Rabbi Gilbert Kollin

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 Gilbert Kollin


In the more innocent days a few weeks ago, I did something that I have never done. I published a list of my sermon topics and for this morning prepared the sermon entitled “I have reason to believe…”—an exploration of the fascinating links between Jewish mysticism and modern cosmology, based on the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe. I never imagined that the Big Bang I was planning to talk about would be pushed aside by another and more painful Big Bang which would cast a dark cloud over the New Year which begin today. I may, or may not, use the sermon I originally wrote for today on Yom Kippur. It will depend upon how events unfold. Perhaps, by then, we will have become saturated with Terror Talk and be ready to step away if only for a day, and reflect upon the growing coincidence of science and religion. Perhaps, then—but not now. The psychic wounds are too raw, and pain too real.

On the Aseret Yimay Teshuvah—the ten days set aside for confession, reflection and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—before we recite the Borkhu prayer in the weekday morning service, we read Psalm 130, a psalm that has suddenly become strikingly relevant as we try to make sense out of what has happened and what we fear may happen.

Min Ha-Ma’amakim karatikha, adonai…
Adonai shim’a v’koli, t’hiyena oznekha keshuvpt l’kol tahanuni
Out of the depths I call to you, Adonai
Adonai hear my cry, be attentive to my sigh of supplication
Psalm 130 (P. 254 SSS)

I had a sinking feeling that our world changed in a profound way last Tuesday morning. I can’t pinpoint the way that change will effect us, but the world suddenly seems a lot less safe and predictable. I am frightened in ways I sense more than feel but am at a loss to explain, and like so many of the people interviewed I grope for words to match the mood and the feeling and can’t always find them. That’s where poets come in, and that is why the psalms speak so powerfully to us.

On one level, as we sat glued to our television sets watching the horrendous scenes unfold before us we had a sense that it was just another grandiose movie production shooting for an Oscar for Special effects. But we knew it was, as they say “in real time” and “for real”, at once a spectacular show planned for a specific audience but, like the notorious snuff films on the fringe of the porno industry, we were seeing mass murder take place before our eyes.

What evil genius realized that a commercial airliner could be converted into a guided missile, a flying bomb. Did they know that they were capable of mortally wounding 2 104-story buildings, or was that just an unanticipated fringe benefit? Can it really be true that those mighty twin towers which stood so tall, proud and strong on that perfect cobalt blue Tuesday morning were but a pile of rubble before noon? That more than 5,000 people who got up that morning, had breakfast, read their paper kissed their loved ones goodbye and headed off to work or on their journeys were gone before noon, literally snuffed out, obliterated. In medieval Iran, holy warriors were stoked with fiery sermons assuring them a place in heaven and with liberal doses of hashish, before going into battle. Their designation “hashashin” or the Hashish Men—has entered our vocabulary as the word Assassin. But the 18 or so men who commandeered those 4 planes were not high on anything other than their twisted notion of righteousness. They were cool, calculating people who had trained for months and years for a single purpose—to inflict on this country as much pain and shame as they could. They attacked our symbols, our people, and profoundly our sense of security. And they did it determined not only to sacrifice their lives for this purpose but to enhance the effect of their acts by killing as many innocent people as they could, in as public a way as they could. And they succeeded mightily.

This small and shadowy conspiracy of probably a few hundred people, who spent some millions of dollars—chump change in our land—has thrown this mighty country into disarray, imposed expenses in the tens of billions of dollars, may even plunge the world into a major economic recession and –scariest of all—except for the 18 who died, the rest of them are still out there, cooking up the next nefarious scheme while we feverishly work to prevent a repetition of the Immediate Past Outrage.

Our situation is described in yet another pslam, #125.

Those who trust in Adonai are like Mount Zion

Immovable and enduring forever.

As the surrounding hills protect Jerusalem

Adonai protects His people now and forever

The psalmist recites the perception of things as they should be. After all, we won the Cold War, the Evil Empire is gone, and we can all come out of our fall-out shelters and enjoy the sun. But suddenly a note of uncertainty and concern appears.

The rule of wickedness shall not govern the Righteous

Lest the righteous turn their hand to wrongdoing

Suddenly we sense we may have to start doing things we really don’t want to be doing, in order to defend ourselves. And then the mood shifts to one of anger.

Be good, Adonai, to those who are good

To those who are honest in their thoughts

But as for those who turn aside to crooked ways

May Adonai lead them to the fate of evil-Doers

God—help the good guys and go get the bad guys. Do that and there will be

Shalom al Yisrael Peace for the Jewish people (and by extension, the world).

When, O Lord, will these shadowy and dangerous people be gone? When did last week suddenly become the “Good Old Days” akin to the summer of 1939 in Europe, or the summer of 1941 in the U.S., the last sunlit days before the craziness began?

There is a deep anger at this brutal and indeed vicious –because so calculated—attack on us. And this was, in every sense, an attack on all of us as Americans. And those who died are family. Now I can understand a Biblical text whose message has long made me uncomfortable.

When the Israelites left Egypt they were ambushed by a tribe of desert pirates called Amalekites, who lurked on the fringes of the marching column and charged in to pick off the weary, unwary, and elderly. This so infuriated our ancestors, this vicious violation of the universally acknowledged ethical standards of the day that the Israelites vowed eternal against the Amalekites, a vow brought to bloody fruition centuries later under King Saul. It seemed so “Hatfield and McCoy” to me, so Cosa Nostra like in its seemingly exaggerated sense of offense.

But now I understand, and while I am not ready to declare war on the progeny of those who planned, executed and assisted in the murders, I certainly support our president’s resolve to hunt down and bring to justice (but not necessarily to trial) those responsible. I know that our current Japanese allies deeply resent and fear comparing this to Pearl Harbor, which was after all, an attack on military targets. In the about the attack on Pearl Harbor “Torah, Torah, Torah” – which as you all know has nothing to do with parchment scrolls, there is a scene featuring Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack. During a gathering celebrating the success of the attack, he hears that due to bungling on the part of the diplomats, the formal declaration of the rupture of negotiations had been delivered to the American Secretary of State after the attack had begun, Admiral Yamamoto suddenly turned grim. When asked why he said that he knew Americans and that they would now think of themselves as having been deceived and would react with a deep and relentless anger. They would not back down until the war was over and, given America’s vastly greater resources, he felt Japan’s future would not be a happy one.

I don’t know if there is any basis in history for this story but it certain reflects a historic reality. The attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to cripple the American Pacific Fleet, enabling Japan to seize and fortify most of the Western Pacific. The Americans would make a deal and come to terms with the expanded Japanese Empire. The military leaders misread the American people. They were stung and infuriated and when that happened they could be relentless. Certainly, for now, the mood is one of grim determination to seek out and punish those who so violated our country and its people.

But an important component of this sense of deep and outrageous violation is the coming together of the people of America. I saw this last night at our community Memorial Meeting on the steps of City Hall here in Pasadena last Thursday.. It was lastTuesday afternoon when Mayor Bill Bogaard called and asked if I would help him and Dr. Yahia Abdul-Rahman of the Muslim Shura Council of Southern California organize a community event to express our pain and our solidarity. At 2 PM the next day 12 people from as many faith groups met in the Mayor’s office to organize a program. We were faced with the problem of how to provide for the 17 faith communities that had already signed on, and for the others who we were sure would join. We somehow, in less than two hours hammered out a program concept and at a breakfast meeting early Thursday morning the smaller working committee convened by the mayor finalized the program which was to take place that very evening..

As the sun began to sink in the west the diversity of Southern California’s religious scene unfolded in the courtyard of the Pasadena City Hall. We had all been asked to come in vestments, ( wore once of my Bokharian style-kippah and my pulpit Tallit). Ministers of various Protestant denominations in their multicolored pulpit robes, Armenian priests in black monk-like garb, Muslims in many hues (Black turban for Shi’ia, White for Sunni,) Buddhists –yellow vests for laypeople, saffron robes for monks—, black jacketed Hindus, turbaned Sikhs and more. The steps of City Hall were an advertisement for the fact that right here in our little valley we are a United Nations of faith communities.

Centennial Square in fron of Pasadena City Hall is a jewel of urban space. Now that the old ugly mall is down Garfield Avenue runs from the Library to the Civil Center, opening up the place and giving us one of the great public areas in Southern California. A thousand or more people were there by the time the robed clergy took their places on the steps of City hall. The ceremony opened with our own Cantor, Judith Sofer leading us in the Star Spangled Banner. Followed by saffron-robed Buddhist monks chanting “ohn-style”prayers for the souls of the victims accompanied by delicate bells. The setting sun was bright in our eyes just over the treetops and but twilight came on. The speakers were moving—addressing the agreed upon topics of grief, unity, peace, hope and remembrance, each brief talk followed by a prayer offered by another, interspersed with hymns and songs. I had the honor of being the last speaker, and as I spoke of stones and candles, and deeds of charity as rituals of remembrance, all about me people lit candles, and soon Centennial Plaza was a sea of candles. We closed with “God Bless America” and we sang it twice because you could feel that it resonated with the people and then, the people brought their candles forward and lit the candles in glasses that lined the steps. And I suddenly thought of the scenes in Israel after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when spontaneously young people emerged and put candles in public places to express their sense of grief, of loss of pain. Those who died in New York and Washington and in the field in Pennsylvania were our brothers and sisters and we mourn for them and we feel for their families and friends and co-workers.

We ask the El Maleh Rahamim—the God of Mercy to gather in those innocent souls and shelter them in he warmth of the Divine embrace, and that our expressions of concern and shared pain should be the vehicles for the diffusion of the YourHoly Spirit of Comfort and Hope.

We ask that God bless the leaders of this nation and help them in their search for those responsible for this vicious assault on human beings and upon the human values that are—or ought to be—at the core of every religion.

We pray, of course, that our leaders will balance this resolve with an equally strong resolve to be thorough and careful in their pursuit of these evil people.

I read in the papers that many people are now turning to Israel for advice on how to make planes and buildings and other places more secure. As more than one rabbi put in speaking to their fellow Americans “Welcome to Israel. Now you know what it is like to see these images of rubble, mayhem and death and search through the names to see if there might be someone you know. Now you know what it means to deal with people who deep down want no deal, who want you either gone or dead. It may not be as dramatic as what happened here but it is more constant, more deeply woven into the way of life. Alas, for a while we (that is Israel and her friends Jews and non-Jews) felt that we were on the verge of something new, a partition and sharing of the land. And a mutually beneficial partnership. And then the new Intifada broke out, and we realized that an awful lot of people just down the road hated Israel and Israelis and through them all Jews with a deep hostility, a hostility nurtured in schools and summer camps, and served up hot in the media and, sadly, from many pulpits. Peace is a long way off and terrorism a constant threat.

I also think that we, as Jews, can look back on our own history and recall the dark valleys we had to walk through. Sustained by the promises of our God, by the inspiring words of our prophets, and by the experience of history we know that just as there are dark valleys of fear and despair, there are also bright places awaiting you when you get through the valleys.

Those horrible scenes of planes crashing into buildings and buildings collapsing and burning, ( made even more horrible by the realization that there were people inside of those plane ans buildings—they will never leave our consciousness. But neither will the pictures of the brave firemen policemen and rescue workers, of the sad and weeping multitudes lighting candles and raising their voices in hopeful hymns as we come together as Americans to clear our rubble, bury our dead, salute our heroes and march into our future hand in hand and arm in arm.

We are a great people, taller than our tallest buildings, and we will stand tall proud and strong when even the most skilled and dedicated terrorists are routed out of their hiding places and made to pay for their crimes, as they will be.

You’ve messed with the wrong people this time.

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