Rabbi Jerry Epstein

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 Jerry Epstein

The terrorists who wrought havoc last Tuesday killed themselves. They called themselves Martyrs. They wanted those whose cause they represented and indeed, the whole world to place them on a pedestal of honor. In their quest, they shattered the lives of a Society. For no one in our country was untouched. Let no one be mistaken, however. They were not martyrs — just as the Suicide Bombers in Israel are not Martyrs.

The etymology of the term “martyr” is significant. It is derived from a Greek word meaning "witness." The real martyr is one who feels that not only his death, but also his whole life must bear testimony to God’s will. His life’s goal is to be God’s partner in the world. The Jew’s crowning distinction is to be a witness to God. As it is written in the Book of Isaiah, "You are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am
God." Based upon this verse, the Midrash quotes God as further saying, "If you act as my witnesses, then I am God. But, if you do not act as my witnesses, I am, so to speak, NOT God."

The sounding of the Shofar, the most ancient ritual in the observance of Rosh Hashanah, has been interpreted as a summons to the soul of each human being to present itself as A witness to God’s Kingship and the supremacy of His values for humankind.

The real martyrs last week were not the terrorists but the firemen and the policemen who gave their lives in an attempt to save others because they bore witness to God. The real martyrs were not the terrorists but those who tried to rescue husbands and wives, parents, and children from acts of hate because they bore witness to God. The real martyrs are those who fight in Israel every day not to hurt the innocent — but rather to protect their homes, their land and their lives. The real martyrs are those whose lives are taken only because of their desire to walk in the image of a loving God. They are God’s witnesses.

The Shofar’s call to us to become God’s witness, His partner in building a more perfect world, presents an awesome challenge. But, that is the challenge. For the Jew, one need not be a martyr – to be God’s witness.

The sounding of the Shofar consists of three different categories of blasts: The Teruah, the Shevarim and the Tekiah. The sound of Teruah, the nine wavering blasts, derives its name from the Hebrew word Re’uaah which means tottering or shaky. To me, it is a metaphor for the unstable world in which we live — one in which the events of September 11th could occur. Although we had the illusion of confidence, strength and even invincibility, the acts of last Tuesday morning shattered that perception. We live in a world that is tottering. When financial markets can be brought to a halt, when air traffic in the world’s strongest country can be crippled and when the seats of economic and governmental power can be attacked — without warning, our world is in serious danger.

The three staccato blasts that comprise the Shevarim sound are aptly named because Shevarim means “broken.” At this time, the Shevarim serves as a reminder of the many innocent people whose lives are broken asunder. Our lives will never be the same. In the past, many of us were detached from terrorist tragedies. We observed them. We read about them. We watched them on television but, except, in rare cases, they did not directly affect us. Most of us were impacted by the coordinated terrorist attacks last week.

I feel broken. My expectations, my hopes, the patterns of my life have been shattered. And, from talking to many of you, I know you feel the same way. The Shevarim sound of the Shofar represents that feeling.

There is another sound of the Shofar, the Tekiah, consisting of one, firm blast which represents unity and strength. And, it is that blast upon which we must focus today. The Teruah represents our shaky, unstable world. The Shevarim represents our broken souls. But, God has mandated that we conclude each cycle of Shofar blowing with the Tekiah, the sound of strength which must serve as our call to action — to be God’s witness — just as the Tekiah did millennia ago.

The Teruah and the Shevarim represent what we are. The Tekiah calls us to be what we must become.

Every terrorist action is designed to precipitate a reaction — usually capitulation to outrageous demands. Sometimes those demands are explicit. And on other occasions such as now, the demands of the terrorists are implied.

Our challenge, as victims, is to react – but, instead of giving the terrorists the reward that they seek, capitulation, we must respond as Americans, as supporters of Israel and as Children of God, and give the terrorists the reaction they deserve.

The terrorists attacked America and so we must sound a Tekiah — a solid, powerful response – firstly as Americans. It was America that was savagely attacked and it was the American people who were brutalized. It is as Americans that we must respond. Our challenge is to bring our country together. We must stress the values that are uniquely ours. As a nation, we must do what is right — because it is right. There are those who are already saying that the terrorist activity is due to the United States’ support for Kuwait in the Iraqi Conflict or for Israel in the Mid-East conflict. This week, I heard many complain that United States citizens could have been spared this anguish if only our country had abandoned its allies and partners. And, of course, the plea from these same people is to prevent further attacks by withdrawing United States’ support in the future. As Americans, we must urge that our country continue support of all democratic nations and persecuted societies no matter where they are; whatever the inconvenience and cost. As Americans, we cannot permit ourselves to forsake those values which are the pillars of our Country’s foundation.

As Americans, we must sound a Tekiah — the blast of unity — and support our government when we experience, as we inevitably will, the inconvenience of the shortage of oil, higher gas prices and increased taxes. It’s easy to feel the passion of commitment now. Let us resolve to remember that passion when our lives are personally impacted. Being a part of a society with rich values and commitments of integrity comes at a cost. As Americans, we cannot let terrorists determine our agenda.

About 2500 years ago when the land of Israel was being ravaged by enemies, God commanded Jeremiah to purchase land to which his family had rights — before he and his nation went into exile. The prudent pragmatist would have perceived it as a terrible investment. Jeremiah would not be able to benefit from the land for decades — since he would be in a foreign country. Real estate prices were obviously dropping. But, Jeremiah reclaimed the land as a demonstration of commitment to his nation and its rebuilding. If nothing else, it would be a symbol to the people of Jeremiah’s confidence in the future. As American Jews, Jeremiah’s behavior teaches us a powerful lesson of what we must do. Now is the time to demonstrate faith in our Nation by making a point of buying its products. Now is the time to show support for American businesses by consciously purchasing “American.” Will this always be the most prudent or pragmatic decision for our personal interest? No! But, Jewish values have always taught us that there are times when National necessity must take priority over personal preference. This is one of them. We must act as Americans; Americans who respond with the values we have learned as committed Jews.

Terrorists attacked Israel: at Sbarros, at a train station. At nightclubs. And so, we must sound the Tekiah and become God’s witnesses as supporters of Israel. The architects of brutality want to send a message that will weaken Israel. And so, our response through our Tekiah of commitment must be to strengthen Israel. Those who feel comfortable going to Israel must go now. We must make a statement. I believe that personal visits are vital. I have been to Israel 5 times in the past year. Yet, I acknowledge that each individual must make a personal decision as to whether or not to travel to Israel. No one can make that decision for you. At the same time, now more than ever it is important to understand that visits to Israel have both symbolic and practical value. If you can go, make a decision to go.

Palestinian terrorists wish to destroy Israel’s tourism. They want to create fear. If you make a personal decision that going to Israel is not right for you now, I urge you to remember that there are many who wish to spend time in Israel and who financially can’t afford it. You can sound a Tekiah of unity and strength and help. This year, 45 college and post-college young men and women are studying at our United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. But, over 100 students had expressed interest in participating. 48 of those who did not enroll in the Yeshiva did not do so because of insufficient financial resources. There are 25 boys and girls who are studying in our NATIV Program for the year following high school. There are others who could not participate because of finances. Even if you can’t go to Israel, you can make an important statement by assisting others to go.

The Conservative/Masorti Jews in Israel also need our financial assistance at this time so that they can grow. Make a decision to help the Masorti Movement strengthen its congregations and respond to spiritual needs of Conservative Jews in Israel. They need our help and support. Make a decision to help tighten the bonds, the links — between Jews in North America and Israel. There are three separate, worthwhile appeals at your seat. When you leave the synagogue today, take those materials with you and immediately after Rosh Hashanah, sound your own Tekiah through committing your personal resources to make a statement.

This is also the time to communicate with our friends and relatives in Israel. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Let people know that you care about them. Let them know that you are thinking about them. You can make a difference — if you want to.

Terrorists in America and Israel claim to act according to God’s will; assert they are performing God’s work. In so doing, these False Martyrs besmirch and sully God’s name. I will not believe in a God who would consider and condone for one millisecond — the MURDER OF INNOCENT PEOPLE to further a cause. And so, we must sound a Tekiah to enhance God’s Holy Name. That is a personal responsibility. This is the moment to make a statement to terrorists by reconnecting to God. Last week, in the wake of the tragedy, reporters called me for my reaction. A few of them asked, “Rabbi, as man of Faith, where do you think God was during this tragedy?” I responded, “I don’t know precisely where God was. No one does. For anyone to PRETEND TO KNOW WHAT God was thinking is the height of hubris. For anyone to claim that these acts of terrorism are punishments by God for rejecting specific laws is blasphemous. The challenge for everyone is to search for God in his/her own way. But I have been thinking about God’s role in this tragedy since last Tuesday. I now have a paradigm that works for ME: As Jews, we believe that God often manifests His presence in humanity and its behavior. God CREATED the world with the capacity for good and evil. There are, unfortunately, times when EVIL reigns. But, the challenge is in the positive response of God’s partners and witnesses to the evil they confront.

On Friday, I had an inspiring experience that strengthened my belief. I was invited with 23 other clergy to be part of Mayor Giuliani’s party to pray with President Bush at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center. As we waited for 2 hours for the President, I mingled with the masses of volunteers.

• I met a fireman and when I asked him where he was from he said ‘I’m from Chicago. On Tuesday afternoon, when I saw what had happened, I gave my wife a hug and kissed my three children. I got in my car and drove straight to New York. Since that time, I have been lifting rubble that was once the World Trade Center. I have been digging to find parents so that I can reunite them with their children. I have to do what I can.’
• I met a doctor who told me that on Wednesday morning he closed his Manhattan office and moved down to the World Trade Center site. He said, ‘I had to be here so that when they find survivors, I can help them immediately. At that time, every second will count. I haven’t been able to help anyone yet so I have been lifting bricks and twisted metal. I bring ash from the site to dump trucks. Hopefully, when they find someone, I’ll be there to help.’
• I met a retired teacher from Boston who took a bus on Wednesday morning. She told me that when she showed up to help, they looked at her and asked ‘What can you do?’ She said, ‘I can’t lift a lot, but perhaps, I can bring water to those who need it.’ And, that’s what she has been doing. She carried bottles of water and brought them to the firemen and policemen who were thirsty and hot.

God was clearly at that site. He came after evil ran amuck. As much as we need God, at this time, God needs us to be His witnesses. Perhaps God was in the response of the many men and women who rushed to give blood and sacrificed to volunteer; who opened their hearts to provide help. As Jews, we believe that we are God’s witnesses by the way we act in His image. As the Talmud tells us, just as God visits the sick, so must we visit the sick. Just as God comforts those in pain, so must we. As Children of God, we must respond to the pleas — the cries — for help. How will we reach out — as God’s witnesses — to those whose lives are irreparably filled with pain? That is the real test of our strength. What will we do to help wives whose husbands will no longer embrace them? How will we help husbands whose wives will no longer share their joy? How will we help parents who have lost beloved children? We must help wipe the tears of those in pain, no matter who is shedding those tears. That is our mandate as God’s witnesses on this Earth. This is not the time to flee from God. This is the time to run towards Him. Let us respond to terrorism by making sure that there is a response to evil. We must be that response.

The Jew responds to tragedy through prayer. In moments of distress and deep despair, the Jew sounds the Tekiah — the sound of strength, the sound of unity, the sound of commitment — through prayers. Let us pray for the souls of those whose lives were senselessly and brutally taken. Let us pray to God for the health of those whose bodies are in pain. Let us turn to God and pray for the spiritual healing of those who will nevermore see friends, acquaintances, colleagues and loved ones. Let us pray to our God for the strength to respond appropriately, sensitively and meaningfully to the crisis which has been thrust upon us. Let us pray for peace for the United States, for Israel and for the world. And, let us pray for Divine inspiration to become better witnesses to God’s presence in the world.

At the end of the sounding of the Shofar in the Musaf Service, we recite “this day the world was called into being; this day all the creatures of the universe stand in judgment before You — either as children or servants. God, if as children, have pity upon us as a father pities his children. If as servants, we call upon you to be gracious to us and to be merciful in judgment.” Today, the world is once again called into being. We are called to be God’s witnesses and to join in the recreation of our world. May God give us the strength and commitment to respond appropriately.

No comments:

Post a Comment