Rosh HaShannah 5762/2001 - First Day
There are no words to describe the feelings we’re all having right now. I wanted to start with that- because finding any words to say today was next to impossible. Here are the thoughts that went through my mind:
Where is God right now?
What was God doing when those planes killed all those poor people?
What am I doing in shul?
Do I mean any of the words I’m saying? Shouldn’t I be doing something?
I should tell you that I spoke with a friend of mine who is going to be ordained as a cantor this year. She said to me this past Wednesday, “Sometimes I really envy you rabbis- at least you have words to say.”
I didn’t respond to her with the words that came to mind. I wanted to say to her, “I wish I could be a cantor instead- I wouldn’t have to struggle to find those words.”
I remember a Yizkor sermon I gave two years ago, using the themes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. I taught a mishna from the tractate Sanhedrin that I found appropriate. I wish it weren’t appropriate again:
For this reason was one human being created: to teach you that one who destroys a single soul, scripture blames them as though they had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture credits them as though they had preserved a complete world.
These horrible people did not just murder the souls of those whose names are coming to be known- they destroyed the worlds those people, zichronam livracha-may their memories be blessed, would have created.
The mishna ends with this sentence:
And therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.
This world that we live in is fragile. A lot more fragile than we thought. But we have to remember that it is ours. Those incredible heroes in the search and rescue squads are living this mishna- they are taking responsibility for their world. And making order out of the chaos, starting at ground zero.
I’ve thought non-stop about what to say to us in this drash, and I’ve chosen to honor those who have died with my words this morning- I had a message to deliver, and though changed forever, I’m going to share it.
We are going to rebuild, to quote Mayor Guilianni, and we will be stronger than before.
There’s a midrash that the letters of the Aleph-Bet were the blueprint that God used to build this world. We are going to do that same thing- letter by letter, brick by brick, we will take back this world and fix it. Kein Yehi Ratzon, May that be God’s will.
I am O+ type blood. A universal donor, some would say. Though the Red Cross blood drive closed their doors from masses of potential donors, the repeated call for O+ and O- blood was their closing request for the next day. There is something that I can contribute that can help.
That’s, by the way, the hardest thing for all of us, I think. The fact that we desperately want to do something to help, but we can’t. It’s like the idea of Teshuva, repentance- the fact that the wrong has been committed means that no other act can bring it back. Our actions cannot erase the actions of the past.
But I keep thinking to myself, I am O+ type blood. A universal donor! There must be something can do!
So I went Wednesday afternoon to the Red Cross building at 66th St. and Amsterdam and volunteered my time as a volunteer chaplain in the Spiritual Response Team for anyone who might need care- but it occurs to me that perhaps the only reason they had such a team was in order to let all of us clergy, who are dedicating our lives to be there for people in need, - we need to be there, as part of the team. We recognize, like the mishna says, that the world, created with one person alone, is ours to heal.
But it still feels surreal. The only comfort I feel lies in the fact that there are countless numbers of people volunteering their energy, their resources, their blood, and their souls in order to fix this recently damaged world.
So what kind of help can we really contribute? I was told by the Red Cross, that the real help we can give is funds and blood- next week. I was told not to stop my efforts with this week. The countless numbers of people who showed up to give and give and give wouldn’t be there forever.
You can donate toiletries, clothing, money, blood, toys, love, your skills, your counseling abilities- there is a universe of ways to help.
Pirkei Avot says, You are not obligated to finish the work, but you’re also not allowed to walk away from it.
I’m going to make a suggestion from the bimah which might be unexpected. But I’m going to make it anyway. I’ll introduce it with a text from the Talmud.- And keep in mind that the holiest day of the year is Shabbat, not Rosh HaShannah.
Our Rabbis taught: One must remove debris to save a life on the Sabbath, and the more eager one is, the more praiseworthy is one; and one need not obtain permission from the Jewish court.
How is this so? If you see a child falling into the sea, spreads a net and bring it up! — The faster the better, and you don’t need to obtain permission from the Jewish court even though you are thereby catching fish [on Shabbat].
If you see a child fall into a pit, break loose one segment [of the entrenchment] and pull it up — the faster the better; and you don’t need to obtain permission from the Jewish court even though you are thereby building a step [on Shabbat].
Now all these cases must be mentioned separately [in order to teach us that any effort which helps improve the situation is permitted, because the saving of life is the ultimate observance of Shabbat]. (Bavli, Yoma 84b)
So here’s the suggestion: Since we need a parallel service on the first day, and not the second day, I think it’s a safe assumption that many people in this Social Hall today will not be here tomorrow.
Now, while I think shul is an important place to be, we’ve just learned an important text from the talmud that enables me to say this: Donate something of yourself tomorrow.
• If you’re not going to be here, give blood tomorrow, on Rosh HaShannah.
• If you’re not going to be here, call 1-800-HELP-NOW, and donate money tomorrow, on Rosh HaShannah.
• If you’re not here, daven spontaneously wherever you are to ask God to support the rescue operations going on tomorrow, on Rosh HaShannah.
-And do the same the day after. And the day after.
Remember that mishna that we learned before, the one about the world being created for you as an individual? Rav Nachman of Bratslav, a noted Chassdic rabbi, had the following expansion of the text.
Every person must say, “The entire world was created for my sake.” Because if they say that, they’ll think to themselves, “If the world was created for me, I’ve got to look around and concern myself as much as I can with fixing the world. I should fill in the gaps in the world, and pray for anyone who needs help.”
In the name of Rav Nachman, I’m begging any of you who will not be here tomorrow to make the day a day of Tikkun HaOlam, fixing the world. And if you are going to be here tomorrow, noch besser! Fix the world the day after!
These past days have taught us that the world is a fragile place, and that the deep goodness of people just waits for a need to come out.
Please- don’t wait for the need to be as great as it is today. Use all of your ability to fill in the gaps that are there.
We are all universal donors- it’s our universe. And while I deeply wonder what God could possibly doing right now, I’m sure that God is wondering what I’m doing too.
I’m keeping my remarks short, because I think that today isn’t about listening to a rabbi. It’s about listening to each other and being a supportive community. But I want to reinforce one point: we are Jews, and our responsibility as Jews is to act.
Every life that we sustain is n entire world. And every chance we miss to sustain a life is just as serious.
Call the Red Cross and donate blood and money. Find the fund for the families of the rescue workers that were caught in between the towers who did not have insurance.
I’m going to close with the same prayer tomorrow, because I place no other wish as high as this:
It’s Rosh HaShannah- a time for beginnings. This Rosh HaShannah is going to be a very different kind of beginning- and it is certainly going to be a new world that we see.
Please God, may it be a world where we have each other. -Amen.