Rabbi David Steinhardt

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 Steinhardt
Erev Rosh Hashanah-5762
September 17, 2001

Erev Tov and Good evening…Shanah Tovah
I must tell you that on a certain level it was a struggle to find the right words, even to begin this service tonight. This night, this night, which ushers in the New Year for Jews throughout the world is being observed with a particular backdrop. It’s a backdrop of terror, a backdrop of such deep sadness, a backdrop of fear and uncertainty.

Yet we are certainly here and we will be here in even greater numbers tomorrow...and that is good, that is very good. The worst thing, the very worst thing to happen to one when he or she finds himself or herself in the grips of so much discordance, is to be alone. People need people. People need to be with people. And whether we are together speaking about the tragedy or trying to make some meaning out of it, or speaking about the themes of these holy days or sitting together surrounded by the beautiful music of these days, we will bring some relief and we will bring some comfort. Together then, we have an opportunity to bring some healing and hope to each other. Friends and family members close to me sympathized with the challenge that these days will bring…whatever I had previously planned to speak about, will become quite meaningless now. Rabbis all over the world had to rethink the messages they will preach on this day. I gave considerable thought to that. And although my message tomorrow will be focused on the events of the last week and perhaps the meaning they hold for us as Jews and American Jews. Tonight I’d like to make some observations and how they relate to what we’re doing here on Rosh Hashanah.

The first is that the sense of tragedy here became so much more profound, so much more powerful, when it became personal. It was horrible to see the planes fly into the World Trade Center, it was traumatic to watch the buildings implode, but there was a whole different level of tragedy, a whole lot deeper sense of sadness and pain when we began to place names and faces on the victims.
I saw stories on television, you saw stories on the news, we’ve read stories, and there can be no pain more profound then the pain of the mother, who ran towards the building screaming, looking for her 27 year old son, whose office was on the 86th floor. Her face, her terror, was ours. We knew that thousands upon thousands of people were missing...buried under the rubble or perhaps incinerated…but somehow that pain wasn’t quite like the pain when we saw the pictures posted on cars and shop windows of the husbands whose wives were holding on to some thread that maybe they were seen, or sisters whose siblings came to the scene of destruction with photographs...just maybe, just maybe someone, somewhere has seen the one we love.

You see, for some paradise maybe found in an afterlife, but not for people like these, Americans like us, for whom this world is no waiting room for eternity, this is what matters…life is what matters…and for David Berry, Pamela Boyce, Peter Carroll, Joyce Commings, William Feehan, Julio Fernandez, Timothy Haskell, Daniel McCabe, Martin McWilliams, Dominick Pizzulo, Mark Schwartz, Michael Weinberg, Raymond York…and perhaps 5,000 more, this is the end.

We know from the histories and the accounts of the holocaust. The number 6,000,000 is beyond understanding, but the death of a child is so deeply disturbing. Perhaps no account of the Shoah has had the effect on so many as “The Diary of Anne Frank”. There a human face is placed on a tragedy that is so huge, it’s almost beyond comprehension...But we all relate to that one girl and her family.

And perhaps that is an essential message of this Holy day…we read in the Torah about one little boy, one son who is born. Through him our people bring a message to the world...Through Isaac we ultimately become as numerous as the stars in the skies and the sand in the seas...And we will read the Haftortah about the birth of one little boy, Samuel, one little boy in whom the hopes and dreams of a mother are fulfilled.
Hayom Harat Olam…today the world was born…This is the day that we celebrate the birth of humanity, the creation of human life…We believe that every life is a universe…Every life carries the signature of that which is Divine.

What are we here to pray for? We come to pray for a good year, we come to pray for health, yes, we pray for happiness...but above all we pray for life. It seems so simple, so obvious, but it may not be. Other traditions were born out of sacrifice or death…in some traditions martyrdom is a supreme value...not ours…It is life; it is life itself that is the supreme value.

We come here to pray for life…zachreinu lchaim, on this holy night. Our concern is the entire world, the entire universe on this night, on Rosh Hashanah. Yet we know that we can only realize this concern through every individual being.

What a precious gift is life itself, and how easily we take it for granted. On these days we will remember all of our fellow Americans, Jews and non-Jews who perished at the hands of terrorist…and we will mourn those thousands of lives...one at a time…each one so precious, each one so unique, each one capable of creating a world.

My friends, I think that is why our tradition is not based in absolute philosophies…We consider the individual when we make choices…When Israel goes to war, we know that every soldier has been trained in the ethics of warfare…when we consider the issues of our day, we consider the lives of every individual case.

Tonight we pray for life. We pray for the lives of our families. Our children, our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters…What could possibly be more precious to us than those whom we loved…One of the questions we were asked this week was how we speak to our little children about what happened…The answers we have heard, from those who know best, is to focus on our love for them. We listen to them. Listen to their concerns and their fears, and hold them tight, hug them and tell them how much we love them. Every one of us has the potential for so much good, so much kindness, and so much love…
Life is the most precious of all gifts…to take a life is to destroy the image of God…

On these days we will together consider some of the most important themes…but there are none as basic as life itself…And so we sit here, not only shaken by what has happened, but also in gratitude for what we have and who we are…We thank God for the precious gift of life…Baruch Ata Adonoi Ehloheinu Melech HaOlam Shehechiyanu, Vikiyimanu, Vihigiyanu Lazman Hazeh.

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