Rabbi Jon Adland
Rosh Hashanah Evening
September 17, 2001
It is hard to celebrate our Jewish New Year this year. It is such a sad time in the souls of the people of this nation and for many around the world. The core of our being has been shaken. Our hearts are in pain. Our strength has been drained by watching the news, listening to the overwhelming tasks ahead, thinking about war, and thinking about those who may have survived, but couldn’t be saved. Our minds are filled with images of destruction unlike anything we have seen before.
September 11, 2001 changed everything about our country forever. It changed us, too. We will never ever see things the same way again. We will never walk into an airport without looking around. We will never look at another skyscraper without seeing the sight of that plane flying into it and the ball of fire that followed. We will never go watch a building implosion as if it were some sideshow. We will never take for granted the freedoms that are ours. We will hug our children a little tighter, phone our friends a little more often, and say I love you as often as we can. I will never forget September 11, 2001, as long as I live. This date will live on as a day of reckoning for a long, long time.
I am not old enough to have known the horrors of WW2. I wasn’t there to liberate the death camps and see the victims, living and dead, inside the gates. I have seen the pictures of the natural disasters brought on by hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. I remember the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. I watched the news about the war in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. I saw the pictures over and over again on TV of the Challenger blowing up. And now this carnage and destruction. Nothing compares. There are so many people: those who died, those who survived, those who lost a loved one or too many loved ones, those who tried to help and those who felt helpless. The tidal wave of this cowardly act will affect so many people that it is incomprehensible. It is affecting you and me each and every day.
How do we respond to this pain that fills our hearts? How do we respond to the words we read about the miracles of lives saved and the depth of grief felt by those who lost a father, mother, brother, sister, friend or relative? We will hear about the person who overslept and was late to work that day or the person who missed a subway or the person who decided to stay home instead of flying. The story of everyone who got out of the buildings alive will inspire us with courage and the awe of chance in life. We won’t hear the stories of the heroes who died. We won’t hear about the many who helped others down the stairs or may have stayed to comfort a wounded co-worker. We won’t hear about the many who didn’t quite make it out.
It is the stories that we don’t hear that will haunt our imagination. There are so many who probably died trying to save another. There are so many who died just because their office was just too high for them to be able to get out in time. There are so many who died just because they went to work that day.
Finding a place in the midst of all of this is so hard. Finding my soul while looking at the debris is difficult. Yet, we as a people have faced overwhelming situations before. Only 56 years ago, we saw the end of a savage era and began to rebuild our lives. The fortitude and strength to overcome such adversity and pain and death was faced by every survivor. We knew we had to go on. We knew that we had to heal first and grieve, but the survivors were alive. Their strength came from being a Jew and the traditions of Judaism. The Psalmists and sages of the past also saw death and destruction and felt pain, but through their experiences of living they offered to us hope. Hope that we can use today and tomorrow and the next day.
Now more than ever we can turn to God. I am not angry with God for I don’t believe that God does evil. Human beings do evil. God is the source of goodness. I don’t believe that God intervenes in a world where free will is an important part of our belief system. Though we often ask God to do the miraculous, we forget that God does things that are miraculous constantly. God displays many miracles even when we aren’t looking. Rather, we must show God who we are and what we do in this world. God should know that we believe in goodness and kindness and love and compassion and righteousness and caring. God should know that we believe that God is good. God should know that when life is bleak and people are struggling that the strength and presence of God is near and that presence is comforting. The psalmist wrote in psalm 46, “God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble very near. Therefore we are not afraid, though the earth reels, though mountains topple into the sea—its waters rage and foam; in its swell mountains quake.”
We must use this strength of God and turn it into good. We must choose the blessing over the curse, life over death, goodness over evil. We shouldn’t do it with just lip service, but with the work of our hands and the spirit of our souls. We have witnessed a great destruction, but we have also witnessed the resilience of a people. Thousands streamed to the sites of destruction to dig for the survivors. Thousands did what they could to begin easing the pain whether giving blood or money or time. Once, we all stood at the bottom of Mt. Sinai and heard the charge to live with God in our hearts and souls, in our hands and feet. Today, we all stand at the bottom of the towers as they crumbled and realized that this mountain is our challenge to live life, to be good, and to overcome evil. We must use the most important mountain in our tradition to bring life and meaning to this mountain of destruction.
It is ahead of us that we face our greatest tasks. How do we come to grips with such evil and hatred in the world? How do we make sense of the senselessness of such an act of death and destruction? What do we tell our children, the next generation about living life? What can we give them to sustain them? We must find meaning in a world turned upside down. Judaism teaches that we must always choose life and make a difference in this world. That is the message for the ages.
Last Saturday morning, 15 people came to the morning service. The night before there were so many people and the service was so important. People needed to pray and contemplate and think and sing and cry. On Saturday morning we returned to the regular service that we do each Shabbat morning and I found myself finally praying in a way I haven’t prayed in a long time. I read each word of each prayer as if the whole world was listening to each syllable. I prayed to God and it felt good and comforting. God is my stronghold. No matter how many people assail God or turn away from God, God is the source of my strength. When enemies attack me, I turn to God in prayer and song, and I turn to the God inside of me for the strength to offer these words and to hopefully make a better world. I want God to be with me in this time of trial and I want to be with God.
Most of us haven’t faced the great evils of the world. We haven’t been inside of a terror attack. We haven’t seen evil face to face like others have so maybe it is easy to say that God is with us. Yet, we have to believe in the faith that there is something greater out there beyond what we can see or feel or touch. We must have faith in this power that moves in ways beyond our comprehension and gives strength to people in their greatest moments of trial. The people on the planes and in the Pentagon and in New York faced death. I hope and pray that God was with them in their hour of need. There is great evil in this world and that is why I need to affirm my sense of goodness. There is chaos and I must assert my sense of order. I believe in God and I hope that God believes in me.
I heard a story earlier in the week about the great Redwoods of California. These trees reach tremendous heights as high as 300 feet. Imagine a tree the length of a football field standing vertical in a forest of other trees standing vertical reaching up to the heavens. One would think that the tree would have deep roots to hold it up, but the Redwood has shallow roots that spread out in all directions interlocking with the roots of the other trees. In this fashion, when the wind blows each tree helps keep the other upright. It is this kind of interlocking strength that we need right now. We have been shaken, but not broken. It may be blowing a fierce wind out there, but we are holding each other up.
We need to be the Redwoods as we rely on each other in the days to come. Some of us may heal more quickly, but no one, I believe, can put Sept.11th, out of his or her mind. As human beings, we will take comfort in our friends and families. As Jews, we can turn to our community and we can turn to the words that have offered us comfort and strength for so many years and through so many trials. What we can’t do is retreat or bury our heads as if nothing is different. What we can’t do is be non-responsive to the world around us. What we can’t do is pretend that September 11th, never happened. It did. We are still here. Thousands aren’t anymore. We can’t live their lives, but by our will, our strength, our fortitude, our spirituality, our goodness, our compassion and our love, we can give meaning to their deaths.
The prayers we read during the High Holy Days will test our personal beliefs. We will read things that might not make any sense any more. We may find ourselves struggling with God a little more. We may find a word here or there that touches a nerve, strikes a chord, argues with us or helps us move on. I urge you to use these days of awe as a time for personal reflection and introspection. Think about what makes your life matter in the scheme of things. What about you can do to make your life matter even more now.
September 11, 2001, is a day that will live on in each of our hearts and souls. It will always be a day of mourning and sadness. We cannot stop living because of those who have died. Better yet, we should live in a way that pays tribute to all those who died.
The world has changed a lot since last Tuesday. I have changed since last Tuesday. I pray that a better world awaits us, but it may take some work to get there.
Kein Yehi Ratzon—May this be God’s will.