Rabbi James Diamond
Sermon – Rosh Hashanah
We are gathered here on this Rosh Hashanah morning, exactly one week after that day of terror, destruction, and death, and we are still numb. The disconnect between the brazenness, the violence, the evil, of September 11th and the vision of humanity the Machzor holds up to us today, is so great as to mock those words and give them something of a hollow ring.
Our mood this morning is exactly captured in the opening words of Shakespeare’s “King Henry the Fourth – Part 1”:
“So shaken as we are, so wan with care
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood.”
What can we say as we look back and try to go forward. What lessons are there for us to ponder on this Rosh Hashanah morning? What must we bear in mind at this time of judgment and self-examination of ourselves and our society? Do we know?
I hope it is not presumptuous of me or glib to try to suggest a few things. In this regard I can identify with the opening sentences of the Jewish ethical classic Mesillat Yesharim. Mesillat Yesharim, or The Path of the Upright, written by the great Italian Kabbalist Moshe Hayyim Luzatto around 1739, is among the classic texts that lay out what is involved in living an ethical and saintly life from a Torah perspective. Luzzatto begins the Mesillat Yesharim with these words:
“I have not written this book to teach the reader anything new.
Rather it is my aim to direct his attention to certain well known
and generally accepted truths, for the very fact that they are well
known and generally accepted is the cause of their being overlooked.”
It is in this spirit that I offer the following remarks: not to teach anything new but to remind us of some truths that we all know but which we must articulate again and keep before us at this trying time and in the days to come. The events of last Tuesday have altered the face of reality for some of us - confirmed it for others - and I think we also are about to change the way we go about our lives as Americans. But the truths I wish to hold up here today, truths distilled from both our experience as Jews in this world and from our timeless Torah, these truths are inviolate, foundational, and as relevant to our emotional, social, and moral welfare now as they were when they were developed by our forbears.
Some years ago, after a bombing in Jerusalem, the late lamented Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote the following lines. I read them last year just after last Rosh Hashanah, when we held a memorial for him on campus, and I read them today:
“The Diameter of the Bomb”
“The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in a circle.
And I won’t even mention the howl of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
a circle with no end and no God.
New York City and Washington are much larger than Jerusalem. The physical diameter of destruction is much, much greater. There are many more than four dead and eleven wounded – many more. There are many more than two hospitals and one graveyard involved. But the degrees of separation in New York City and Washington are greater than Jerusalem only in number, not in substance. The Amichai poem points to the first of the root ideas the events of last week have shown, again: that we are, all of us, connected to each other. Profoundly connected.
Now here’s another one. We must remind ourselves that in spite of all its ugliness and evil, this is a good and beautiful world. I could cite the familiar words of Anne Frank but I’d rather go back to Genesis and recall the phrase repeated many times in the first Creation story: “And God saw that it was good.” Over and over again, God saw that this world is good. And beautiful. Go outside in the very early morning, as the sun is rising and the world is quiet, and look around and savor the beauty. Recall how gorgeous the blue planet, this ball we live on, looks from space. If it weren’t Rosh Hashanah I’d play a tape of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” So that’s a second we should hold on to.
Thirdly, let us not, as we contemplate the enormity of the evil and see that it was done by apparently sane, normal, regular people intentionally, let us not yield to despair and lose our faith in the human being. We already have the teaching of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the death camps and emerged from them to write not long afterwards:
“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
One of the very first things a Jew who prays says in the morning, when he or she opens the Siddur, are these words: “O Lord, the soul who you have given me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You breathed it into me.” Let us remember that on the sixth day of creation, when man had been created, God looked at the world and this time pronounced – “behold it was very good.” Just look at the kindness and love that have poured forth from all quarters in the wake of the catastrophe. If it weren’t Rosh Hashanah I’d play a tape of Aaron Copland’s magnificent “Fanfare for the Common Man.” So principle #3: let us re-affirm the human being and the grandeur of which we are capable as the obverse of the depravity of which we are also capable.
I come now to a fourth thing in which we must not lose faith: this country and what it stands for. As Americans we suddenly feel vulnerable, off balance. We have been attacked. Damage has been done not only to buildings of significance real and symbolic but to our psyches individual and collective. In this climate, at this fateful time, it is crucial that we not yield to doubt and uncertainty about our collective enterprise on these shores and the values on which it rests. I intend no jingoism when I say this nor am I holding a brief for those who call for national breast-beating for sins that they say stain our national life and character.
Let me read you something the great American writer Philip Roth wrote over 40 years ago, where he captures the rudiments of what I’m pointing to. In his early story “Eli the Fanatic” he describes a night-time drive the main protagonist Eli Peck takes though the suburb of Woodenton.
“Square cool windows, apricot colored, were all one could see beyond the long lawns that fronted the homes of the townsmen. The stars polished the permanent baggage carriers atop the station wagons in the driveways. [This was before SUVs.] He drove slowly, up, down, around. Only his tires could be heard taking the gentle curves in the road.
What peace . What incredible peace. Have children ever been so safe in their beds? Parents – Eli wondered – so full in their stomachs? Water so warm in its boilers? Never. Never in Rome, never in Greece. Never even did walled cities have it so good. … Here, after all, were peace and safety –what civilization had been working toward for centuries. … It was what his parents had asked for in the Bronx, and his grandparents inPoland, and theirs in Russia or Austria, or wherever else they’d fled to or from. And now they had it – the world was at last a place for families, even Jewish families. …”
Sounds a lot like Princeton, doesn’t it? Roth is, of course, being sarcastic in this riff, and I’m sure you hear his social critique. The story in which this passage is imbedded is about how a group of middle class Jews, more or less assimilated ones, resist the attempt by some Orthodox survivors of the Holocaust to move in to Woodenton and set up their Yeshiva there. You could easily transpose it into the key of non-Jewish whites resisting people who are black in their skin color not in their garb, or Hispanics or what have you. The passage reminds us that the vision of America, the American dream, is still very much unrealized, impugned and diminished by privatism and self-centeredness. We talk too much of rights and too little of responsibilities.
But at the same time I think that Philip Roth, in his prescient way, puts his finger on something even more important. He grasps in an implicit way that, powerful as America is, there is something fragile about this country, fragile and maybe even illusory. It is fragile and maybe illusory because it is new and unprecedented. Only 225 years old, which makes America a relative newcomer to the age-old attempts of human beings to organize their life in common. America may be an illusion and it may, in the fullness of time, turn out to be temporary, but right now it’s very real.
Friends, at this defining moment in our national history, let us remind ourselves that America is an ongoing 225 year old experiment, a grand experiment, in human self-government, and 225 years is not a long time in human history. The experiment is still evolving, unfinished, as I’ve said. But can we not say that the results so far, while not perfect or conclusive, are encouraging? As Jews we should know this, for in our long history we have never lived in a society quite like this one, as citizens of a superpower whose national life rests so exclusively on the principles of the Enlightenment.
There’s a lot at stake in the American experiment. Not only for us as Jews but for the whole human enterprise on this planet. That is in part why we and many nations are so shaken up today, why we feel violated. Because the experiment has been attacked and shown to be vulnerable.
We need, then, at this time to shore up in ourselves a renewed awareness of the nobility and the glory of the vision that underlies these United States of America as embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We need to know what is at stake here. We need to be as resolute in our cause now as our forbears were a generation or two ago against Hitler. Think of the blood they shed on the beaches of Normandy and the Pacific and elsewhere so you and I could sit here today.
And as we do so let us keep in mind the core ideas and postulates I have called up here today:
- that humanity is a family name and we are all inter-connected
- that we inhabit a good and beautiful world
- that we are all inherently good
- that this country is a precious experiment, on the ongoing success of which a lot is riding
None of these principles is new. We know them from Jewish tradition and from Jewish experience. We know them from the decisive historical fact that we faced Hitler, we fought him, defeated him –we can never over-estimate that achievement - and we survived. And we must do so now against whoever who conceived and paid for and executed the uncivilized carnage of September 11th.
This being so let us take to heart these words from the song of the partisans, those who took to the forests of Europe to resist Hitler, these words of Hirsh Glick, that stand for me as one of the great utterances of the Jewish, indeed of the human spirit. If it weren’t Rosh Hashanah I’d play a tape of it:
“Zog nit keynmol ‘az du geyst dem letzten veg”
“Never say that you now walk the final way
When leaden skies obscure the bright blue light of day.
For soon the hour we have yearned for will appear,
And a drumbeat will proclaim that we are here!”
We are here. We survived Hitler. We will survive this. We must!