“Together at the Foot of the Mountain”
Delivered by Rabbi Leonard B. Troupp
Yom Kippur, 5762
This is the scene of this morning’s Torah portion. Moses is speaking to the Jewish people as we are encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan river, waiting to return to the land of promise, the land of Israel. But those who are listening to Moses are not the Jewish people who fled the slavery of Egypt. Aside from Moses, Joshua and Caleb, none of these people were in Egypt. These were the children of those slaves. They had all been born during the forty-year wandering in the wilderness. And so before they entered the land, Moses began retelling the story of how God saved their parents from the Egyptian slavery and brought them to Mount Sinai. It is here that our Torah portion continues, as Moses tells them what happened at Mount Sinai.
“We were all together at the foot of the mountain. All of us. It mattered not who we were. It mattered not if you were a Levite or a Priest or someone who carried water from the river. It mattered not if you were a tribal officer or a stone mason or a wood carver. It mattered not who we were or what we did. We were all there together. And as we gathered — all of us together — at the foot of the mountain, there was an utter silence and the bluest of blue skies. And then — and then there was a rumbling. We looked up at the top of the mountain. And then we saw what our eyes had never seen before. And then we heard what we had never heard before. Lightning lighting up the mountain with fire. But it was not a lightning we had ever seen before nor was it a fire we had ever seen before. And we heard the thunder. It was an awesome voice and we had not heard it before. And though we were terrified, we were transfixed. Our eyes upon the fiery mountain. Our ears reverberating with a sound — like the sound of hundreds of thousands of awesome shofars. We stood, we watched and we listened. All of us together.
“And in the midst of all this, we heard it. Though the din and the terror we heard this soft and quiet voice. It was the voice of God giving us His commandments. Commandments telling us to honor our parents, to respect each other’s person and possessions. Commandments telling us not to murder or steal. But not only the Ten. There were many other commandments we heard in God’s voice. Commandments telling us not to pervert justice, telling us to take care of the less fortunate among us: those who were poor, those who had no family to take care of them, those who were sick and hurt. Commandments telling us to be honest even in our business dealings and to take care of the strangers in our midst. All these commandments about honoring and preserving one another, acting justly toward each other and this one in particular: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. All this we heard, all of us together, all this we heard as we stood watching the fires we had never seen before and hearing the sounds we had never heard before. And your parents shouted in a single voice: ‘Na-a-seh Ve-nish-ma — All that we have heard, we will do them.’”
But then Moses said a startling thing to the children of the parents who witnessed Sinai: “Listen, dear children! Not only were your parents there, but you were at Mount Sinai too. Even though you had not yet been born, you were there too. Even though your eyes were not yet opened, you saw the fire and the smoking mountain. Even though your ears were not yet opened, you heard the awesome sound of the thunder and the shofar and the still, small voice of God. You were there and you heard and you saw. And not only you. Your children and their children’s children after them — all of them together, all of us together — we were there. And so dear children, all of us together, we must do what Adonai, our God, has spoken to us.”
Then, as he looked at them, Moses said, “what, you think this is so hard? Do you think it is so hard that you have to ascend the heavens to do these things? Do you think it is so hard that you have to cross seas to accomplish them?” “No,” Moses said. “It is easy to do. You just have to turn to your heart and you can do it.” “But understand this,” he continued. “The choice is always yours. Adonai, the God of caring and justice and love, tells you that the choice is always yours. You can choose good or evil. You can choose the blessing or the curse. You can choose life or death. Adonai, our God, gives you that choice. What will you do? I will tell you, it is better to choose the good and the blessing. It is better to choose life.”
This is what we learned at Sinai: We learned God is not in hatred. We learned that God wants us to care lovingly for one another, to take care of each other, to do what is good and right and just. We learned that God has given us the choice. We learned that God wants us to choose life and blessing and goodness.
And now we have stood together once again. On September eleventh all of us stood together at the foot of a mountain of steel and concrete. It mattered not if you were a CEO or a manager or a secretary. It mattered not who we were or what we did. We were all there together. And as we gathered — all of us together — at the foot of the mountain of steel and concrete, there was the bluest of blue skies. And then — and then there was a rumbling. We looked up at the top of the mountain. And we saw what our eyes had never seen before. And we heard what we had never heard before. Lightning lighting up that mountain with fire. But it was not a lightning we had ever seen before nor was it a fire we had ever seen before. And we heard the thunder. It was a frightening sound, neither had we heard it before. And though we were terrified, we were transfixed. Our eyes upon the fiery mountain. Our ears reverberating with the sound — like the sound of hundreds of thousands of profaned shofars. We stood, we watched and we listened. All of us together. We stood together again looking up through our tears at the horror of this fiery, smoking mountain.
And where was the voice of God? Where was that still, small voice? Could the voice even be heard in the din of hatred which had set this mountain afire or in the babel of fear that struck out hearts? Yet the voice was there and we did hear it. God was not in the hatred. We heard God’s voice and God’s presence in the actions and stories of those whose first instinct was “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Reverend Mychal Judge, chaplain of the New York Fire Department, had risen early that Tuesday. After his prayers he joked with his friend, Brother Thomas Cole, the vicar at the St. Francis of Assisi church and friary, who teased him about having appeared on the TV news the night before. Then: the news of an airline crash at the World Trade Center. Father Mike, as he was known, raced to the scene. A person who had jumped out of one of the towers had fallen on a firefighter. Father Mike knelt down to give last rites to the fireman. Even though he knew it would put him at risk, in order to come closer to the fireman, he took off his fire helmet to pray. A rain of debris showered down, killing Reverend “Mike.” Firefighters carried his body to the firehouse, but then they rushed back to rescue others.
Decorated Viet Nam veteran and Firefighting hero, Captain Paddy Brown and his company, got the call to go to the World Trade Center. The buildings were on fire, debris was falling everywhere. As he rushed into the building, someone yelled to him, “Don’t go in there Paddy!” But he yelled back over his shoulder, “Are you nuts? We’ve got a job to do!” And then he sprinted up the stairs of the north tower with his men, past other firefighters carrying hoses, frantically searching for trapped office workers. That was the last time he was seen.
World Trade Center’s Tower Two was beginning to collapse. Fire Lt. Glenn Wilkinson was in the lobby with his company, Brooklyn’s Engine 238, as he heard the ominous sound. He ordered his company out of the lobby, but when he took a roll call he discovered one of his men was missing. Lt. Wilkinson gave a Mayday and ordered his company to move to a safe location. But instead of going with them, he turned and went back to the building to search. The forty-six-year-old father of three, a fourteen-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, didn’t make it back. These are only a few of the hundreds of fire fighters, police officers and emergency personnel — some even from our own congregation — who, without regard for their own safety, rushed into harm’s way to help save others.
But there were others, not trained to coolly confront disaster and not trained to witness the things that no human being should ever have to see, ordinary people, whose instinct also was “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Harry Ramos was like a thousand other Wall Street professionals. A natty dresser whose hair was never out of place, a cool decision-maker, a good schmoozer. On Tuesday morning, Mr. Ramos was at his office on the eighty-seventh floor of Tower One with twenty-six co-workers. He was on the phone with his wife when the plane struck. He told her he was going to hustle his group to safety.
He started making his way down the stairs with the others. But at the fifty-third floor he encountered Victor, a two-hundred and fifty pound, aging businessman, who was despondent, complaining that his legs couldn't carry him any further. Victor was too heavy for Harry to carry him alone. Hong Zhu, another investment banker offered to help. The three men made it to the thirty-ninth floor when the other tower collapsed. The building they were in shook and they made it another three floors before Victor said he couldn’t go any further. A firefighter rushing past them screamed at Mr. Zhu to leave and helped save his life. But Harry refused to heed the firefighter. He continued to carry Victor, coax him and comfort him as far as they could go — until the second building crumpled around them.
John Abruzzi is a quadriplegic. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, it took six hours for co-workers to carry him and his 150-pound electric wheelchair down 69 flights of stairs. He was more prepared this time, because when the plane hit the building, Peter Bitwinski, his co-worker and friend of twenty years, ran for the special evacuation wheelchair they had placed behind a stack of boxes. John, at six-four and more than two-hundred and fifty pounds was not easily moved into the chair. But Peter and three others moved him. Then with eight other friends and acquaintances, they started carrying him down the hot, smoky staircase. Smoke already filled the stairwell when they started down. The smell of jet fuel choked them as they hoisted the chair down a few steps at time. Carrying the chair was awkward and the men struggled to find a rhythm and synchronize their steps to avoid losing their balance. Oblivious to the destruction outside, they told jokes, ribbing Abruzzo about his weight, their nervous laughter breaking the silence. Every few flights, they would switch positions. Department director Peggy Zoch carried their briefcases and jackets, and told the men to use their ties and handkerchiefs to cover their mouths when the smoke got too thick. Near the twentieth floor, a rumble shook the staircase, threatening to topple their convoy. The lights in the stairwell went out. Finally they reached the lobby. Doors hung from the hinges, broken glass speckled the smooth white powder on the floor and there was no one in sight. But on the street, the wave of people running for their lives forced them to keep moving. Unable to roll the wheelchair through the chaos and debris, the men picked it up and followed the crowd. They ran three blocks to Stuyvesant High School and went inside. Ten minutes after they exited their hour-and-a-half journey in the stairwell, One World Trade Center became a dark cloud of debris.
As fire engulfed the Pentagon crash site, the Washington Hospital Burn Center realized it needed extra skin tissue to treat burn victims. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas had 60 square feet of skin available to send. But no planes were flying. The director, Ellen Heck, even tried arranging military transport, but those flights were restricted to defense missions only. Two technicians, Eddie Perryman and Matthew Harris, volunteered and drove thirteen hundred-miles non-stop to bring the skin to Washington for those victims.
Hundreds of worried relatives looking for missing loved ones lined up outside the makeshift St. Vincent’s Hospital information center in Greenwich Village. Alexandra Pelosi, an independent filmmaker who lives near the information center, joined her neighbors to set up an aid station. Together these neighbors offered families cold water and a chance to use the phone or bathrooms in their nearby apartments. Soon, other neighbors and passers-by began stocking the table with bottled water, soft drinks, sandwiches and fruit.
Members of Local 40, International Association of Iron Workers were headed for the building even as the first of the twin towers collapsed. This union had helped build the twin towers thirty years ago. Now its members were helping to take down the tangled mass of steel girders that, in many cases, were put up by their own fathers and grandfathers, in order to search for survivors. While people were running down the street away from the disaster, iron workers were headed for the building. They pulled out a woman and helped get a fireman out.
We heard God’s voice in the people who lined the streets taken by the emergency workers returning to search for survivors and to clear the rubble. There they stood holding up signs thanking these workers for their efforts beyond physical and emotional endurance. And we heard God’s voice in the thousands of people who gave blood, and food and supplies, even from here at our congregation, in such abundance that it became too much. We heard God’s voice as we listened to Cantor Fitzgerald CEO, Howard Lutnick, as he was interviewed on television. Though his brother is presumed dead, so are seven hundred of his one thousand employees. His company is decimated, his own brother probably dead, and all he can do is cry and think about what he can do for his seven hundred families. We heard God’s voice as we gathered together in prayer and to comfort one another, here at Beth David, and all over America, even all over the world.
God was not in the hatred. We stood together at the foot of the mountain and we heard once again God’s voice of compassion and comfort and love and goodness calling upon us to choose the good, the blessing, to choose life. But when we are gone and our children’s children are gathered together, what will they be told about what we saw and heard as we stood at the foot of this mountain?
I pray our children’s children will be told that God was not in the hatred. But they will also be told that there were men and women whose minds have been corrupted by the evil and the hatred taught to them by those who chose the curse and not the blessing; who chose death and not life. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, said, “It was this corrosive power of hatred that destroyed six million Jews in Germany. It was this corrosive power of hatred that saw the butchering of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Rwanda just a few years ago while the world stood by and watched. It was this corrosive power of hatred that bombed the church in Birmingham and took the lives of four innocent children. It was this corrosive power of hatred that saw Martin Luther King and John Kennedy assassinated. It was this corrosive power of hatred that took the lives of six thousand of our brothers and sisters on September eleventh.”
I pray our children’s children will hear the words Rabbi Saperstein heard when his father preached the day John Kennedy was murdered.“My friends,” his father said, “you can kill men, you can kill women; yes, you can butcher and murder children; but you cannot kill their dream, or our dream.” I pray they will hear that those who have died this week are martyrs for the American dream as truly as were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy; that they gave their lives for our country as truly as anyone who fell on the field of battle.
I pray they will hear resounding the words of our President who said: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” And because we heard those words, we finally dedicated ourselves to stand against those extremists who believe, in their hatred and evilness and fanaticism, that their cause provides sufficient moral sanction to kill innocent people.
I pray this is what our children and their children will hear: God is not in the hatred. God is not the hatred. Human beings have the choice to do what is good and right and just. Abraham Lincoln once said of the South following the Civil War: “Remember, they pray to the same God.” Whether God is called by the name Adonai, or Allah or Jesus or Buddha, it matters not. God is God beyond the names human beings have chosen to call Him. And those that would pray to a god of Hate, pray only to a false idol, an icon to their human choice in life of evil over good, curse over blessing, death over life.
I pray our children and their children will hear how we comforted one another. I pray they will hear of our victories, not over Muslims or Arabs, but over the extremists and falsifiers of religion, whether they were Muslims, or Christians or Jews. I pray they will hear how we had never given up hope: hope in the goodness of human beings, hope that we would choose the blessing and life, hope that we would annihilate the terror, hope that peace would be their inheritance because we have stood together at the mountain and determined that we would never give in to the fear, that we would never give up. Never give up our hope, never give up our freedom, never give up our belief that God cares lovingly about us, never give up being just and good.
I pray that our children and their children will always have this prayer from our prayer book in their hearts:
We stand in awe of courage:
Honor to those who endure:
the seeker, the giver, the one who loves;
all who sing and all who weep;
the one who makes his loss a gain;
the one who gives his heart to life.
Honor to those who endure!
And honor to all who are just:
To be just, upright, and faithful:
let this and this alone give joy.
To reach as high as one may dare,
and do no hurt, and kill no hope:
let this and this alone give joy.
O when will arrogance end and wickedness cease,
And when will tyrants be no more?
O that day, rejoice!
The faithful will rejoice,
and all who breathe be glad.
For goodness shall reign for ever,
justice shall be exalted,
righteousness hold sway.”
On Yom Kippur we recognize that every day we stand at the foot of that mountain — all of us together. Every day we stand — all of us together — at the foot of that mountain facing a choice: we can either choose good or evil; we can choose the blessing or the curse; we can choose life or we can choose death. And even though God is not neutral, that choice is always ours.
Rabbi Leonard B. Troupp is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth David in Commack, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973, from which he also received an honorary Doctor of Divinity. Rabbi Troupp is a member of the C.C.A.R. Responsa Committee and Past President of the Long Island Association of Reform Rabbis. Rabbi Troupp has also been a Lecturer at both Baruch College and Lehman College of the City University of New York, teaching courses in American Political Institutions and in the Politics of International Conflict.