Rabbi Joel Schwab

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 Joel Schwab


Tuesday night we had the largest gathering for a weekday Ma’ariv service in our synagogue’s history. Almost fifty people gathered to pour out their hearts in a time of pain and grief, to seek comfort in the community and with G-d in the aftermath of the horror that we witnessed that morning. Amongst those who gathered were members of our congregation who escaped the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and whose accounts of their experiences were chilling and frightening. In the last few days that urge to worship together has been expressed all over our city; two days ago, as we gathered for a special service here, simultaneously the churches in Middletown held their own joint service, so that all of us in our community were joined together in prayer at the same hour, though each of us was enabled to pray from the depth of our own traditions.

In those special services we have turned to the Book of Psalms to express our feelings of rage, helplessness and loss. Amongst the Psalms that has been used at the services I have attended – including our own – Psalm 121 has been a constant. “The L-rd is your guardian; the L-rd is your protection at your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day nor the moon by night. The L-rd will guard you from all harm…”

This past Thursday I realized that those words of Psalm 121 are a crock – and, worse, a blasphemy when said in the shadow of the destroyed Twin Towers. G-d will not guard us from all harm. We will be smitten, sometimes during the day and sometimes during the night. And the reason that the sentiment of Psalm 121 is a crock is because G-d has given us one of the most precious gifts humanity can possibly have – the gift of free will. We are not automatons. We have the ability to make choices between good and evil. Moses, representing G-d, even states, “I have put before your a blessing and a curse – u-vacharti ba-hayyim: choose life.” We have to choose. We humans have the ability to choose torture and murder, to choose to create Holocausts, to choose to use commercial airlines as flying bombs.

And what is to stop us? Punishment? “They won’t catch me.” We didn’t catch most of those involved in the Holocaust. Alois Brenner, one of perpetrators of the Holocaust, has spent the last 56 years living freely in Syria. We didn’t catch any of those who bombed the US Kohl, or anyone who involved in the bombing of the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, which killed 171 people. And punishment certainly was not a concern of the suicide bombers in those airplanes.

Will man’s laws stop people from doing the harm that the Psalm says we will be protected from? But what if I don’t agree with that law, or what if I don’t recognize that authority, or what if “they had it coming”?

Will the knowledge that something is against G-d’s law stop us? But there are so many different interpretations, and they are all legitimate, right? We have Freedom of Religion, which means that whatever I claim is G-d’s Will must be respected and accepted. Such a person is, as we read in this morning’s parashah, a “poisonous weed” who thinks “I shall be safe, though I follow my willful heart”, but that will not stop him from doing the kind of harm that we cannot be guarded from. It was interesting to me that in response to Peter Jennings’ question, “Why does the Muslim world hate us?”, Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian Authority cited the Cold War and history but not religion, while Osama bin Laden says, “Muslims have a divine right to the Middle East”, and the cry in Ramallah after the collapse of the Towers was “Allahu Akhbar”, not “That’s what the US gets for supporting Israel.”

My Muslim friends tell me that the attack on the World Trade Center was a perversion of Islam, and it seems to me that they are right. But how do I know that G-d thinks it was wrong? After all, don’t the terrorists have a right to their own beliefs and values? I think I know that G-d considered the attack wrong because the command “Don’t Murder” exists in all faiths. We might be allowed to kill in self-defense when threatened, maybe even to protect our community’s values, but it is murder to single out non-threatening civilians without warning. It was wrong when Barukh Goldstein killed 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah; it was wrong when Serbs massacred Bosnians; and it is wrong, against G-d’s expectations, now.

So if it is against G-d’s law, what’s G-d going to do about it? As Hitler said, “How many divisions does the Pope command?” Actually G-d has lots of divisions. Those divisions go by the name of “us”. We are G-d’s partners in creation. And look what has happened: our nation has drawn together, with an outpouring of help offered both in material goods and in time. There have even been expressions of support from abroad. Europe stood silent for three minutes, Israel declared a Day of Mourning, Arafat ostentatiously donated blood to the cause, even six of the seven nations of the US terrorism list expressed their condolences. We human beings are, in the long run, enforcers of G-d’s Law on this earth. And when we recognize that, as we have this week, it is clear that ignoring G-d’s Law can regularly have the exact opposite effect of what was intended. And that is what G-d will do about this defiance of the Divine Will.

So, in the final analysis, that has to be our response: to do, to live. We can take a tip from our Israeli cousins: we cannot be so frightened that we stop living. Then they win. And we must not change our society out of fear. The values this country was built on must continue to be expressed in our lives: freedom of movement – so it will take an hour longer to check in at the airport, but we cannot stop going; freedom of expression – even if the view expressed is unpopular, so long as actions do not undermine our society; a positive view of diversity – no group must be blamed for the actions of individuals.

And we must remember to take joy in living. Laughter and games and entertainment must be allowed to re-enter our lives – that is part of being human and must not be suppressed. That is why I am overjoyed that today we are celebrating this aufruf and looking forward to the forthcoming wedding of Terri and Rich. There is no joy greater than seeing a couple create a new family in love. There is nothing better than contemplating how two young people, so recently toddlers, whom we watched grow into adulthood, have now formed a unit for the future continuity of their families and our people. Rich and Terri signify for us our continuation into the future, our continuation in life.

G-d may not literally keep the sun from smiting us during the day nor the moon by night, but G-d does give us ways to cope, to enable us to continue. And in that sense we can indeed feel protected. When evil occurs, the community rises together as one. And when that happens it is incredible what can happen. And so we go on living. U-vacharta ba-hayyim. Let us choose life. And let us choose life with a joy they cannot take away from us.

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