Rabbi Gershon Schwartz
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2001-5762
On Rosh Hashanah, I usually begin my sermon with a greeting Shanah Tovah U-mtukah, my wishes for a good, sweet year for all of us. And while this is indeed my wish for everyone here, & for our entire country, it is indeed hard to express these sentiments given the events of the past weeks. The past year has ended on anything but a sweet note. As a nation, we are hurting, & I’m not sure how to stop the pain. There is so much sadness, so much anxiety, that it is almost overwhelming. We are saddened beyond words:
Saddened for those whose lives were lost, for those who lost family members.
Grieving for those whose lives have been changed forever in those few hours.
Mourning as a country, which has suffered so much in the past week, knowing full well that it will takes us years to recover from this tragedy.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Mahzor speaks of life & death, “who will live, & who will die.” These themes speak to right to our hearts, in a tragic way. They speak to the tragedy that we had witnessed, & have been a part of, these past 8 days.
As Americans, we thought that once Timothy McVeigh had been executed, & Oklahoma City had been avenged, that this type of terror would not strike us again. But we were wrong. We thought that our government had stopped this type of violence. But we were wrong. We thought that the problem affected others, in countries we know, & a few we don’t know. But we were wrong. We thought that the era of airline hijacking was behind us, a relic of the Nixon era. But we were wrong.
Until last Tuesday morning, I really didn’t really understand this type of violence. Oh, I had read about it in the newspaper; I had seen stories of terrorism on TV. There were movies of disasters & terrorist strikes, Hollywood versions of real life. Last Tuesday was real. Last
Tuesday, I finally understood violence & terrorism & destruction.
What can we learn from these acts of terrorism? What can we learn about the terrorists, about us, about God & Judaism? That this national tragedy took place so close to Rosh Hashanah gives us Jews pause to stop, to reflect. There are the obvious lessons about national security & the inability to control forces bent on our destruction. In some ways, these lessons are so overwhelmingly powerful in their magnitude that I just can’t speak about them today.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the three lessons that Tuesday’s attacks reinforced in me, lessons that I had always known but had somehow forgotten in the interim. Lessons that all of us must remember. Lessons that are the essence of this High Holiday season:
The 1st lesson is one of perspective on life. It’s a lesson that comes from my personal experiences on Tuesday:
On that day, we were supposed to pack to move. We had just purchased a house, & the moving company was supposed to send a crew to us “first thing in the morning” to pack things up for the move out of the apartment on Wednesday & in to the house on Thursday.
It was a few minutes before 9 in the morning. I was antsy; I wanted to get the day started, to get the move going. And the movers were late. For months, we had been planning for this week, & I had taken care of every conceivable detail.
And then, at about 10 to 9, the phone rang. It was our son Moshe, who is almost 24 & lives in New York, calling me on his cell phone: “Abba, I just got off the subway. Something big is happening. Turn on the TV.”
And so I turned on the TV & saw what appeared to be the picture of a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center building. I told him what was going on. He worked only a few blocks from there. And he told me: “I’ll call you when I get to work.”
Moshe called back a few minutes later: “I’m going to shut my computer off. Then they’re evacuating us from our building. I’ll call you.”
That was it. I called Shuly on the phone. She had just arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary, & wasn’t aware of what was going on. Within an instant, I forgot about the movers, I forgot about the house, I forget everything else except my concern for where Moshe was.
And while Shuly was on the phone, & I was forgetting everything else, I saw am image that I—along with the million other witnesses—will remember as long as I live: The 2nd jet crashing into the World Trade Center. I broke into tears, hysterics.
I hung up with Shuly, tried frantically to reach Moshe. Phone service was cut off, & he wasn’t answering his cell phone either. And then I couldn’t reach Shuly again either.
The next 2 hours were the longest of my life. I had 2 hours to ponder everything:
• Had I said to Moshe what I wanted to say to him? Had I told him to walk home, & not take the subway?
• Did I say to get out of the area as soon as possible, or did I just think it?
• Did I tell Moshe that I love him, or did I forget in the confusion & just think of it after I hung up?
• And then, my other kids started calling: Did I know where Moshe was? Was their brother all right?
By 11:30, I was climbing the walls. I couldn’t get phone calls out. For some unknown reason, I decided to check my e-mail. Maybe I’d find out something there. & in my nervousness, I logged on to check my e-mail. And there it was: An e-mail from Moshe:
i am okay. i made it to 21st and 5th at the usy office. 533-7800 x2327. The building is being evacuated -i love u. i am scared . i was in the subway when the 1st plane hit. our conductor said there was a shooting. it was pandimonium. iy'h we shall see peace soon. i will call u when i get home.
The 1st lesson I had from this tragedy was something I’ve learned over & over, something I’ve preached about countless times, & something that is so hard to do: Put things into perspective. Remember what’s important. And focus on that.
Yes, I wanted the move to go smoothly. I wanted the house to look nice. I wanted my family to live in comfortable & beautiful surroundings. And I still want this.
But all that isn’t worth a hill of beans compared to the safety of our family members. A new house, or a car or Palm pilot is nice, but these pale by comparison to the love we have for those close to us. Sometimes, we take that love for granted. Sometimes, we put more effort in to moving than to having moving relationships.
Sometimes, we focus more on life’s accessories & we forget the really important things. Maybe the events of the past few weeks will serve as a wake up call: Not only for national security, but also for the right priorities, the proper perspective, the necessary balance.
We sometimes learn this the hard way. Tuesday morning, I was focused on furniture & electrical outlets. And while I still need furniture in my house & working wall receptacles, I also know that they’re not the be-all & end-all of my existence.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a nice car, meticulous clothing, the latest hairdo, a comfortable house, a well paying job. We should never forget, though, that all of these are not what life is really about. Our cars, our computers, our houses, our clothing, our CDs, our cell phones—they’re good. They’re fine. They’re important. But they are only vehicles, tools. They help us live that life.
Life is really about the people we love & care about. Life is really about the friends who are irreplaceable. Life is about the wonderful community we live in, & the amazing people we come into contact with every day. They aren’t that life. It’s sad, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to get us to remember what’s peripheral & what’s crucial.
We remember what’s crucial in life & what isn’t when we hear the story of our own Rob Van Naarden, who may have been upset that he got into an accident on the way to the Trenton train station that Tuesday morning. He missed his train to NY, which meant he’d be late getting to the office, & would miss grabbing breakfast in the World Trade Center on the way. No one’s truly happy about a car accident. Fender benders are a real pain. But in perspective, they’re really nothing.
We’re reminded of the meaning of life when we hear about Alan Kaufman who grew up in this community & now lives in NY, who stayed in his apartment a few minutes longer than usual Tuesday morning, missed his usual subway, & arrived at the World Trade Center a few minutes late for work.
These are stories not only about Mazal & twist of fate. They’re also reminders of what’s important & what’s not. What’s crucial & what’s not. Let’s not wait for another disaster to enjoy the people around us. Let’s not wait for an explosion to tell our family member how much we love them, & to spend the time with them that they, and we deserve.
That’s the 1st lesson I was reminded of. The 2nd relates to Israel. And it’s fairly obvious. It’s not only that Israel & the United States share a common bond, a bomb of being marked for terrorist attacks. But more importantly, all Americans should understand a little better what it means to live in Israel & what it means to live in constant fear for one’s life.
The word “terrorism” comes from the root “terror” because that’s what it’s supposed to instill in us. Israeli is brave. Israel is a small little country, the size of New Jersey, surrounded on all sides by enemies.
It’s sad, but it took a major terrorist attack for many Americans to understand the terror that terrorism strikes in us. It is our duty, our task, our responsibility to remind the world that Israel has lived with this terror for all too long. That Israel is a peace-loving country forced into defensive measures for its very survival. That Israel needs secure borders the way we Americans expect secure borders.
That no person in the free world should have to feel that he or she can’t walk down the street, can’t go shopping, can’t go to work without fear of a bomb or a sniper attack. This is an inhumane way to live.
We Americans won’t put up with it. Israelis should not have to either.
More than once I have spoken about our friends in Jerusalem, Les & Freya. Les & I worked together at Camp Ramah in 1973. Our families have remained close through the years. After the attack, I received this e-mail from them:
This is just a note to let you know we are thinking of all of you, our loved ones in the U.S., and our prayers are with you. We pray that you and yours are all safe and at home right now. We are suffering this tragedy along with rest of the world - as Americans and as people who live with terror every minute of every day. We knew that something big was going to happen, but who would have thought the United States would be the target? We pray that out of this horror will come a true fight against terrorism - before it is too late.
If we can lend you any support in any way, just let us know.
Love, Freya and Les
Now we understand what they’ve lived with for so long. Now we Americans can understand the panic & fear that a bombing causes society. And perhaps more Americans can come to realize what we have known for a long time: That it is Israel’s fondest hope & dream to live in peace. But peace doesn’t mean civilians getting bombed. Peace doesn’t mean residents getting shot at. Peace doesn’t mean being called racist simply for the desire to live in one’s homeland.
The Israel Solidarity Rally for Israel, originally scheduled for this Sunday, has been cancelled. The NYC police can no longer guarantee the safety of 100,000 Jews. But I’d like to think that it was cancelled also because the enemy has made the point for us. This is what terrorism feels like. This is what it’s like to live in fear, day in & day out. No Israeli wants to live with this feeling, just as no American does. I hope that the American people, & the US government, can remember this lesson about Israel for more than a few months. And if they forget, we have to be there to remind them.
I learned a 3rd lesson from our own Hebrew School youngsters that Tuesday afternoon. Steve Freedman, our terrific educational director, wisely decided to hold classes that day, & to face tragedy as a school community. Steve ran a very moving program for all of our youngsters who attended.
After I made sure that our daughter Hadar was safely home from school, I came to the synagogue to be part of this program. Steve explained the Shofar to the youngsters. Hazzan Tilman blew the Shofar for them.
And then, I started to reflect on the events of the day, & told them about Moshe, these students had a lot of questions:
• Did the buildings really collapse? I told them that I hadn’t seen the picture myself, but that it was on the news.
• Did planes really crash into the side? Yes, I explained, I even saw it happen when I was watching the news that morning.
• Did a lot of people get hurt? Yes, it’s sad, but many, many people were hurt, & lots of people died.
One student volunteered that his friend’s grandparents were missing. Another told of a neighbor’s uncle who works there & was missing.
I saw the children’s faces. They were scared. They were afraid of the enormity of the tragedy. They were overwhelmed by being part of a national calamity that we American have rarely, if ever, experienced on our soil. And mostly, they were afraid for themselves & their families. I saw this in the details they asked. They were saying: “How can people do this? Are human beings really capable of such horrible actions?”
They were asking me—in their questions, in the pained looks on their faces—to tell them that it isn’t so, because they can’t face living in a world where people are monsters. They see monsters on TV & in the movies. People aren’t supposed to act that way.
And that’s what I did. And so I said to them:
“Kids, this is a very, very sad day. It’s a day you’ll always remember, just like your parents remember exactly where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. There were lots of nods from the adults. And there are some crazy, angry people in the world who do hurtful things. “But kids, one thing we should remember is this: Most people are good.
I turned to one of the girls: “If you were mad at me, you wouldn’t blow up my car, would you? Of course not!” And to another, I said: “If you had a fight with a friend, you wouldn’t crash an airplane into his house, even if you were really, really angry, would you? I know you wouldn’t.”
So I told these youngsters—as I tell you today—that Judaism believes that people are basically good. We can always be better, that’s why we come to Shul on Rosh Hashanah, but we’re basically good.
In fact, our very being here today is a re-affirmation of good. It proves that even if we’re faulted, even if we make mistakes—minor or major, accidentally or intentionally—we’re still listening, caring, improving.
And most people—Jews & non-Jews alike—most human beings are like this. Basically good. Basically caring. Trying to be better.
These High Holidays are a re-affirmation of our intrinsic goodness, & our desire to become even better people. This is how we see “free will.” Of course, a natural consequence of free will is that people can bomb buildings, or shoot their neighbors in anger. But free will also allows us to change for the better, to act less hostile, less angry, less judgmental each year. That’s why we’re here.
And that’s why, during the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, & through the entire holiday season, we read a special psalm, Psalm 27, at the conclusion of our worship service morning & evening. Psalm 27 makes this very same point so eloquently. It says:
When evildoers draw near to slander me,
When foes threaten the stumble & fall.
Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear.
Though wars threaten, I remain steadfast in my faith.
One thing I ask of God, for this I yearn:
To dwell in God’s house all the days of my life,
To behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.
In this Psalm, which our tradition says was written by King David, the author doesn’t say: “There won’t be evil in the world.” He knows reality. He doesn’t pray: May I have no enemies!” Because he knows that powerful people have enemies. Rather, he says: “WHEN foes threaten…,” as if to assume that there will be someone to oppose him.
All of us will have people who oppose us. The question is how we respond to them. The Psalm doesn’t say: “Give me the bombs to take care of them.” Or “Allow me to avenge the deaths of my troops,” even though vengeance is spoken of often in the Bible. Interestingly, King David asks that when he is attacked—
To dwell in God’s house all the days of my life,
To behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.
What King David is saying is: “When people attack me, let me come & pray to God.
• Let me pray that I have the right values, & that I not succumb to their base, shallow values.
• Let me defend myself, because I have the right to live, but let me now become belligerent & bloodthirsty in the process, lest I become like my enemy.
• Let me dwell in God’s sanctuary where the sanctity of life is paramount, even though others do not value life as we do.
• Before I respond to my enemy, let me reflect on life in the shadow of God’s sanctuary, so that I do not become the cruel barbarian that I see in my enemy.
What our children need to hear is that people are basically good. What we need to hear is that people are basically good. Our children need to hear a message of optimism & trust in humanity, but this psalm isn’t for them. It’s for US. Because we come here today – hurt, saddened, perplexed, searching – because we want to be reminded about what Judaism says. There is evil in the world. But there is a lot more good out there.
Hundreds of police officers, fire fighters & rescue workers charge into building to save lives, & many gave their own lives. If this doesn’t prove the ultimate goodness of humanity, then what does?
Thousands of people who lined up to give blood—They prove that there is much good in the world.
Jewish communities, individual families, that reached out so that those who could not be home for the holidays would have a place to pray & eat, & a caring community to share this time of reflection & introspection.
The millions of dollars that have been collected to help the families of the victims.
Hundreds of other examples, thousands of other stories of good, of caring, of trust in humanity & care for our fellow human beings.
These prove that there is much, much more good than bad in the world.
The terrorists were wrong. You don’t get to heaven by a suicide bombing against the infidels. You don’t get there by becoming a religious martyr. You don’t have to leave the world in a blaze of glory.
We Jews have a better way: We find heaven here, not through martyrdom but through Mitzvot. We bring heaven down to earth. Through acts of kindness & concern in the world. By making this a better world. Our job as Jews is to make this world into a heaven, & if we can’t do it fully, then at least, to do as much as humanly possible.
The purpose of Judaism, of faith, of being in the synagogue today is not simply to pray that our enemies not succeed, that evildoers no longer exist in the world. King David could not wish his enemies away; we can’t either.
Our being here today is to give us the strength to overcome evildoers; to awaken in us the power to have the right perspective on terrorism, to imbue in us the faith that GOOD ultimately triumphs over evil.
And our being here today is to remind us that God has put the power to accomplish this in human hands. WE have the ability to make this a better world.
Last week, I received an e-mail from one of our congregants. I mentioned this e-mail on Shabbat. It’s worth reading again:
“I need some help! Monday evening, the family—all 42 of us! —gather together for dinner. Each year a different cousin takes their turn & does the welcome speech. This year, it'’ my turn. I had a speech outlined…now with the current events, I obviously need to address this to the crowd. How do I do it? I have no idea what is appropriate & comforting at this time to this multigenerational family. Can you help me & give me some idea?
My response to her was as follows:
Each year at Rosh Hashanah, we talk about a sweet New Year. But how can it be a sweet year with the bitter taste we have in our mouths this week? My suggestion is as follows: Pass out the apples & honey, or Hallah & honey, as usual. Then, as we ask God to renew this year as a sweet one for us, let each person offer a way of making the world sweeter, a way in which he or she will improve the world in the year to come. As the person offers the idea, he or she dips the apple or Challah in honey & eats it. We know that others can make it a bitter year for us. Our challenge is not to succeed to their bitterness but to sweeten the world. That is our sacred mission as Jews.
Dear friends: This is what we have to do today. Each of us has to find a way of making this a sweeter New Year. God knows that it’s easier to make the world a worse place. It’s simple to add to the bitterness of our lives.
The trick is to make the world a sweeter place, to change the bitter to better. That is what WE must do as Jews. And that is what we must do at the table today.
• smiling at our neighbors more, or
• calling a friend we haven’t spoken to in a while,
• visiting a local nursing home regularly, or
• volunteering to help a working family with dinner once a week
• spending time with a latch-key child whose parents have to work to make ends meet & who must spend time alone, each day, time which is now even more painful.
• Managing to find the time to visit parents & grandparents, even with our hectic schedules & busy lives.
These are but a few examples. There are so many ways of making the world a better place. At the holiday table today, let’s take the opportunity—each of us—as we dip an apple or Challah into honey, to commit ourselves to sweetening the world this coming year.
It’s not enough to ask God to do it. We are God’s partners. We are God’s agents in this world. We have to step forward, so that the forces of evil & anger & bitterness are overcome by the overwhelming forces of goodness & kindness & sweetness.
This is our responsibility as God’s agents. This is our sacred mission as Jews.
I pray that this will be a sweet New Year for all of us, because all of us will make it that way.
In the words of the Talmud: [Megillah 31b]:
May a year and its curses end
A year and its blessings begin.