Martin J.Pasternak, Rabbi
Congregation Agudas Achim, Austin, TX
First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5762 (2001)
I heard columnist Tom Friedman on the Tim Russert show offer a few comments on the September 11th attack. Friedman said that the inability of the United States to either predict
or to stop last Tuesday’s terrorist attack was not a failure of intelligence or a failure of law enforcement. The inability of the United States to predict or to stop last Tuesday’s attack
was “a failure of imagination;” it was a failure of our best doomsday thinkers to stretch, or
better yet, to twist their imaginations enough to conjure up the idea of so many hijackers willing to kill themselves, to kill innocent airplane passengers, to kill whole buildings full of people.
A “failure of imagination.” That’s a very clever phrase and also a very dangerous one – a very, very dangerous one. A “failure of imagination” is a phrase that sounds to me like an excuse or an explanation – I’m not really sure which – but I do know one thing: we don’t need either excuses or explanations. When you come up with an explanation or when you find an excuse
it means that you are ready to wrap up and move on AND WE MUST NOT MOVE ON! The images and emotions of the attack – of this horrible, horrible crime committed against Americans, against our nation, and against our land – must remain unwrapped and uncovered. The images and emotions of the attack must boil and churn and fuel our resolve.
Furthermore, a “failure of imagination” is a failure nonetheless. The price of this one was miles and miles too high. We’ll never ever pay off such a debt but we now have an obligation to each other, to our children and to future generations that we must fulfill. We must pledge unconditional dedication to an all out war on evil, on religious extremism and on terrorism. There is nothing more important now than the war on terrorism. Until the murderers are caught WE ARE NOT FREE!
I want to put this in the starkest and clearest terms possible. We are fighting for our freedom! They entered our country, they entered our families, and they entered our minds. If we thought we were safe; if we thought we were invincible they have proven that we are not. Until we prove again that we are safe, until we prove again that we are invincible, we are physically and emotionally vulnerable and WE ARE NOT FREE!!
Let’s not “fail to imagine” again. Lets not “fail to imagine” the importance of this war on terrorism. We are not just punishing crime, we are seeking safety; we are fighting for our freedom!
For many Americans this will be the defining event of their lives. Previous generations of Americans had Pearl Harbor and November 1963. We now add September 11, 2001 – a new
day of infamy – when the skies above two of our greatest cities erupted in flames and we watched our security, our invincibility, and our innocence come crumbling down.
The attack was just the defining event; the defining moment is yet to come. Our country leads the world in so many ways and unfortunately we now lead in yet another category. We are now the victims of the most surprising, the most audacious, and the most destructive and unprovoked act of terror in history. We must now lead the world in the fight against terrorism. THERE IS NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT! No global merger, no international film festival, no United Nations World gathering. There is nothing more important than the war on terrorism.
For a previous generation the defining event was Pearl Harbor but the defining moments were
V-E Day and V-J Day. The next defining moment will be the victory in the war on terrorism. The next defining moment will be V-T Day!
Fortunately, it appears that we will not fight alone. At U.S. embassies around the world people are leaving flowers, gifts, and signing condolence books. At Westminster Cathedral the British sang the Star Spangled Banner. I even heard that there was a demonstration in Cuba.
Last Friday, shortly after I got home, I walked into my bedroom to remove my shoes and the television was on. At that moment, the image was 200,000 Germans gathered at the Brandenburg Gate. The voice over from the anchorperson said that the message of the demonstration was “America, you do not stand alone.” I cried, I sat down on my bed and cried.
And what a stark contrast there was between the images of the Germans demonstrating at the Brandenburg Gate and the Palestinians dancing in the streets. HOW DARE THEY CELEBRATE OUR MISERY! HOW DARE THEY DANCE TO AMERICAN DEATH! WHAT KIND OF HATE-POISONED PEOPLE REVEL IN ANOTHER HUMAN BEI’S ANGUISH?
The Palestinians are going to pay for that down the road. The U.S. is wearing a new face against terrorism. It is not the one that closed its eyes to the recent pizza parlor bombing in Jerusalem or the disco bombing in Tel Aviv. The U.S. isn’t talking to itself the way it talked to Israel for years. The White House is not calling on itself to “exercise restraint.” The State Department is not warning itself against “escalating the cycle of violence.” No one is saying, “Let’s sit down at the negotiating table.” I don’t think the U.S. will talk to Israel like that anymore.
I have no hesitation as I stand here and tell you perpetrators must be sought, they must be caught, and they must be punished. Jewish tradition is very clear about crime and punishment. The Ten Commandments do not contain any sentencing guidelines but other passages in the Torah do.
WHEN A MAN SCHEMES AGAINST ANOTHER AND KILLS HIM TREACHEROUSLY, YOU SHALL TAKE HIM FROM MY VERY ALTAR TO BE PUT TO DEATH (Sh’mot 21:14 ).
There is another one:
WHEN A MAN STEALS AN OX OR A SHEEP, AND SLAUGHTERS IT OR SELLS IT. HE SHALL PAY FIVE OXEN FOR THE OX AND FOUR SHEEP FOR THE SHEEP (Sh’mot 21:37 – 22:3).
And if credible evidence is collected against others who would threaten our freedom, our tradition teaches:
IF ONE COMES TO KILL YOU, RISE UP AND KILL THEM FIRST
Earlier this summer I was afraid. I was afraid because the Palestinian’s terrorist attacks on Israelis and Israel’s incursions on Palestinian land were becoming more numerous and causing the Israeli/Palestinian situation to get worse and worse. I was afraid because I didn’t know when it would end. I was afraid because I didn’t know how many more of ours and how many of theirs would be killed before it would end. I was afraid because the revival of the old Zionist = Racism canard at the recently concluded U.N. Conference Against Racism had provided a true window into Arab and Palestinian thinking and it is a dark and foreboding scene that they showed us. BUT I'M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE. The price of Tuesday's attack was, as I said earlier, miles too high. But to paraphrase Admiral Yamamoto, the sleeping giant has been awakened and we're going to end it. America is the greatest and strongest nation on earth. We're in it now. We're in it all the way. That’s why I'm not afraid anymore! When our own freedom is at stake WE DON'T LIKE TO LOSE, WE WILL NOT LOSE, WE CANNOT LOSE!
As American Jews we have a double stake in the war on terrorism. A worldwide assault on terrorism includes Palestinians. It includes all the suicide bombs and car bombs that Arafat
tells us he knows nothing about and cannot halt.
A zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism will bring us closer to peace in the Middle East
and bring us closer to the security that our Israeli brothers and sisters need so desperately.
We also have a third stake in this fight. The principles of freedom we are fighting for, the principles of liberty and safety on which America was founded have allowed Jews in these United States opportunities and autonomies unknown to us since we were sovereign people
in our own land 2000 years ago. We must pledge our support to take back American freedom and American security because without it we would not be what we are today – a prosperous, respected, and accepted community. To not fight for a country whose ideals gave us all that would be selfish, ungrateful, and dishonorable.
Because we have all these stakes in the war we must use every avenue available to us and do everything we can to keep our leaders focused on fighting terrorism. Unlike the ancient prophets and kings of the Bible who were accountable only to Ad-nai, American politicians are accountable to us – the American people. We must be sure they keep pressure on the CIA, FBI and the military.
Here's what I want you to do. Write a short note to our Representatives, to our two Senators and to President Bush. Write, “The War on Terrorism is very important to me. Our freedom and way of life is at stake. When you stand for re-election I will ask you one question. I will ask you what you did to fight terrorism.” Now I know that single-issue voting is not very sophisticated but as of one week ago there is no other issue.
When we fight for freedom we must be careful not to bash it or stain it. The war on terrorism must be conducted properly. We must set goals of zero civilian casualties and zero collateral damage. These objectives must be strictly enforced and everyone held accountable.
Furthermore, we must hold ourselves accountable for acts of prejudice or persecution against Arab and Muslim-Americans.
Another thing we must do is pray because prayer will help calm the waves of grief and emptiness that have been battering our souls since Tuesday. Prayer will also help us to look ahead and it will bring us strength and resolve.
So, no more” failures of imagination,” and no more clever phrases either.
Our tradition teaches us to pursue justice. It teaches us to punish crimes:
YOU SHALL TAKE HIM FROM MY VERY ALTAR TO BE PUT TO DEATH.
It also teaches us:
IF SOMEONE RISES UP TO KILL YOU, KILL THEM FIRST.
We shall let our tradition guide us as we make our opinions known to our leaders for the sake
of America, for the sake of Israel, and hold them accountable for civilian casualties, collateral damage and fair treatment of Muslims in the U.S. and abroad.
My soul aches for the dead, the missing, the wounded, the families, but I am not afraid.
Now that the U.S. is involved, now that we have felt the ugly and tragic sting of terrorism first hand, now that we understand what our Israeli brothers and sisters have experienced for so long, we will bring an end to terrorism. I don’t know when, but I just know that we will.
I pray that every American Jew will pledge unconditional dedication to bring us to the defining moment when we will remove all terrorists and terrorism from the world, when we will rebuild Washington D.C. and New York City, when we will remove fear from our lives and when we will restore the safety of our skies and the freedom and invincibility of this great nation of ours.
G’mar hatimah tovah.