Rabbi Hillel Cohn

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 Hillel Cohn
Temple Gan Elohim - Phoenix, AZ

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2001-5762

Let me tell you how fortunate we feel to be here among you and to be able to lead the first High Holy Day services of this new and promising congregation. In these terribly tragic and troubled times we join together in grief and sorrow for what has taken place in our country but we also join in faith and celebration. It is precisely at times of tragedy and upheavel that we crave the comforts and security of family and friends. You can certainly understand how anxious we were to be away from the congregation and family in whose midst we have lived and with whom we have prayed for the past 38 years. But you have removed that anxiety by the warm and loving way you have taken us into your hearts and we are very much at home here among you. When we raised our voices together in singing "God Bless America" we sensed that we are here among family and friends.

It is either the epitome of naivete and the ultimate expression of Chutzpah or else the incredible but at the same time natural expression of a history-conditioned faith, People and tradition, to say the same words on this Rosh Hashanah that Jews have recited for many, many centuries. We say: "this is the day of the world's birth." Even though we understand that our world is much more than 5,762 years old now - even though that is a number that much more traditional Jews take literally - we celebrate the birthday of the world. If not the physical world then it is at least the world of humanity whose birth we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah.

But this Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birth of a different world. One of the expressions we have heard and read with frequency since last Tuesday morning is that this is a new world, that the world will never be like it was before Tuesday morning. Those who have said that it is a new world have come from different places. Some have referred to the new kinds of weaponry used, when planes intended to take people from place to place to engage in their family and business lives, are commandeered and become weapons of mass destruction. Some have referred to this being a new world because it was our centers of government, finance and military power that were targeted by terrorists.

In the midst of our overwhelming pain and sadness and anger we have each turned to a variety of resources. We have turned to family and friends for solace and strength and they have, in turn, turned to us. We have turned to the internet and been inundated with reactions and analyses and invitations to respond in a number of ways. We have turned to the media, becoming almost glued to our TV screens for a new word, a new glimmer of hope, a new insight. And we have turned to God both privately and communally in prayer and reflection, seeking our own healing and the healing of others.

Part of my own dealing with my sadness, perplexity and anger has been to turn to the insights of our Jewish tradition. I have been drawn to the great liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe which begin this evening. I have read and reread the Unetane Tokef, that remarkable prayer which lists the many things that can occur during the course of a new year, reminding us of the precariousness and fragility of life. Though the traditional text does not include it as one of the things which is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur we now know that in addition to there being the possibility of being strangled or stoned or swallowed up by an earthquake we must now contend with what our sisters and brothers in Israel have had to contend with for so long, the possibility of our lives ending by acts of terrorism.

I have thought over these past few days about how possible it will be for any of us to pray for inscription in the Book of Life, Blessing, Peace, Ample Sustenance when the threat of perhaps more terrorist acts hangs over our heads.

On Friday noon as I sat with a few others in the synagogue which I served for close to four decades, responding not just to the request of our President that we go to our places of worship but responding to my own need, I turned silently to the traditional text of Avinu Malkenu. While some of the traditional text is preserved in the reform liturgy the more complete text includes some verses that literally leaped off the page to me. Our Father, our King, nullify the thoughts of those who hate us; Our Father, our King, thwart the counsel of our enemies; Our Father, our King, exterminate every foe and adversary from upon us; Our Father, our King, seal the mouths of our adversaries and accusers; Our Father, our King, tear up the evil decree of our verdict." I prayed those words more fervently than I have ever prayed them before.

We celebrate the birth of the world and it is, indeed, a new world, a radically changed world. What kind of a world is it whose birthday we are gathered together to commemorate even if not to fully be able to celebrate?

As is the case with so much of life, a choice is open to us and for me the choice is between two different kinds of worlds.

It wasn't until yesterday morning when I read the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times that I was able to see more clearly the choices of those worlds. A rather inventive headline writer captured one choice with the words that were emblazoned across the page under the words: "Terror's Aftermath." The headline was: "GRAVE NEW WORLD." In an accompanying opinion piece the very gifted writer Richard Rodriguez captured much of what I have felt since last Tuesday morning. He wrote: "It was a week when words failed us. We sensed ourselves entering some terrible epoch, but we did not have sufficient nouns or verbs."

After capturing a number of the feelings with unusual eloquence, Rodriguez ends with these words: "...the most important conversation becomes the one we have with ourselves. It is a conversation about risk and caution. Should I take the plane trip I've scheduled for next week? Do I really want to take that new job in a skyscraper? Do I want to sit in a crowded movie theater? Such questions announce our new age. We are going to ask ourselves many such questions in the future."

It is a "Grave New World" that came into being on Tuesday morning. And we have a choice to let that be our world or to become part of a "Brave New World."

Now it was Aldous Huxley who wrote of the "Brave New World" and his classic book was one which was part of the library of futuristic literature, that envisioned what the new tools of science and other fields would bring into being, a world where privacy would be invaded easily. It was a world where World Controllers would rule and insure the stability of society by presiding over a five-tiered caste system where the Alphas and Betas would rule and the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons would be the labor force, a world where a drug called soma would ensure that no one ever feels pain or remains unhappy and where social stability is further ensured through the use of pre and postnatal conditioning.

But our choice is of a different kind of Brave New World rather than succumb to being part of a Grave New World where threat and anxiety and terror govern our lives.

Our Brave New World whose beginning we can celebrate this Rosh Hashanah is for us Jews a world where we respond to even the most horrendous of attacks by engaging in Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness, those acts which our ancestors said would enable us to avert the evil and severe decree.

In the brave new world not just we but all people will engage in a real turning, a turning away from violence and hatred, a turning away from a ruthless disregard of human life, a turning away from religious and national and cultural arrogance.

In the brave new world not just we but all people will engage in a real kind of prayer which accompanies every appeal to God by a resolution of the heart and mind and spirit and body to fulfill that prayer. As a magnificent reading in one Jewish prayer book puts it so well: "We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war; for we know that You have made the world in a way that we must find our own paths to peace within ourselves and with our neighbors...We pray to You instead, O God, for strength, determination, and will power, to DO instead of just to pray, to BECOME instead of merely to wish, for Your sake and for ours, speedily and soon, that our land and world may be safe, and that our lives may be blessed."

In the brave new world not just we but all people will engage in real Tzedakah, in acts of righteousness. We have seen remarkable and extraordinary displays of righteousness, charity, generosity and heroism over these past days. But they cannot be confined to crises. That needs to be become our daily vocation.

These are our tradition's understanding of how the evil decree can be averted. But this is a new world and so it requires something else.

The brave new world requires us to be men, women and children of Tikvah, of Hope. We must not give in to despair. For Jews the imperative of hope, though it might be sprinkled through the great classic literature of our people such as the Bible and the Talmud, was never said better than it was said by the great teacher of the 18th and 19th centuries, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav. He said, "Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope."

That is a command, an imperative, that we must accept, difficult as it may be, as we embark on this new year and, indeed, at the same time enter the new world, the post September 11th world into which we have been plunged just as so sadly thousands of our fellow citizens have been plunged into death.

It is not a naive, polyannish hope that we should have. It is a hope and a faith that we Jews, above all, must never relinquish, the hope that the day will come when God's kingdom will be established and God's Oneness will be acknowledged through word and deed.

Yes it is difficult to call for hope in these days. We are in much the same position as were our ancestors who experienced the destruction of the ancient centers of trade and might and religious splendor, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. When they were carried off to Babylonia they lamented. They sang in words preserved in Psalms: "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and we wept...How can we sing a song unto the Lord on alien soil?" And today, by the Hudson and the Potomac rivers we sit and we weep and wonder how we can hope again and have faith in tomorrow and have faith in God. The very same book of Psalms provides us with an answer: "O God, I WILL sing You a new song, sing a hymn to You with a ten-stringed harp...Happy the people who have it so; happy the people whose God is the Lord."

And the other requirement for the evil decree to be averted, for the war to be won, is to retain and even to enhance our humanity, not to become the very beasts and barbarians whom we decry.

At two interfaith services held in my community last Wednesday night I was asked to speak. At both I urged my fellow citizens not to forsake OUR humanity even as we deal with the most inhumane of acts. We must be so careful never to blame an entire group for the acts of some of their group. That is not the honorable way. And I asked them to join me in making a renewed commitment to do what I have learned from my history and tradition is the way of God and godly people, what the late Abba Hillel Silver said so eloquently:

to stay sane in the midst of madness

to stay civilized in the midst of brutality

to light candles in the midst of darkness.

Let US not forsake OUR humanity even as we come face to face with the most inhuman of forces for to do so would be to let the terrorists and their ideologues have the ultimate victory.

I don't know whether or not we, the people who tonight all over the world greet the year 5762, are a Chosen People. But I believe with all my heart and soul that we are a Choosing People. That was made clear way back in the days of the Torah when we were instructed to Choose Life in order to really live. And as a Choosing People who are now entering a new world ours is to determine whether it will be a Grave New World or a Brave New World.

Is this naivete or Chutzpah? I think not. Rather I think it is the natural expression of a faith that has been tempered by history and experience and which teaches that there is no alternative.

May you and I and all the people of our country and all good and decent people of the world walk bravely into a new world where terror threatens us no more and where the blessings of life and peace and the God of life and peace are showered upon us in great abundance. May it be a year in which the very bitter drops we have been forced to drink over these past few days are replaced by the drops of sweetness for which we pray. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Rabbi Hillel Cohn is rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino where he served for 38 years. He retired in June, 2001. For the High Holy Days of 2001 he officiated at services of a newly-formed conregation, Temple Gan Elohim in Glendale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He is a past national officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and his sermons are often included in the American Rabbi.

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