened five years ago, I wanted to be able to mourn for my Nana instead of being the rabbi that day.
When I do act as “the rabbi” in such a situation, my professional obligations seem to require me to step back – to remain in control, not to break down, so that I can be available to comfort the mourners and to attend to their spiritual needs. When I plan a funeral, when I counsel congregants in times of crisis, I’m always looking for that elusive balance between having empathy for those in distress while at the same time being distanced enough that I don’t fall apart myself, rendering me ineffective in the situation.
And yet, here I find myself today, standing before you to deliver a Rosh Hashanah sermon, while feeling like I am myself a mourner along with hundreds of millions of other mourners in our country and throughout the civilized world. In many ways, I’ve been feeling like I personally have been falling apart since the morning of September 11th, that I personally have been in a state of shock, that I personally have been in aninut --- that ritual state of not yet being able to even begin mourning, because my dead still lie before me, with thousands of bodies not yet even recovered let alone decently buried.
I feel sick and nauseated.
And like Elle [a congregant who just prior to my sermon read an essay she has written about her reactions to 9/11 which had been broadcast on a local NPR affiliate], who spoke so poignantly and perceptively a few moments ago, I too am afraid. However, my fear – stemming from my position as rabbi of this community – is perhaps a different sort of fear from what Elle describes. What I fear is that anything I might say from this pulpit to help us make sense of this tragedy might amount to platitudinous pieties that have been rendered obscene in the face of what we have experienced. I’m afraid that anything I might say from this pulpit to help us find solace in our pain might be deligitimizing of the feelings of those of us who are simply not ready to be consoled -- no matter how many uplifting words I might address to them.
And finally, I am afraid that for me, or indeed for any other human being, to presume to speak about God’s goodness, or God’s justice, or God’s compassion, or God’s will, or God’s plan, or God’s power --- that to speak of God AT ALL today is itself a Msh lulic, a desecration of God’s name. How can any human being today speak of God --- when there are other human beings who have been walking and who continue to walk the face of the earth as we speak – who would plan and carry out acts of terror while proclaiming that they are doing so to serve God.
And yet, hineni he-awni mi-ma’as, nirash, v’nifchad mi-pachad ….bati la’amod lifneychem/ Here I am, of little merit, tremblng and afraid as I stand before you --- to say, in the words of our holy scriptures:
Al tira mipachad pitom
U’miso’at re’sha’im ki tavo
Do not fear sudden terror
Or the devastation of the wicked when it comes (Prov. 3:25)
Utzu eytzah v’tufar,
Dabru davar v’lo yakum
Ki imanu el.
Plan a conspiracy and it will be annulled,
[O you who conspire], speak your piece but it shall not stand
For God is with us. (Isaiah 8:10)
V’ad ziknah ani hu,
V’ad seyvah ani esbol,
Ani asiti va’ani esah
Va’ani esbol va’amaleyt.
Even to your old age, I remain unchanged,
And even till your ripe old age, I shall endure
I created you and I shall bear you;
I shall endure and rescue. (Isaiah 46:4)
Those three pesukim from chapter 3 of the Book of Proverbs, and from chapters 8 and 46 of the Book of Isaiah are traditionally recited by some Jews at the end of the Aleinu prayer . I have been thinking of those verses ever since the terrorist attacks took place last week --- especially the words of Isaiah chapter 8 verse 10, addressed by the prophet to his people’s mortal enemies ---
Plan a conspiracy and it will be annuled,
speak your piece but it shall not stand
Ki imanu El/ For God is with us. (Isaiah 8:10)
I considered reading those verses at last week’s interfaith prayer service at the Newman Center, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The words “Ki Emanu El”/ “God is with us” ---- stuck in my mouth. I still felt connected with God ---- Indeed I still believed that God IS with us. But I couldn’t dare to say the words out loud, in a public setting, from the mantle of authority of role as a clergyperson. Why not? Because I still felt, and I still feel that there is bond of common humanity existing between me and my fellow human beings who have desecrated God’s name by commiting mass murder and daring to justify it as a religious cause. So, it seemed to me in the first hours and days after the attacks that all of humanity had been tarred by this obscene act; that, for the time being anyway, no human being should dare to even speak of God let alone proclaim --- KI IMANU EL --- “God is with us.”
Instead, it seemed to me that rather than talking about whose side God is on, that we should focus on what WE HUMAN BEINGS ARE DOING TO EACH OTHER AND TO THIS WORLD --- that we should take to heart the words of the classic midrash Eicha Rabba in which God says:
“Halevai oti azavu v’torati shamaru….”/ “If only they would forget ME but keep my torah…” (Eicha Rabba, Petichta 2)
But now it’s Rosh Hashanah, Yom Teruah --- the day of the sounding of the Shofar, yom- hazikaron --- the day of Remembrance and I turn to my tradition and I do try to pull myself together, and I do dare to say to you:
Do not fear sudden terror
Or the devastation of the wicked when it comes (Prov. 3:25)
-- For God is with us.
--- Even to our old age, God will remain unchanged,
-- Even till our ripe old age, God will endure
--- God created us and will bear us;
--- God will endure and rescue.
The other day, a colleague of mine e-mailed to me a humorous piece entitled “You know you’re a rabbi when….”
To tell you the truth, most of it didn’t really ring true for me since I ‘m not part of the orthodox yeshiva world described in the piece. But one item on the list did seem to apply to me: “You know you’re a rabbi when you give twelve different answers to twelve different people who ask you the same question…”
It’s not that I’m lying --- rather, it’s that each person is coming from a different personal place when they ask me questions like: How could God allow this to happen? How can we praise God or even believe in God when such tragedy takes place in the world? Or simply --- Eicha/Alas, How can this be? Many of you must be similarly confounded during these difficult days: How shall I speak of this to my children? How shall I speak of this to my students? How shall I speak of this in my heart?
The prophet Jeremiah, watching the burning ruins of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem cries out in the opening verses of the Book of Lamentations:
Eycha, yashvah badad ha’ir, rabati am, haytah k’almanah, sariti b’medinot haytah lamas./ Alas, lonely sits the city once great with people She that was great among nations is become like a widow, The princess among states is become a thrall.
And so it seemed to us on Tuesday September 11, 2001. Now, a week later, as we welcome another Rosh Hashanah and as our country struggles to pull itself together and move forward once more --- may we turn instead to the closing words of the Book of Lamentations ---words of hope that echo within these very walls every time we lovingly return the Torah scroll to the Ark: Hashiveynu, Adonai, Eylekha, v’nashuva --- Chadesh yameinu ke’kedem --- Take us back, Adonai, to Yourself, and let us come back --- Renew our days as in days of old.
We SHALL find renewal. We SHALL recapture something like the spirit that filled us before this generation’s day of infamy. But we ARE changed. And America IS CHANGED. And the civilized world IS CHANGED. We must now be more vigilant of our security --- while yet striving to safeguard our civil liberties. We must now be more proactive in rooting out the forces of terrorism --- while yet exercising care not to target the innocent and not to sow prejudicial hatred against entire religious, ethnic or national groups.
Most of all, we need to be gentle with each other. Each one of us is hurting. Each one of us is bewildered. Each one of us is charged with the mitzvah of consoling others while yet needing consolation ourselves.
But, for what it’s worth, and meaning no disrespect to those who may disagree with me, I’ll at least go out on a theological limb to say this to each and every one of you --- because I do believe this with all my heart:
IT WILL ALL BE ALRIGHT.
WHATEVER HAS HAPPENED OR MAY HAPPEN --- GOD IS WITH YOU --- IN THE STILL SMALL VOICE OF HOPE THAT PERSEVERES AT THE CENTER OF YOUR SOUL ---- IN THE FORCEFUL BLAST OF THE SHOFAR PROCLAIMING GOD’S MAJESTIC RULE --- IN THE VOICES OF CHILDREN LEARNING THE ALEPH-BET LIKE GENERATIONS BEFORE THEM --- IN THE HANDS OF THE FIREFIGHTERS AND RESCUE WORKERS WHO EVEN AS WE SPEAK ARE HELPING TO REPAIR THE BROKEN WORLD SOUTH OF 14TH STREET ---
IT WILL BE ALL RIGHT.
I am reminded of the words of Franz Rosenzweig, the early twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher, who wrote:
“Each of us can only seize by the scruff whoever happens to be closest in the mire. This is the “neighbor” that the Bible speaks of. And the miraculous thing is that, although each of us stands in the mire ourself, we can each pull out our neighbor, or at least keep them from drowning. None of us has solid ground under our feet; each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands grasping us by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next one, and often, indeed most of the time… we hold each other up mutually. All this mutual upholding (a physical impossibility) becomes possible only because the great hand from above supports all these holding human hands by their wrists. It is this, and not some nonexistent “solid ground under one’s feet” that enables all the human hands to hold and to help. There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up --- like an eagle that hovers over her young.
In this new year 5762, let us truly do God’s work by turning to one another, by turning to our broken world, and by lifting one another up. In this way we shall transform the chillul hashem/ the desecration of God’s name that was committed in recent days --- with kiddush hashem/ the sanctification of God’s name.
In the words of the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer:
Mitokh hakhosheykha anakhnu mevakshim
Lakum makhar baboker ulehatkhil mibereshit
Lakum machar baboker
Im shir chadash balev
Lashir oto bekoach, lashir oto bikev
Lishmoa chalilim baruach hachofshit
We seek amidst the darkness
To wake tomorrow morning
And begin from the beginning.
To wake tomorrow morning
With a new song in our hearts
To sing it in our strength, and sing it in our pain
To hear the flutes on the fresh, free breeze
And to begin from the beginning
…. Come to services tonight and I’ll teach you that song. But for now, let’s listen to the song of our choir in music that they will introduce.
L’shana tova tikateivu/ May you be inscribed for a good year.