Rabbi Elias Lieberman
Falmouth Jewish Congregation
East Falmouth, Massachusetts
Remarks for Shabbat Nitzavim
The week of the Sept. 11th Tragedy
Ask me, on any given day, if I enjoy the work I do as a rabbi and my answer will be an emphatic “yes”. I am blessed in a great many ways in the work I do. I am privileged to share moments of intense joy and profound sorrow with members of this community and the larger community as well; I am given opportunities to teach, and learn from, members of this community; I am afforded the privilege of putting forth for your consideration my views on a wide range of issues, not all of which are popular but all of which, I believe, touch our lives as Jews; I have what I deem a sacred responsibility to help the Jewish community of which I am a part see its world through Jewish eyes, informed by Jewish values which are filtered through our perspective as Reform Jews.
But there are also times, friends, when I think I’d rather be driving a truck, or selling guitars, or doing anything other than what I’ve been called upon to do this week. Thankfully, I have not been called upon to counsel anyone whose loved ones were claimed by this terror. I am only beginning to hear of tangential connections: in my own family, my niece’s fiancé lost a brother-in-law in the World Trade Center collapse. I have been spared that firsthand encounter with the searing pain, the devastation, the anger, and confusion attendant upon this heretofore unbelievable experience.
So what am I complaining about? What makes my rabbinic duties feel burdensome this week? It is simply, friends, the responsibility of needing to stand here in front of you and speak words which make sense. Friends, I read the same papers you do; I listen to NPR just as religiously; I have gone glassy-eyed in front of the television screen this week; my computer has brought me countless e-mails...and yet I feel no closer to understanding than I did in those first horrible hours when the news reports sounded like a bad Hollywood script.
In the Book of Job, when that man whose life has been turned inside-out and utterly destroyed ultimately confronts God and questions God’s justice, he hears not a defense of God’s actions, not a logical explanation of why God put Job through such a horrifying
test. Instead God rails at him saying, in essence, “Just who do you think you are to question Me? Did you create this world? Are you the power behind its natural phenomena?” Poor Job, in response, says: “I clap my hand to my mouth.: (Job 40:4)
That is what I wanted to do this week. Sit with my hand clapped over my mouth in silence....just listening...not trying to offer words of meaning or explanations...just sitting in silence hoping, somehow, to hear the voice of God.
But I could not remain in silence. I have a wife to whom I needed to express my love; I have children who needed and deserved explanations appropriate to their respective abilities to comprehend this tragedy.
And I have a job, don’t I? I needed to respond to, and represent our community. And so I took part in interfaith observances on Wednesday evening, at the John Wesley United Methodist Church and again, early this evening, at the Veterans Memorial in Falmouth. And I knew that I would need to share words with you this evening, as I will again on Erev Rosh Hashana, about what has happened to all of us. And this is when I felt the burden, and felt myself inadequate to the task of finding meaning that I might reflect back to you.
But, for better or for worse, I am rarely at a loss for words. So let me share with you some of the thoughts, feelings, and concerns I have been experiencing since Tuesday.
Everyone has used the word “numb” to describe their emotional life this week. One congregant offered what struck me as a perfect metaphor: she said she felt as if she were walking under water.
The full impact of this disaster hit me yesterday morning. I was sitting at my breakfast table, reading the paper. I began to read an account of some of the last-minute phone calls to loved ones which were made by doomed passengers on the hijacked jets. A wave of grief washed over me and I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. The pain of families ripped apart, the awareness of imminent death, the courage manifest in the most horrifying of situations, brought it all painfully home to me.
Let me share with you some of my reactions, in no particular order:
With this act of carnage, many of us have a deeper appreciation of the suffering our Israeli sisters and brothers have been enduring for decades at the hands of terrorists, many of whom have been motivated by the same blind fury directed at us on Tuesday. We are beginning to hear, and will hear more of, blame leveled at Israel or at the United States’ policy of standing behind Israel. Let us hope it becomes increasingly and abundantly clear that those who would deny Israel its right to exist would also deny our right to exist safely and securely in the freedom with which we are blessed.
The ever-widening ripples of pain are unimaginable. We can barely bring ourselves to look at the photos of the victims, to read of their lives which, of course, were exactly like ours in so many ways. Most of the time we shield ourselves with the belief that we lead charmed lives; that we wouldn’t board a doomed airliner; that somehow our business appointment in New York wouldn’t be at the World Trade Center. But Tuesday’s events ripped mercilessly through our ability to defend ourselves from the reality that the coin of life always has two sides; that a chance decision can mean the difference between life and death, whether that death comes at the hands of someone intent on unspeakable evil or it comes in the form of a shark attack during a summer vacation.
Friends, we cannot defend ourselves against life itself nor, in our calmer and more reflective moments, would we wish to do so. Life always brings us a mixture of good and evil, rapture and terror, uplift to exalted heights and plunges into the abyss. Above all else, we need to maintain the perspective which Judaism affords us: we recognize that God is the source of life and death, joy and sorrow, the source of the valor and self-sacrifice which led firefighters, police and emergency workers into the heart of the maelstrom.
And what of evil? Does God stand behind twisted minds and bitter hearts who scheme the destruction of thousands of innocent lives? This is not a time for a theology lesson. Each of us carries within us some understanding of God that may, or may not, withstand the crucible of doubt, pain, and anger into which we have been plunged. My own understanding of God is rooted in that which is, ultimately, unknowable: God as the source of all. And evil? What do I do with the question of the motivation behind this terror?
Ironically, this week’s Torah portion provides me an answer. In Nitzavim Moses speaks to the Israelites who, like us, are poised on the threshold of a new world, totally different than what they have known before. With words we will hear again at Yom Kippur, God says:
See, I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life-- that you and your children may live–by loving Adonai your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deut. 3O:19-20)
It is always about choice. Those who planned the highjackings, those who opted for suicide and mass murder to make a point, chose evil. And we, friends, are confronted with choices every moment of our lives in which we have the opportunity to choose goodness. By speaking out forcefully against the scapegoating and violence being directed at Arab-Americans and at others whom angry and ignorant Americans assume to be of Arab descent because they look different. We Jews have far-too-often borne the brunt of mob violence and ill-conceived calls for vengeance to sit idly while our neighbors bleed.
We can choose life by examining closely the nature of the juggernaut which is propelling our nation toward a “war” against an unnamed enemy. That President Bush has expressed a determination to make the “war against terrorism” the central focus of his presidency says more to me about his inadequacies as a leader than it does about any real potential to end a scourge which is incredibly complex in nature. I am a proud American but I do not feel pride when flags are flown as symbols of vengeance rather than as cherished symbols of the very freedoms our rush to “war” may curtail.
We can choose life when we contribute to relief funds such as the one the Union of American Hebrew Congregations has established to provide some measure of support to the families of victims; when we donate blood; when we extend to one another the fundamental decency and compassion each of us deserves every day; when we take the time to analyze carefully the proposed solutions to the threat of terror which we are already hearing and which we will continue to hear for months and years to come.
We can choose life when we strengthen the bonds which form our community. Is anyone surprised at the numbers of people here tonight? We instinctively seek each other out for comfort, solace, a friendly face, a hug....all of which are life-affirming choices, all of which are important reasons why we choose to support a congregation. We need each other, never more than at the present moment, if not to make sense of what has happened, then to find a way to move forward despite what has happened to us and to our world.
And isn’t that the final and ultimate truth to emerge from the ashes? That to live our lives otherwise is to grant a victory to evil and to render meaningless the lives cut short. We have a duty to the dead and we have a duty to the living....to live our lives fully, even in the shadow of loss. As Jews we know no other way.