Rabbi Elon Sunshine

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 Elon Sunshine

A Terrific Beginning and a Horrific Ending

Rosh Hashanah 5762

I was in Los Angeles last Tuesday when the World Trade Center crumbled down. My family had gathered from around the country to celebrate the bris of my new nephew, which would take place immediately after the Tuesday morning minyan. We arrived in Los Angeles on Monday night, and I planned to return to Dallas late Tuesday morning. Shira and the girls would stay with her parents through the weekend, and I would quietly finish preparing for today. Needless to say, I remained in Los Angeles much longer. So Tuesday afternoon I bought new clothes, shoes and toiletries to get me through the week, and we waited. After 3 changed itineraries, new safety procedures and lost bags, we returned to Dallas on Sunday evening.

We are all shaken by the tragedy of these horrific acts of cowardice and terror. The scenes of smoke, fire and rubble have been replayed on our TV screens and in our minds endlessly, and we remain numb with disbelief. Our reality has changed: our sense of safety is shattered; the press, the president and others have spoken of war; and the country has endured the chaos of closed airspace, heightened security, and crippled financial markets. We are angered by the violence and by our vulnerability to it, and many have called for revenge. We yearn to lash out against those who have caused so much pain and death. We are disgusted by those who sacrifice their own lives and those of fellow airline passengers in the perpetration of such evil.

Where do we turn for answers? Who can offer comfort and solace? Which answers will assuage our anger and soothe our anxiety? On Friday, the country paused for prayer and reflection. Today, the wisdom of our tradition provides the answers we seek.

I woke up last Tuesday morning at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Time. I hadn’t slept well. The hotel bed was uncomfortable, and Maiya had commandeered the center of the bed, nestling her feet snugly into my ribcage. In Los Angeles, the rays of sun burst through the fifth floor window of my hotel room, gently caressing my face with its warmth. At the same time in New York, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed through the 80th floor windows of Tower 1, incinerating the 92 passengers on board and so many others in the building. The day celebrating the new life of my nephew in Los Angeles would be marred by the death of so many innocent lives in New York. My life-affirming experience in Los Angeles would stand in bittersweet juxtaposition to the deadly events we witnessed on TV. Amid this simultaneous joy and devastation – a terrific beginning and a horrific ending of life – we must find the will and the courage to face our future.

A few minutes after 6:00 local time, I stepped into the shower. I did not yet know of the gruesome events of the day. The bright light in the bathroom coaxed me out of my slumber. The soothing heat of water splashing on my face and body restored my awareness of the physical world around me. And as I stood in the shower, United Airlines Flight 175 careened into the south tower. Another 65 people on the plane and untold numbers in the building were forever separated from the living world.

At 6:30, I joined my family downstairs. I reached the lobby to see the televisions broadcasting images of smoke and flame billowing from the upper levels of the two towers. At the exact moment my family gathered, other families around the nation were torn apart, as the attacks took our loved ones from us.

6:43 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 has crashed into the Pentagon. We head off to shul. In the midst of death and destruction, we will join with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community to pray, to reflect, to celebrate, and to seek comfort in the warmth of community. How ironic that the security and well-being of all Americans was threatened at just the same moment, symbolized by the crumbling walls and twisted beams of the Pentagon building. With forced smiles we greeted one another – my 2 grandmothers nearing 90 years of age who last saw my daughters in June, my sister’s in-laws whom we rarely see, and our close friends who live in Los Angeles. Together we would endure the attacks that threatened to break apart our society.

In the synagogue each morning, we proclaim the words of blessing: yotzer or u-voreh hoshech, oseh shalom u-voreh et ha-kol – You fashion light and create darkness, making peace and creating everything. Our daily prayer reminds us what is true: light and darkness are both created by God; God is responsible for all that exists in our world. In the beginning, God created light, and with it the energy to nourish the growth and blossoming of every living thing. That light represents all that is good in the world. Our tradition teaches us that the light first created before the sun is now hidden away, preserved for the most righteous to enjoy in the World to Come. Light symbolizes all that is good in the world; darkness represents evil. Both are God’s creation. Indeed, God created humanity with the ability to promote good and with the ability to perpetrate evil in the world. We were reminded of this last Tuesday, when we witnessed with devastation the most evil of all.

On closer examination, the words of the blessing are puzzling. They were originally spoken by the prophet Isaiah, but the rabbis changed the ending. Isaiah said: yotzer or u-voreh hoshech, oseh shalom u-voreh ra – You fashion light and create darkness, making peace, and creating evil. Isaiah proclaims God as the creator of evil; the rabbis say uvoreh et ha-kol – not creator of evil, but “Maker of everything.” Why the change? The Talmud explains that “creator of everything” is a euphemism for evil. But if so, why not replace the word “darkness” with an equally bright expression? The Talmud does not say, but the reason is clear: light and dark cannot coexist. Where there is light, there is no darkness. Where there is darkness, light is absent. Not so with good and evil. Good and evil can exist simultaneously. Both are created by God. Both can exist in the light of day and in the darkness of night. And so it was last Tuesday: with the light of day, we saw the effects of evil at play in our world; and with the darkness of nightfall, goodness prevailed, as rescue teams continued to search for survivors. In a world bathed in the radiance of God’s light, evil threatens to shatter our faith and our confidence in what is true, but goodness and Godliness will prevail.

We look for answers. We search for comfort. We gather in houses of worship that magically fill to capacity when life becomes uncertain. When we listen, God calls out to us in the voice of Isaiah: “I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, in paths that they knew not I will lead them; I will make darkness [into] light before them” (Isaiah 42:16). We are blind to God’s ways, and we stumble in the darkness of the unknown. We call out in words or in silence: show us the way, O God, that we may know. Enlighten us with your Torah so that our hearts may cleave to You. Let us not be blinded by cynicism and doubt. Let us not be so distracted by our human discoveries and accomplishments that we compromise our faith in God as the Ultimate Creator.

Oseh shalom u-voreh ra – God makes pace and creates evil. Ani Adonai oseh kol eileh – I am the Lord who makes all of this. God has created everything, and in Everything, there is some good and some evil, and we will never eradicate evil if it is an integral part of God’s creation. So we despair in our powerlessness, for although we channel our God-given capacities to erect 110-story buildings of steel and concrete, we now know they can be reduced to rubble by the forces of evil. And in God’s infinite wisdome which we struggle to comprehend, the possibility of evil will always exist. The purpose of life, then, is to overwhelm evil with good, to banish evil to the far recesses of our world.

In the Talmud we learn of Rabbi Meir, who once prayed for the death of the highway bandits that harassed him. His wife, the wise Beruruiah, challenged him: “How can you justify saying such a prayer? The Psalms teach us to eliminate sins, not sinners!” Rabbi Meir then prayed for sin to disappear, and the sinners repented. We will not eliminate evil, but we must combat those who do evil things in our world. The Psalmist understands this when he says, yitamu hata-im min ha-aretz – let sinners cease out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more (Psalms 104:35). Alas, it is not our duty to eradicate evil from the world, but rather to resist those who conspire to do evil. And herein lies our response to the tragedies of our day. We must resist and combat evil at every moment and in every corner of our world.

There are three ways to see through the menacing darkness of evil that threatens to engulf us in its shadow. First, we must support our government’s swift and unequivocal response to punish those who espouse hate and destruction in the world. The president and Congress have indicated their commitment to do this; now they must follow through. My brother living in Israel offers one cynical alternative: Prime Minister Sharon could call President Bush, offer his condolences, and encourage the Americans to act with restraint. But the Americans, like the Israelis, must act decisively against evil-doers. At the same time, we must endeavor to remain committed to the high ethical standards that characterize Western society. Therefore, we must be careful not to confuse the target of our response. Islam is not our enemy. Most Muslims are God-fearing, ethical people who pray to the same God we do. But there is an element in Islam that is fundamentalist and extremist, and like all fundamentalists, this group is dangerous. It produces suicide bombers and terrorists, denying basic human rights to its own people and isolating itself from the rest of the world. These people – and these people only – must be rooted out or brought to justice.

Our second obligation is to promote peace in our own communities, and show our commitment to root out all evil in God’s creation. We must oppose all acts of unwarranted hatred against individuals and groups. We must speak out against the recent attacks on Muslim religious centers in the Metroplex and we must be resolute in our intolerance for racism and bigotry. Individuals in our community and beyond who support violence and terrorism must be punished, but innocent lives must be spared and protected. Last week, innocent lives were lost – we must never be accused of taking innocent life.

Third, we must personally commit ourselves to promoting peace by having and raising peace-loving children who embody the ideals we have established for ourselves. The children and students in our community must grow up to be knowledgeable, critical thinkers who are able to differentiate between good and evil. They must be rooted in the wisdom of Jewish tradition that guides them – and all of us – to lead lives of goodness and peace, and they must possess the skills and resources to work for peace in their daily lives. Obviously, children will grow up to emulate us, their role models, and so our response to terrorism must begin with ourselves, today, as we begin the New Year. We must strengthen our resolve to actively seek peace in our lives and in our world, beginning in our homes and continuing in our places of business, in our synagogue, and on our streets. We must be knowledgeable of the traditions and values of others, and we must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and fellow citizens. Generosity of spirit and resources goes a long way to promoting peace between individuals.

Most important of all, we must never allow ourselves to return to normal life and business as usual as we knew it before September 11, 2001. The world is a different place now because of our own choosing. We live with heightened awareness and sensitivity, and greater resolve to combat evil and make a difference for future generations. We must not lose the spirit of optimism and fellowship that our flags, ribbons, and kindness express in the aftermath of this tragedy. With our continued efforts, we can change the world and defeat the evil forces that threaten to destroy us.

In shul last Tuesday morning, we praised God for creating the world as the south tower collapsed. We said the Shema, reaffirming life, as 45 people died as United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. We prayed for good to overcome evil as we recited the Alenu – and the north tower came crashing down.

We choose goodness, and still, terrible things happen in the world. But soon it was 8:00 and the bris went on as scheduled. It was Max Samuel Makovsky’s 8th day of life, and like millions of Jews in hundreds of generations before him, the precepts of Jewish tradition would prevail. We chose creation, life, and goodness over death, loss, and evil. In fact, after the bris, and after the breakfast in celebration that followed, we lingered for a long time in shul. We sat in the basement, around tables of sweets and lox and bagels and we refused to move. Our cellphones could not receive a signal, we could not hear the news reports, and for just a brief moment, we were sheltered from the horror that would blacken the spirits of all Americans and all peace-loving people in the world.

Soon we would emerge into the world, just as all of us now emerge into a new world. One in which our efforts and our choices are more important than ever before. We must maintain the courage to carry on, just as our ancestors have for so many generations. We must discover the faith that God will be with us, and that justice and goodness will endure, and that peace will follow us all the days of our life.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve-al kol yisrael, ve-al kol yoshvei tevel ve-imru, Amen. May the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and for all of God’s creatures, and let us say, Amen.

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