Rabbi Edmund Winter

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.




I belie my age when i tell you that the events of last week created the same sense of numbness and fear as i felt when president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The clearest image i remember from that tragic time and the one which encapsulated the feelings of the nation was an editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin, who by the way was syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times. I saw on the back of the edition of the new republic dedicated to Kennedy’s assassination. It pictured Abraham Lincoln at the familiar memorial in Washington, DC, and Lincoln has his head in his hands and he is crying. The date of that edition is 12/7/63 and i still have a copy of that edition.

The picture that i suggest best depicting the feelings of America today was one i say on Tv: it showed lower Manhattan with the world trade center towers burning with a broad enough focus to include the statue of liberty. In my mind i could see the statue of liberty turning and facing the world trade center, putting down her torch and bending her head into her hands and weeping. A woman in grief crying, not for the destruction of a building representing our economic might, but keening for the thousands who were dying or about to die.

Such an image is portrayed by Jeremiah in tomorrow morning’s. Following the destruction of the first temple, which he personally witnessed, he speaks: “thus said the lord: a cry is heard in Ramah--wailing bitter weeping--Rachel weeping(not for the temple, the dwelling place of g-d) for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children who are no longer.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

I believe Jeremiah was correct in the metaphor of a woman in grief, because women who understand the real tragedy of 586 bce and of 2001 ce. The real loss is not the destruction of a building but the wanton murder of innocent human beings. Killed because they are Americans.

Jeremiah proclaims: “the lord has handed over to the foe the wall of Jerusalem’s citadels; they raised a shout in the house of the lord as on a festival day.” (lam.2:7) this echoes the images of the palestinians celebrating in the streets of the old city, before arafat’s security forces could grab the videotapes and destroy them.

Jeremiah describes the aftermath of the hurban in these words: “silent sit on the ground, the elders of zion; they have strewn dust on their heads and girded themselves with sackcloth.” The other image i have is that of a man following the collapse of the world trade center towers, he must have been a lawyer, an executive, in shirtsleeves, his tie askew, his briefcase in his hand, covered with the ashes of the collapsed tower. “sackcloth and ashes” the ancient sign of mourning.

What has our nation done in response to this loss of human life: what we would do as Jews. First, try to find something to bury. The rescue workers endangering their own lives, are searching the rubble hopefully for survivors, but now to retrieve bodies and body parts of families to have something to bury.

Second, what some Jewish families are doing or will be doing, sitting shiva. What is shiva? Seven days in which our lives grind to a halt. Normal activities are suspended, we sit on low benches, pray, remember and talk about the dead. It is not business as usual. Something terrible has happened and shiva provides us with the time to grieve and remember.

For the past seven days it was not business as usual in this country. The stock markets closed, sports activities and concerts were cancelled, vigils and memorial services were held in all kinds of venues. The skies were quiet as the entire air transportation system was grounded. The country was in lockdown. Even if much of this was for only security reasons, unconsciously the country recognized that we needed the time to think, to express our anger and rage, to mourn, and to consider how our lives have changed as a country and as individuals.

The media throughout their broadcasts were talking about those who died, especially on the four aircraft. Not only their ages and names and professions, but as their families have reported: why they were travelling and the kind of people they were. So we have had the opportunity to get to know a few of our fellow citizens and can mourn them properly.

Supposedly the president himself, as the head of this mishpocha, following the attacks was sitting in a bunker, under ground, lower than normal, as a mourner.

What shall we do during the shivah time. Jeremiah’s counsel to the Jews of his generation sitting shiva, so to speak, for their fallen brethren is: “let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the lord. Let us lift up our hearts to g-d in heaven.” (Lam.3:40) more than thoughts and plans for revenge, the prophet counsels us to resolve to improve. We, Jews, have been given these high holy days of 5762, for such a purpose of introspection and teshuvah. We, Americans, need to use this time not only to plan retaliation, assign blame here and abroad, but also to examine the ills of our own society and resolve to correct them. Otherwise, i believe, the victims of the terror will have died in vain.

The traditional practice when visiting a house of shiva is to extend comfort to the bereaved. I conclude with the traditional words of solace which i offer to all of America: “hamakom yenachem etchem btoch sh’ar aveilei tziyon v’yerushalayim.” May the g-d who has always been with us in times of loss and destruction, bestow his healing comfort and consolation. Amen.

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