Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg

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 Jeffrey Wohlberg
Adas Israel, Washington DC

Is Time On Our Side?

Rosh Hashanah 5762
September 18, 2001

In a few minutes we will rise to chant a familiar prayer: unetaneh tokef. Its words, reflecting life’s uncertainties, are well known, and we recite them annually as we face the new year and the unknown that lies ahead. It proclaims, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; how many shall pass away and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who shall attain the full measure of his days and who shall not attain it; who shall die by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who shall die tranquilly and who shall be torn apart; who shall be brought low and who shall be raised up.”

For many of us these words that we recite each year were distant, impersonal, and remote—until last Tuesday. Then, suddenly, without warning and in a blinding flash —and then a second and a third and a fourth—they became real, they became concrete, they became chillingly personal, they were no longer abstract and distant, but immediate and specific. They spoke not only to us, but also about us. The author of the medieval unetaneh tokef did not ask and could never have thought to ask, “Who shall die in a terrorist attack? Who shall die in a plane being used as a bomb? Who shall die from the fiery impact? From smoke inhalation? Incinerated by burning jet fuel? Jumping from an eightieth-story window? Or crushed under the weight of a collapsed skyscraper?” These and a host of other wrenching and horrible images are now seared into our consciousness.

Our cloistered world has been changed irrevocably and the full impact, the full proportion of this unbelievable catastrophe, has yet to be felt. There are thousands dead, thousands missing, hundreds of thousands of people and families affected. People disappeared in the smoke and the rubble. Their bodies will never be found, and their loved ones will remain eternally bereft. Lives have been sundered beyond repair. There are thousands of victims for whom there will never be comfort or a grave, much less consolation and a final good-bye. We are a country in mourning. Every one of us is sitting shiva, collectively stunned, shocked, and wounded, suffering from incalculable loss and at a loss over how to react as a nation and as individuals. Our sense of isolation has been destroyed as well as our naiveté. Our sense of distance is altered, the feeling that we are protected by great oceans and the proximity of friendly neighbors. Every ounce of our national strength will now be challenged; every resource— emotional, spiritual, financial, as well as our collective will—will be challenged in ways that we have not yet begun to fathom.

For Jews who gather in synagogues across the land as we do here—and, indeed, around the world—the words we pray now have a new meaning with horrible images and associations that will not leave us until we draw our final breath. These ancient words are now about us, about the world we inhabit, about the community in which we live, about people whom we know or knew, and about places we have been. We are no longer isolated from events of the world, as we so recently may have thought we were.

There are innumerable and incredible stories being told: a cousin’s relative was a passenger on one of the planes from Boston, so was Irwin and Grace Lebow’s sister-in-law. Another member lost a brother and the family has spent the week going from hospital to hospital in New York, showing his picture and seeking anyone who may have seen him; sadly the family was finally told that because he was working on the floor where the plane struck, there is no hope of ever finding him or his body. The family has arranged a memorial service for him for the day after Rosh Hashanah. A friend’s son was coming out of the New York subway at the Twin Towers just as the first plane hit. A friend’s daughter, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, had stopped working at the World Trade Center just the day before the attack. A congregant’s daughter, Samantha Perper, was a few minutes late getting to work that morning because of an accident on the highway. She had parked her car in the garage of the Trade Center and was going up on the elevator at the time of the attack. She exited at the plaza level and was able to help scores of people evacuate and get to safety. How close these people were. Who can explain why this one survived and that one did not?

So many people were trapped in the buildings or on the planes knowing that they had no hope or that they were flying to certain death. Some were able to call family members and tell them of their plight, describe to them what was happening and even say their last good-byes. A few repeated over and over, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” until the final moment of their lives. The stories break our hearts.

In Israel when a young soldier is killed it always seems that there is someone we know who knew him. The idea of six degrees of separation does not exist there. So, too, here. We are all victims, all close, all deeply affected. We all know someone who knows someone struck by this tragedy.

This barbaric act of terror is the twenty-first century’s Pearl Harbor, even though it was not an attack against a military target or three thousand miles from the U.S. mainland. September 11, 2001, will “live in infamy” for its unprovoked callousness and its unspeakable horror. Like Rosh Hashanah itself, it is a day of judgment. It is an echo of the treacherous attack by the Amalekites against our ancestors who had just fled Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness. The Amalekites attacked the weak, the stragglers, the women and children. It was an attack so dastardly, so incomprehensible even in biblical times, that the Torah commands that memory of the Amalekites be erased from history for all time. America is grieving and appalled, but determined that today’s Amalekites will be found and brought to justice, as they deserve. So we grieve for the dead. We pray for the injured and their families. We tremble at the implications of terrorism now raised to a frightening level. One young parent came into my office last week shaking; she said she was never so frightened in all her life.

What shall we do? How shall we react? In what ways should we channel our rage? This is a watershed moment, and I hope that we will be patient and I pray that we will be wise. This attack was not only against Americans and American buildings. It was an attack against America as an institution. It was an attack against our system of values and the institutions that symbolize it, against our influence and our way of life. We are going to have to reach deep within in order not to lose our moral compass, in order to preserve our values and not to act blindly, simply out of a desire for revenge. It took these perpetrators years to prepare themselves. We must not permit them to undermine us in an instant. We must continue to demonstrate to the world that the strength of our nation comes not from guns and arms, but from a commitment to democracy, freedom, justice, and respect for human life. That is why we are a superpower. Those are the values that the perpetrators must learn from America and that they must learn to emulate. Our standard of living comes not only from a strong economy, but also from an inviolable commitment to unshakable values, even at a time like this. We are diverse, but we are one. We are wounded, but our integrity is intact.

As you can well understand, this was not the original theme for this sermon. I had written an entirely different sermon. I wrote a sermon about Israel because it was most prominent in my thinking and most important as I prepared for the High Holy Days during the past months. I had had the opportunity—the z’chut, the privilege—of being in Israel twice this past year: as part of the United Jewish Community Federation Mission last December, and then, with Judy, leading a group from the synagogue two months ago. In truth many had canceled and did not participate in our trip. They could not go or would not go; many did not want to take their children to Israel in the face of terrorist attacks or send them on other trips in which they were scheduled to participate. I fully understand their concern. People were afraid. People warned them, as they warned me, that it was dangerous to go.

Yet we had to go to Israel despite the fact of terrorism and despite the thickening crisis, “the situation” as the Israelis refer to it. It had nothing to do with being brave or heroic. It had everything to do with being Jewish. It had to do with the emotional pull of the Jewish state, especially at this time. Israel is that state whose creation I celebrate, whose existence I support, and with whose future my future is intertwined. It needed me. It needs all of us in order to feel less vulnerable and porous, less solitary, isolated and alone. I think, sadly, we Americans now understand, better than we did before, what Israelis have been experiencing. The irony is that now Israeli friends are calling to comfort us.

Everyone there thanked us for visiting this summer: drivers, guides, waiters, clerks. Our presence was important, and not just to help the sagging tourist industry, which has lost a billion dollars this year. But being there showed that beyond taking pride in Israel’s successes, which are many, we were also willing, in a small way, to share some of the burdens—which for Israelis include defending the country with their very lives. Our support is especially important now as they increasingly see themselves doomed to share that tiny slip of land with those whose goal is their annihilation and who are ready to do ghastly things in order to accomplish it. It is the same mentality that attacked this country. I shudder to think that these terrorists might have had nuclear weapons or might have them someday.

I could speak at length about the empty hotels and the empty museums in Israel, or about the incredible amount of traffic on the streets and the difficulty of finding a parking space. I could speak about how good it was to see friends, or the tensions of daily life with which they live, the omnipresent fear of terrorism, and the crippling effect of random violence. I could speak about Israel’s complex and baffling internal political system, or Israel’s complex and baffling external relations. I could talk about high tech and hydrology, including the terrible drought that Israel has been suffering these past three years—we went to the edge of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and found ourselves walking on dry land six feet below a dock, jutting out into empty space. The level of drinkable water is now so thin that it can easily be used up and then the Kinneret, Israel’s primary source of fresh water, will be destroyed and impossible to reclaim. I could speak about hopes and dreams, or fears and frustrations. I could talk about extraordinary possibilities, or the wasted opportunities; about their rage and outrage, or their restraint and limited precise retaliation; about imaginative proposals, or simplistic illusions; about eight years of soaring optimism, or today’s sobering realities.

I am among those who thought that real progress was being made. I no longer know what to think. That which seemed tangible and possible and within reach now seems unrealistic and unattainable. Life has been turned upside down—there as here. There is no “peace process” and no confidence. There is gloom and resignation and despair. The Israelis have been fighting what we now experienced: “a high definition, low intensity war.” Since the intifada began more than seventy live bombs have gone off in Israel and there have been more than 6,000 incidents of terrorism. Every single day, one or two potential terrorists are intercepted before they can do their murderous work. George Will wrote, “the acrid and inexpugnable odor of terrorism, which has hung over Israel for many years, is now a fact of American life.” As someone said to me last week, “It is a shame that we had to go through what we just went through in order for us to understand what Israel feels every day.”

I look at the Middle East and I am terribly sad. I am sad, as we all are, about each death, whether adult or child, as well as about every injury on either side. I think of the ripple effect, the impact upon families and community, the squandered lives, the endless spiral of tragedy. I am sad because of a mentality that makes a virtue of violence and martyrdom and that rejects compromise. I am sad because of the hate-filled rhetoric, the calumnies and distortions directed at Israel, the vile analogies and vitriol the likes of which have not been heard since the Nazis. I am sad because of the vicious messages preached by so-called religious leaders, and then broadcast over Palestine radio and television, which praise murderers and call for suicide attacks and jihad. I am sad because of textbooks that teach children to wipe Jews out of Palestine because they attribute all evil to Jews. I am sad because of summer camps where children play with rocket-propelled grenades, train in guerrilla tactics, learn techniques for kidnapping Israelis—lessons that will inevitability raise a generation intoxicated by violence and devoted to destruction.

What happened to Oslo? To the renunciation of violence? What happened to the commitment to negotiation? Was diplomacy a process or just a different tactic? Was the ultimate goal to adjust the border or was it to eliminate Israel and to annihilate the Jewish people? “This is what you get when Palestinians see no progress and have no reason for hope,” someone said to me. Someone else said, “This is what you get when you create a Palestine police force and give it guns.” It wasn’t Israel that kept the Palestinians in the squalor of despicable refugee camps all these years. It was the cynical politics of their Arab brothers that kept them there to exploit them against Israel. Sadly they have done so effectively.

As for Chairman Arafat—if you win the Nobel Prize for Peace I think it is reasonable to expect that you will renounce violence and you will prepare your people for peace, regardless of their level of frustration. It is to be expected that you will be a voice of reason. Nothing else is acceptable. It is also to be expected that what is said in English be said in Arabic as well.

I am sad because of the hypocrisy of the media, which are only too happy to report on demonstrations that are often staged for their benefit, to show pictures of boys sent to throw rocks at tanks and at Israeli soldiers, but are silent about how those children got to those demonstrations and who organized them. There are never photos of the gunmen shooting from behind the boys or throwing Molotov cocktails at the Israelis, or those firing at Gilo from Beit Jala in order to terrorize the Jewish neighborhood and draw the Israelis into shooting at Christian civilians. The press pretends to represent objectivity but in doing so creates a false symmetry that clouds morality and distorts the facts.

In Israel terrorism is not state policy. Retaliation is often against empty buildings or against acknowledged organizers of terror (which we better understand today). That is not the same as targeting women and children as they buy their lunch, butchering them with a volley of nails.

A few years ago when Israel opened the exit to what is called the “rabbinic tunnel” along the front edge of the Western Wall, the press called it provocative and it led to a shooting incident in which Israelis were killed. Recently the press again responded to hysteria when an unimportant group of Jewish religious fanatics proclaimed their intention to found the Third Temple, as they do annually. The Israeli police arrested this group and their plan was publicly repudiated; yet the press termed it “provocative.” That same press, however, is silent about the Muslim authority that is officially digging under the Temple Mount, destroying unique archaeological sites, erasing evidence of a Jewish presence, denying a Jewish connection, trying to delegitimize Israel and Jewish claims there. Where is the media criticism of this outrage? In addition, did anyone publicly repudiate the destruction of Joseph’s tomb and condemn that desecration?

When two Israeli reservists went down the wrong road and were savagely beaten to death, an Italian news agency broadcast pictures of Arabs celebrating the “lynching” and of one young man gleefully holding up his bloody hands in celebration for the entire world to see. That news agency had to apologize to the Palestinian Authority for breaking the rules in which the Authority allows only negative images of Israel, but never of itself. Despite the apology, the news agency’s credentials were revoked. It is that same mentality which is now repressing reports of celebration when the United States was attacked. At the same time, the British government pillories the IRA for its terrorist activities, but is lenient toward Arab terrorism directed against Israel.

Then in Durban last month at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, extremists hijacked the conference, dominated the agenda and turned it into an anti-Semitic festival with Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Robert Mugabe blaming Israel for every evil in the world. Missing only were Saddam Hussein and Muammar Quaddafi. Thank goodness Secretary Powell did not participate and the U.S. representatives and Israelis walked out. That is what Israel faces. That is what we are up against: militant extremism that regards Israel and the United States as the great evils of the world and is prepared to kill indiscriminately and even to die in order to deliver a blow to Western civilization.

I am saddened by our own misjudgments. And I say this with the ambassador sitting together with us. These are debates I had with my father, alav ha’shalom, in which he could not find fault with Israel and in which I sometimes do. I love Israel and I love the United States, but I do not agree with every decision that is made. I am saddened by Israel’s settlement policy in the territories and in Gaza, which I think is mistaken and shortsighted. In July 1967, one month after the great victory of the Six Day War, Israeli orthodox religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz begged the country to immediately give back the West Bank, because he recognized the problem that the West Bank would present. There are some who say we today should make pilgrimages to his grave in order to ask his forgiveness posthumously for our having been warned but not having listened at the time. I am saddened by Israel’s approach to its own Arab citizens who need to feel progress, hope and a measure of equality if they are to remain loyal to the country. It is clear to me that Israel must develop other methods of crowd control and it must sensitize its soldiers at the border crossings. These are devarim hayotzim min ha’lev, things that come from my heart. They are debated in Israel and we must acknowledge them here as well.

We may disagree over the generosity of former Prime Minister Barak’s offer, over the settlements, over whether they are an impediment or an excuse, over whether Camp David was properly prepared for or not, over whether Mr. Arafat is a madman or a scoundrel, over whether the Bush administration is involved enough or not, over who violated the Oslo Agreement first. But we know that merely inflicting pain is a useless effort because it will not force the other side to make peace. We know that Israel and the Palestinians must move beyond demonizing each other and begin to negotiate because their destinies are intertwined. We know that the media war can do Israel terrible harm by distorting Israel in the world’s eyes as well as in our own, and we do not know if time is on Israel’s side.

So we must be on Israel’s side! We must help Israel find a way to negotiate again, to establish a base for accountability and a foundation for trust. We were prepared to demonstrate our solidarity in New York—that rally is now canceled for obvious reasons—and more than a thousand people from Washington had signed up to participate, but I wonder why everyone in this room was not signed up? We were pleased that a thousand would go, but why were we not all going? There is a mission to Israel that will take place in November immediately following the meeting of the Federation General Assembly here in Washington. How many of us will try to participate in that mission? A friend of ours announced a trip in the summer for the end of December and more than fifty people signed up immediately.

The time for us to make time for Israel is now—to rally and to speak out. We must speak to Israel and of Israel, not as critics but as supporters and friends—as lovers of Zion whose voices resonate with our people’s historic vision, our people’s values, and our people’s hopes. If not now, when?

Fifteen-year-old Malki Roth was killed in the Sbarro Pizzeria bombing last month. On the mouthpiece of her cell phone, which was found near her body, was a note she had written to herself and pasted on the phone. It said, “Speak no ill of others.” Imagine! Her death is a tragedy but her surviving message a lesson in the values by which she lived even in the midst of violence and terror, because of which the Jewish state was founded, because of which America was founded, and because of which both will survive. We will survive in the face of barbarous attacks because of our values and principles, which we treasure and which must be preserved.

But if we question whether time is on Israel’s side, my friends, I cannot help but wonder whether time is on our side. In December the results of a new Jewish population survey will be published. I guarantee that survey will be a hot topic and that it will paint a disturbing picture of us. We know the problems even without a survey. We know the challenges we face in an open society.

Who makes up the core of the American Jewish community? We do! But what is the core of the Judaism of the Jewish core? Is it

affiliation or participation?

identity or identification?

association or affirmation?

casual connection or serious commitment?

family and friends, or family, friends and faith?

Which Jewish values distinguish us? Tzniut, tzedakah, chesed, tefilla, hachnasat orchim, nichum avelim, g’milut hasadim, tzaar baaley chayim, torah lishma? Do we know what these are? Modesty, righteousness, compassion, prayer, hospitality, comforting the bereaved, acts of kindness, concern for the pain of animals, Jewish study. How do we express Jewish sensitivity? How do we express Jewish compassion? How do we express our Jewish commitments and our Jewish connection? Is there a Jewish essence to our lives? Who would know?

Our son Adam called my attention to a book called The Hesed Boomerang, in which the author sites scientific data documenting the medical advantages of doing kind deeds. It recounts a study of 2,700 people that was conducted by the University of Michigan about thirty-five years ago. After following the participants for twelve years, researchers found that those who did not engage in volunteer work at least once a week were two and a half times more likely to have died at a younger age than those who did. The author notes that if were a new drug had been discovered that had such dramatic results, it would have been hailed as a revolutionary advance in modern science.

It is fascinating to consider some of the things that the author suggests among the daily acts of kindness that will help to lengthen our lives. He suggests:

At the supermarket, put your shopping cart back when you are finished with it. Write a thank you card to someone who doesn’t expect it.

Pick up trash from the sidewalk and put it where it belongs.

Allow another driver to merge into your lane on the highway.

Bring your secretary a cup of coffee.

Encourage your children to donate their old toys to children who might need

and appreciate them.

Be the first to greet everyone today.

Hold back on your criticism and tolerate other people’s weaknesses.

These are not mitzvot in the Torah, yet they reflect the essence of what

the Torah teaches. They remind us that we are not the sum of our possessions. They remind us that in our heart of hearts we know that we cannot just hope to leave our children a bigger car or a bigger bank account. We must give them a sense of what it means to be loyal friends, loving parents, good citizens, people who leave their homes, neighborhoods and cities better than when they found it. It is a reminder that to be Jewish is to live a rich, vital, joyous heritage grounded in decency and that when we live it, teach it and model it, we engender righteous acts, we enhance support of Israel, we encourage loyalty to God, we strengthen America’s and Israel’s values just as we give hope to those who know that terrorism is not the response to frustration and need. It is not Jewish pride that we need, but Jewish passion, not martyrdom, but meaningful observance—because what we have dissipates, but what we do permeates and will live on. Israel is fighting for survival, but so are we. Is time on our side? The time merely to dream of the future is past. The time to act, according to Jewish values in order to determine the nature of that future, is now.

In the Olympic games in ancient time, the Greeks had a unique and unusual race in which the winner was not the first to cross the finish line, but the first to cross the finish line with his torch still lit. The torch of Israel’s survival and nature of American survival has been passed to us. God grant us the wisdom, skill and determination to keep it lit as a light unto the nations, as a spark for democracy and as a beacon to the Jewish soul. May God bless America, may God bless Israel, and may God bless all of us.

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