Rabbi Neil Sandler

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 Neil Sandler
Congregation Ohev Shalom
Marlboro, New Jersey

A week ago the day began with a brilliant, sunlit sky. A dear friend of ours who lives in Manhattan recalled that as she walked to work, she looked across the New York skyline and thought about how remarkably beautiful the city was that day.

Tuesday began no less beautifully here in Marlboro. A group of us happened to be in the synagogue office when Michelle, a member of our office staff, walked in and said something about a plane and the World Trade Center.

My secretary Beth brought out a TV, and we watched the surreal, ghastly scene unfold before our eyes.

But the sky was still a brilliant blue! How could we stand there witnessing the extraordinarily beautiful become first the unimaginable and then the absolutely unfathomable?

In the days that have passed since last Tuesday our emotions have been powerful and varied - Shock, horror, worry, anger, guilt, depression, overwhelming sadness…

We gathered together as a congregation and community Wednesday evening in incredible numbers simply because we needed to share our feelings and to gain the solace that comes from gathering with others in a time of need.

But our suffering continues.

I do not know … perhaps there are even bereaved or family members of the missing among us this morning. Certainly newspapers and television coverage of the tragedy have shared many stories about the good people who are among the missing or who lost their lives.... Loving mothers and fathers, caring souls, patriotic citizens, brave and valiant firefighters and police officers…

For many of us, those TV and newspaper descriptions only heighten our grief because we personally know or know of individuals who have lost their lives or who are among the missing. For us, those innocent victims are very real, and our hearts ache for them. Most of them did not volunteer to place themselves in harm’s way. They had no idea what would befall them last Tuesday.

Words cannot adequately capture any of this - - not out shock, not our pain, not the comforting wishes we desire to share with the families of the bereaved and missing… but words are largely, all we have. And so we say again, as we did last Wednesday evening as a community –

“Our hearts ache for the families who now suffer. We pray for personal and family peace and that healing will eventually take firm root.”

Is healing possible? Today, as we recognize the ennobling possibilities of a new year, we must answer that question with an unqualified “Yes”, despite our lingering doubts of the moment. Sadly, we know that life will never be the same for those who have lost loved ones. And yet, difficult as it may be to recognize today - - We know that God has blessed every human being with a reserve of resilience. Bereaved families in unimaginable pain may not feel that strength today but it is innately present. Eventually, they will call upon their resilience. Healing will be possible and will likely take hold.

But what about the rest of us who have not suffered a personal loss or who do not await word on the fate of a loved one? We are pained, but we cannot mention that pain in the same breath as the pain of those who directly suffer now for it would be ludicrous to do so. Our pain, in some measure, arises from the recognition that our world, as we collectively know it, was shattered last week.

Before then many of us knew the pain of personal loss. We recognize and perhaps have even experienced tragedy on a personal or broader level. We have certainly opened newspapers or turned on the TV to discover horrible revelations, shook our heads and thought,

“How is that possible?
“How could someone do that?”

Somehow we knew, though, that the basic order of our world, disturbed as it was at that time, was still intact. But Tuesday was different. Chaos broke out and ruled. Terrorists may have carried out their dastardly plans with orderly precision, but from our perspective - - unrelenting chaos broke out, and with it came the feelings that something had changed. Our world could no longer be assumed to be a good place.

There’s a question that’s been lurking since that time. Some of us may have talked about it, while others of us have set it aside, too afraid to face its implications. But that question bursts forth on this day. In our Machzor High Holiday prayer book, the question of this day, of this entire penitential season is

“Who shall live and who shall die?”

Today, we boldly cry out, “Does it really matter?” How can we live in a world where chaos can break out on such a massive level…. chaos instigated by a cowardly enemy small in number who hides behind some two-bit regime? Can we still honestly say to ourselves and reassure our children and grandchildren that the world is a good place when such a thing occurs?

That question begs to be considered on this day when we implore the Holy One to forgive our sins and forthrightly assert that our reparative actions of repentance, prayer and tzedakah in the days ahead will avert the severity of the decree...that our actions really do matter!

The question implores our attention because what occurred on Tuesday was simply outside the parameters of anything we have previously experienced in this country – that uniqueness is singularly frightening. It rocks the foundations of our assumptions about this world. This is how the NY Times framed it in an editorial last week (9/12):
“If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war,
everything is dangerous. If four planes can be taken over
simultaneously by suicidal hijackers, then we can never
be quite sure again that any bad intention can be thwarted,
no matter how irrational or loathsome.”

That quotation captures our new found sense of terrible vulnerability. Can we live in such a world? And more importantly, can we restore our confidence in the belief that the world is a good place, despite our vulnerability?

The first question is easy. We have no choice but to live in this vulnerable world. This past week Americans were exposed to a phenomenon that Israelis have known for many years. As they have faced that reality so we must now do the same.

But what about the second question, a far more troubling one? Despite our vulnerability, can we really assert that this world is still a good place? Can we honestly reassure our children and grandchildren?

Today, despite the misgivings we likely feel – We must answer that question with assurance steeped in faith in God’s goodness and in our capacity to imitate God’s ways. After Tuesday, it may be difficult for some to speak of God’s goodness. In fact, some extremists will assert that the gruesome events reflected divine wrath and punishment. They may even rely on literal acceptance of images in our Tradition and liturgy of this day … such as God, the stern judge or the wrathful God who strikes out against the sinful in the Bible. Surely the grossest example of this thinking in the wake of Tuesday’s tragic events was reflected in the words of Reverend Jerry Falwell who said,

“The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because
God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little
innocent babies, we make God mad.”

We reject such sentiments as ludicrous, monumentally hurtful and a profanation of God’s Name.

In mainstream Judaism, comforting images of God abound. God is redeemer, caring parent, Rock of Israel, exemplar for life. That is the God to whom we now turn to reassure ourselves about the goodness of our world.

How can we do so? You know, my friends, take all the stories and laws contained in the Torah, and you know what they add up to?

In four words ---God cares about us

God cares about us and wants to be in a relationship with us. That divine love and concern is the foundation of the world’s goodness. Without it, there is no lasting or compelling basis for goodness. If we can sincerely assert that belief about God – then the world is a potentially good place. I say “potentially” only because whether or not the world is actually good will depend on the choices we freely make about how to act in it.

A belief in God’s concern and love for us encourages us to view the daily renewal of our world as an expression of goodness. When the unforeseen tragedy or evil act occurs it hurts us terribly. But in a world in which we otherwise recognize God’s caring presence we understand that such horrible things are the painful exceptions. If we believe that God is good and cares about us then we are worthy of attention, and what happens in the world really does matter. If it were otherwise then what happens in this world, including how people treat each other or what they do to each other, would be of little interest.

Most importantly, if God cares about us and our world then we too must care. Why? Because we are little less than divine. The Machzor tells us - -

“God, You have linked our name with Yours.” (Harlow, p. 539)

If so, our lives are more than just insignificant specks in the span of time. Each of our lives is of infinite significance. Only a good world is worthy of us. And a good world beckons us to act similarly to God’s caring ways.

Why do I assert that this world is still a good place despite the chaos that broke out in it a week ago? Because countless numbers of people gave expression to God’s imprint on them last Tuesday and have continued to do so ever since:

The people on a United flight who sacrificed their own lives and those of other passengers in rural southwest Pennsylvania so that hijackers would not be able to wreak even greater havoc at their intended target.

The firefighters who unhesitatingly entered burning buildings to save people who otherwise would surely have died.

The police officers who placed themselves in harm’s way to be of service.

The rescue workers who toil without rest.

The ordinary people who lined up for hours at blood banks to give the gift of life, and others who brought supplies and food to aid the rescue efforts.

The citizens of our country who have gathered in large cities and small towns to express their confidence in our country and support for its leaders.

And most importantly - - I know that the world is a good place because of the people whose stories we will never know, but who surely acted in valiant ways to save others, even at the cost of their own lives.

In response to the actions of all of these people, I emphatically assert a paraphrase of words found in the Machzor (Harlow):

“Because of the strength and the beauty and the piety
of their lives, because of our hope for the future
which they have planted within us –
in spite of everything which strangles hope –

We say Yes to creation
We say Yes to our Creator
We say Yes to the goodness of our world “

And now, as an affirmation of our recognition of God’s caring presence, of the goodness of our world, and as a fitting memorial to those who have perished, I ask you to rise and join with me in the recitation of the Kaddish (p. 346).

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