Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation - Bethesda, Maryland
Response to Tragedy – Nine / One One
One week ago this morning, our world was shattered.
Like rabbis everywhere, I knew there could be no avoiding that fact at this moment. To talk about anything else, after all we’ve been through, would be idle chatter. Yet to talk about it involves the chutzpadik presumption that I have something to say, deeper than what we’ve been hearing for so many hours a day from the media’s best minds, deeper than what some of us have shared in our many gatherings this past week. The opening words of the cantor’s prayer Hin’ni he’oni mi’ma’as, which Rachel offers so beautifully and so humbly before the heavy moment of the Yom Kippur musaf, come to mind: “Here I am, meager of deeds, in turmoil, and afflicted with such fear…”
I don’t want to expend many words on saying “there are no words to describe what has happened, or how we feel…” – though please hold onto that caveat throughout my remarks. I’ll begin instead with a brief mention of the sermon that, until last week, I would’ve given. It was going to deal with issues of identity and assimilation, based, in part, on observations from my belated honeymoon to Italy this summer. The sermon was called, “When in Rome.” A few days ago my wife, Minna, pointed out a random, painful link to the-now scrapped title: a news brief reporting that, quote, “American Airlines uniforms and a pilot's key card -- which grants access to any American Airlines facility in the world -- were taken from a hotel in Rome, Italy, earlier this year…” One of many ironies.
Yet the parallels between the sermon I would have given, and the one I am giving, run deeper. Two millennia ago, Rome was the undisputed super-power of the Western world. For hundreds of years Rome enjoyed security, freedom, even democracy (to a point). While slaves and workers toiled, its empowered classes lived lives not unlike ours: they visited spas, discussed philosophy, enjoyed the fine arts, created and exploited the latest technologies. No need to learn languages other than theirs, even when traveling -- everyone speaks Latin, don’t they?! They were safe … secure … on top of the world.
And then, Visigoths sacked the capital.
Chas v’shalom – God forbid! – that theirs should become our fate. There are, of course, differences: Our society doesn’t have gladiators (though we do have professional sports). We don’t drink our water from lead pipes (though lead poisoning still affects millions of children). We certainly don’t oppress Christians (despite Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s odious assertion to the contrary). Still, there is one great parallel, from which we must learn: whatever nation has hegemony – economic or cultural hegemony, not just political or military – will have detractors on all sides, trying to tear down what that nation has built up. Modern-day-Visigoths have just proved the point.
I am not here to prognosticate: others are doing that, 24/7, with greater eloquence and erudition. And were I to try, you know what I’d say – yes, the Visigoths will be back; yes, we must defend ourselves, even peremptorily; yes, we shouldn’t become a fortress state at the expense of the civil liberties so dear to our national identity; yes, it’s a tightrope… So instead of speculation, today I shall try to frame what has happened through the lens of our tradition and its rich resources – for only then am I on solid footing.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, in all its power and horror, embodies the central myth of these Days of Awe: “this day is awesome, and full of dread… [for on it], all who enter the world pass before you like sheep for the shepherd… You number, and count, and determine their life, one-by-one… B’Rosh Hashana yikateivun, uv’Yom tzom Kippur yekhateimun. On RH it is written; on YK it is sealed: Mi yichyeh u’mi yamut – who shall live and who shall die.” What follows is a painful catalog of how those who die shall die: “who at their natural end, and who before their time. Who by fire, and who by water. Who by sword, and who by beast ...” Then, a catalog of how those who survive shall live: “who in peace, and who uprooted. Who in quiet, and who torn apart…”
The Hassidic master Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditschev comes to mind. Amidst the pogroms of the late 1700’s, he gave a drash on why the Torah calls the Day of Repentance Yom Hakippurim, in the plural: because repentance must go in both directions. And that Yom Kippur, he thundered against God from the pulpit, saying: “Today is Judgment Day. Today all Your creatures stand before You so that You may pass sentence. But I, Levi-Yitzhak son of Sarah of Berditchev, I proclaim that it is YOU who shall be judged today! You who separate babies from their mothers, You will be judged by Your children who suffer for You, who die for You, and Your law, and Your promise.” (adapted from Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire p. 110)
On this Rosh Hashanah, we share the Berditschever’s indignation. Unetaneh tokef, like so many of our prayers today, sits uneasily inside us. As Rabbi Deborah Waxman so beautifully told us earlier this morning, we must accept the anger, pain, anxiety and loss that we have all felt in the past week – some of us tragically more so than others – before we can go on with our prayers. Yet go on we must. The story ends with a resigned Levi Yitzchak saying, “but I am only dust and ashes; You are the Creator of heaven and earth. And so I pray…”
That worked for the Berditschever and his shul, 200 years ago. We, however, need more – we need to call a millennia-old bluff. The Holy One does not write our fate in some supernal register on RH, and seal it on YK. People invented that metaphor, to scare ourselves into doing the work of tshuvah, of introspection and change. It worked so well that over the generations, many of us internalized it. Today, we refuse. Save for the hijackers, there is no correlation here between sinning, and dying in a Pennsylvania cornfield, the Pentagon, lower Manhattan. None. Thanks, God, but this week, we don’t need some errant and dangerous theology in order to appreciate our own vulnerability. Life itself has conveyed the message.
[pause] Still, our tradition and its metaphors -- however challenging -- offer powerful ways to understand this tragedy, and to begin to deal with it.
In years past, I’ve noted that if you haven’t completed your teshuvah, your repentance, by the close of next week’s Ne’ilah prayer, the tradition offers you an ‘automatic extension’ through Simchat Torah. That ‘grace period’ is marked by the festival of Sukkot, in which we are commanded to live in feeble structures, to remind us of our time in the wilderness. What better symbol of vulnerability is there than this temporary structure, the sukkah, exposed to the elements? As Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote in an email, this week’s events have shown that we all live in Sukkot, all the time.
The images played over and over and over again on our televisions and in our minds’ eye -- now seared into our collective memory -- have brought home the fragility of our existence. Safety is an illusion. Wealth, power, prestige, uniforms, first class reclining seats, sweeping views from a corner suite – this week, none of these things helped. The human condition is vulnerable.
Within this frightening awareness, however, we may find a ray of insight. When you live with a sense of vulnerability, you know not to take life for granted. Loving life and the gifts it gives us, and knowing how easily they are lost, are sides of the same coin. One does not come without the other. We who have ever flown from here to the West Coast, or set foot inside the WTC, or worked for the government, or simply been American – we are now all survivors of a close call. Let us learn from the harrowing narrowness of our escape to appreciate ever more the gifts that are ours – to count our blessings.
The same prayer that so enraged the Berditschever Rebbe can now help us. Three things can avert the severe decree, we’re told at the end of Unetaneh Tokef -- Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah; turning or repentance, prayer, and charity or justice. There’s no guarantee that these will change the decree, of course -- nor that there’s a decree to change, at least for us as individuals. These actions are not magic – but they do help us, despite our vulnerability, to take control over what we can. What could be more important, in the face of fragility and tragedy, than to recommit ourselves to making the world a better, safer place? Tshuvah makes us think about who we are, and how we’re doing, and exhorts us to improve. Tefilliah gives us space in which to reflect on issues of ultimate importance. And Tzedakah actually changes the world, directly, bit by bit. So perhaps Unetaneh Tokef is telling us that though we can’t always save ourselves, incrementally it is the world that we save, with everything we do in with the limited time bequeathed to us.
We have all heard by now of the courageous acts of the passengers on United Flight 93, who it turns out were bequeathed just one precious hour. In frantic cell phone calls to loved ones, at least four people – two of whom, a gay Mormon man and a committed Jew, were friends of colleagues – learned of the hijackers’ intent. They decided among themselves, with the agreement of the other innocent, frightened travelers on board, to avert death. Not their own – that, they knew, was largely beyond their control – but that of countless souls already in the hijackers’ sights. Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick and the others certainly didn’t know that the plane may well have been shot down had it continued on – a fact which in no way diminishes what they did, or the impact they had on the world. Their tale of heroism has been, and will remain, a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of humanity at its best, in this very dark time.
There’s a concept in Judaism called Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. For much of the past 2000 years, this term has been used to describe the act of martyrdom – which in many ways applies here, to the passengers of Flight 93. But Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, is also about bringing God’s presence into the world. It is the only antitode to its opposite, Chilul Hashem – the desecration, or hollowing out, of God’s name. Just when God’s name and presence were being hollowed out by monstrous acts of violence, the passengers of Flight 93 — and firefighters, and rescue workers, and ordinary men and women who helped their colleagues while risking, and even losing, their own lives — were surely engaging in Kiddush Hashem.
It is up to us, in the wake of this tragedy, to follow their model, to do what we can, and to be models ourselves.
But how? Two suggestions I will elaborate on: One, we can push, even beyond our comfort zone, to help others. And two, we can ensure this help reaching all others, by breaking down boundaries of distrust between people.
A fellow Reconstructionist rabbi whose congregation was hit hard, Dan Ehrenkrantz in Montclair NJ, offered this in an email message this week: “The purpose of terrorism is to make us terrified – to cause us to live with fear, and to make decisions from a place of fear. While we must take reasonable precautions in the face of threats, and perhaps alter our lifestyles to increase our safety, we must resist making our decisions and living our lives from a place of fear. We can deny the terrorists that victory.”
There’s a personal piece to this teaching: we cannot cower in a corner, afraid to live our own lives – though as Beth Sperber Ritchie reminded us on Saturday, fear is a normal part of the post-traumatic stress we now share. There’s also a national angle: witness the revolting attacks committed against Arab-Americans and their mosques and businesses in Philadelphia, Chicago, Texas and elsewhere. Obviously, we condemn such acts of violence against fellow Americans. But how do not let fear take over, when discussing the difference between racial profiling and terrorist profiling? When getting into a cab with an Arab or Muslim driver? When accepting or even using phrases like “the Arab mind,” that we would not tolerate being used about us or other peoples?
This is a challenge we must meet. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt, in an “anti-scapegoating campaign,” had her picture taken with Japanese Americans. The next day a major California newspaper editorial called for her “resignation” (!), as “a lover of that fetid race.” Sad to say, jingoism is no less a part of American culture than such positive things as coming together in times of crisis – better to err on the side of fighting it more than some think necessary, rather than risk letting it fester, and grow into something beyond control.
I was reminded of another challenge by a 12-year-old member of our congregation, Shoshana Gurian-Sherman, during a Torah school discussion this Sunday morning. She expressed concern about – and I believe I’m quoting here – “this ‘my country right or wrong mentality’ that’s everywhere. It doesn’t feel OK to say anything else. As awful as this week was – and it was – that many people are dying all the time of poverty, hunger, etc.” She’s right: patriotism is important at a moment like this, but blind patriotism never is. The complete moral bankruptcy of other nations and peoples offers context for, but should not blind us to, our own shortcomings.
Shoshana was speaking in good Jewish fashion. During the life of the prophet Amos, in the 8th century BCE, five-sixths of the Jewish people – those in the Northern kingdom of Israel – were all but annihilated by the Assyrians. It was a close call as well for the southern kingdom of Judah; Jerusalem barely withstood the siege. Even in the midst of this geopolitical and national turmoil—or perhaps because of it—Amos’ prophecies focused on the ethical conduct of the Jewish people. He castigated them for forcing servants to work on Shabbat, for withholding tzedakah, and other injustices.
The prophets were those voices in ancient Israel who spoke, rarely popularly, about the supreme importance of ethics. They “spoke truth to power.” What might that prophetic voice say today? For one, as Shoshana said: even in the shadow of healing and rebuilding and preventing future tragedies, important domestic concerns must not be abandoned. We have seen a remarkable oneness within our society this past week, with people’s definition of “community” extending to include total strangers. Now we ask, will it include the sub-living-wage workers who still clean our offices and park our cars? Will it include the victims of ongoing environmental degradation, the refugees from uncontrolled climate change? Let us sustain and nurture this new sense of looking out for others, and cherish it as the parting legacy given by the death of so many innocents.
One other thing the prophetic voice might say is what another Torah School student shared, quoting her teacher: “revenge is best served cold.” We should respond not merely as retribution – in our tradition, for over 2000 years now, “an eye for an eye” has meant not to kill murderers, but to exact whatever measure of recompense and justice we can. Let us respond only in ways that serve our long-term goal of reducing terrorism and injustice in the world. This week has highlighted our sense of humanity. Would bombing Kabul be consonant with that sense? Will more grieving families, elsewhere in the world, ease the grief felt by families here?
These are national and international questions. Some, but few, of us, can affect their outcome in the short term. But the prophets spoke of the personal as well as the political. On the personal level, as individuals and as a community, our actions in the face of tragedy speak volumes. We can and must demonstrate – to others, and equally, to ourselves – all the good and just things for which we stand.
Let us answer those who would take life, by saving and affirming life – by fulfilling Judaism’s central mandate of pikuach nefesh, the saving of life – in any way we can. We can give blood, or as Loren Amdursky is doing, organize a blood drive. And since that’s only a palliative response, we can then go on to its longer-lasting equivalents: sign up for organ donation, and encourage others to do the same. Learn CPR.
Likewise, we can send money to the families of victims (for instance through the United Jewish Communities or the United Way). And since that kind of tzedakah too is short-term, let’s then engage in some more demanding way in the ongoing fight to eliminate homelessness and suffering and poverty, here and throughout the world. Let us live a life of tzedakah, in both the sense of “charity” and of “justice.”
To affirm life like this is to give hope to ourselves and to others. It is a response to those who say that inevitably, things get worse from here. It is an act of faith. “Faith” can be a challenging concept for Reconstructionists, but it is a vital one. As Dennis Boni suggested at our first memorial gathering on Wednesday, it is an act of faith that lets us get in a car and drive down the road, undeterred by the fact that a line of paint, and an assumption that others will do the right thing, is all that separates us from thousands of oncoming cars. We are talking about a kind of faith that lets us go on with life, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping for solid ground, even without a guarantee that the next step will be a safe one.
May our next steps indeed be safe ones. Above all, may no person, no terror, no fear keep us from placing one foot in front of the other, as we march together toward a new day – doing our part to make a better world, to sanctify God’s name and presence in the world with every step we take.
Kein y’hi ratzon – may we rise to this imperative, this opportunity, this challenge. Shana tova.