Rabbi Paul Yedwab

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 Paul Yedwab
Temple Israel – West Bloomfield, Michigan

A Date That Will Live In Infamy

I am not going to give the sermon I wrote for this evening. It was a nice sermon. Uplifting. A bit funny. Clever, if I do say so myself. But I’ve known for a week now that I cannot give it, so instead, I just want to talk with you, and share what’s in my heart.

Of course, I cannot give the sermon I wanted to give because of the events of September 11, 2001, a date that, like December 7, 1941, will live in infamy. And in many ways it did feel like Pearl Harbor for those who remember it. But in some ways, they tell me, it was even worse: the incredible causalities, the frustration of having no direct military target to attack. And when it happened we prayed, we cried, we hugged our friends and relatives as they received news, good and bad, about their loved ones living in New York or Washington.

Like all of you, I am stunned, I am angry; I am sad; I am drained; I do not know what to say. But I know what I am thinking and I have been struggling all week about whether or not I should share that with you on this High Holy Day.

I have been thinking about evil, and about the nature of sin. But before I get going about evil let me say a word about goodness. I spoke the other day to Andrea Haron, who grew up here at Temple Israel, and who works in the building next door to the twin towers. She was leading a meeting when the first plane hit, and actually saw the decal on the second plane as it went by. She witnessed horrific things that I will not rehearse for you here, and admittedly she was hysterical much of the time. But she told me that it was not until her company held a memorial service the next day, when one of the vice-presidents, who was Jewish, got up and read a Jewish prayer, that she was truly able to cry. When we held our Solidarity service here on Thursday and then again on Friday night, many people expressed similar feelings. Personally, although my experience was nowhere near as harrowing as hers, I found, watching sad image after sad image on the television screen, my stomach was tied up into a knot; I couldn’t eat or sleep. I couldn’t even cry. But then I saw a story of two daughters and their mother who were being followed around by a camera crew as they went in search of their father and husband who had a small concession stand in the towers. They walked for miles, to every Red Cross post and hospital, and it looked hopeless. And then just as things seemed bleakest, one of the daughters cried, “Daddy!” And suddenly he was in her arms, and I began to ball. After all of that horror, it was the one happy ending that made me cry.

The great Jewish thinker, Mordechai Kaplan, has an explanation for this. He defines God as “The Power That Makes for Salvation.” In other words, built into the very fabric of the natural world is the potential for human beings to find moments of Salvation, or meaning, even in our darkest hours. And we all saw such moments. Police, firemen, volunteers, who risked their lives selflessly to save others. The heroes of United flight 93 in Pennsylvania, who probably saved the White House with their valiant stand. A shop keeper giving out sneakers to fleeing business people forced to walk miles that day to get home in their pumps and high heels. The millions of people who have come forth to give blood, money, supplies. One of our Bat Mitzvah students, Nicole Zausmer, whom I found making these little pins at a soccer game. As one of her Mitzvot for her Bat Mitzvah, she decided to sell them to earn money for the Red Cross. She couldn’t even find any more red, white and blue ribbon left in any store, so she made them with this beautiful string. And she wanted to sell me one for a 25 cent donation. Well, by the time we were finished I had bargained her up to $20. But even at that price, they went like hot cakes. Truthfully, if we had decided on $100, she would have sold out that day. People were standing on line to contribute. The Power that Makes for Salvation. It is real, my friends. God is real. Goodness is real.

With that said, let me turn now to evil. On the High Holy Days we say, “Al chet she chatanu lifanecha.” For the chet, the sin, we have committed against you, O God. But is a chet really a sin? Is it evil? As you know, chet is a term that comes from archery--the missing of the mark. We shoot the arrows of our actions, and our words, and sometimes we miss our target. That is a chet. We tried but failed to live up to our highest expectations of ourselves. And for those missings of the mark, we ask slichot, pardon, forgiveness of God and of one another. I’ve had lots of failings this year--lots of things that I could have done better. So have you. And for those, O God, we are deeply sorry. We have erred. We have transgressed. We have missed the mark. But evil? I don’t know.

In our Torah Portion, Adam and Eve are said to have committed a grievous sin by eating from the forbidden fruit. But can such a minor act of disobedience be the source of all of the evil in the world, as John Milton would have it? Impetuous? Maybe. Disobedient? Certainly. Lacking self-discipline? Without a doubt! But a bite of an apple? Not evil in my book. Seems to be more parallel to sneaking a piece of apple pie when your wife isn’t looking.

Let me tell you about the first time I recognized true evil in my life. I was a young boy, infatuated with an older group of boys at our campground, wanting desperately to be one of the gang. One day I came upon them playing, and laughing, and cheering in a circle. Grinning broadly I ran up to be part of the group. Then I saw the game they were playing. They had a penknife that they held over a frog jumping around in the center of the circle. They were dropping the knife repeatedly into the suffering animal, which was still hopping frantically about, penned in by the laughing boys. I began to cry and I begged them to stop, but the leader of the group, who held the knife between his fingers, just looked at me with a laugh and said: “Paul, you don’t understand. We’re not trying to hit the frog; the goal of the game is to miss the frog,” And with that, he dropped the knife directly through the poor creature’s eye. With a shrug he said: “oops, I lose.”

I was only five, but I knew that I had witnessed something evil. Not like teasing my sister, or sneaking a cookie, or even shoplifting from a store, but the deliberate infliction of pain on another creature or human being.

Ronald Reagan once called the Soviet Union the evil Empire. I was no fan of Communism, certainly not as one whose mother spent her life trying to help the Soviet Jews, but I never bought the idea that this bankrupt economic system was truly, malevolently evil. Misguided, inefficient, wrong-headed? certainly! Repressive? No doubt. But was Gorbachev evil in the way that Hitler was evil, or Stalin was evil? I think not. For many years now, however, I have sensed a true evil growing in the world, and it does not come from China, or Cuba, as some would have you believe. It is found in the face of Militant Islamic Extremist Movements. Not Islam Itself, God forbid; it is important that we make distinctions here. I am not talking about the vast majority of our Arab American neighbors. In fact, it is part of our duty, during these difficult days for all of us, to go out of our way to communicate to them that we do understand the difference, and to reassure them of that fact. If you have received one of those erroneous e-mail messages disparaging a particular restaurant, I implore you, do not send them on to others! It is lashon Hara in its ugliest form. The charges have been investigated by the ADL, and are unfounded. In fact, after we received that e-mail, I must tell you that the first reaction of your rabbis was to cut short a meeting that we were having at Temple and to go there, directly, to that restaurant for lunch, to let the restaurateur know that we were with him. I urge you to do the same. This atrocity has ruined enough lives already. You see, extremism, not Islam, is the enemy here. Any good and holy idea, like those found in the Koran, can be perverted, and misused, and misapplied by villains. And it is those villains alone of whom I speak. I am talking about the virulent strain of Islamic fanaticism that we find in Iran, and Iraq, that is represented by the Hizbollah, the Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and, of course, in the followers of Osama Bin Laden

On Sept. 11, 2001, as we did during Pearl Harbor, we discovered as an American people, as a freedom-loving people, as a democratic people, that we do indeed have an enemy; And it is an evil one. We now understand, truly understand, in our guts, what our brothers and sisters in Israel have known for the past half-century. You should know that the first calls I received after the incident were from my friends in Israel--the same friends I usually call when terrorists strike. And like our brothers and sisters in Israel, we are going to have gird ourselves against that evil. As we did in World War II against the Nazis, we will come together as a nation to combat them with courage, with steadfastness, and with all of our available resources.

Let me pause here for a word to parents and teachers. Part of growing up to be a healthy adult is having a sense that the world is a welcoming place. I did my thesis on terrorism at Princeton. And what I found was that terrorism works by magnifying acts of violence in the minds of a people, so that the threat feels much greater than it rationally is. We do no good for our children by magnifying that threat even further in their minds.

I remember growing up as a student in the early 60’s during the height of the Cold War. Do you remember the atomic bomb drills? When the siren would sound, they used to make us get under our desks and hold our heads in our hands. I was only a young boy, but even then I knew that if an atomic bomb hit, getting under my desk would do me very little good. Those drills were more about frantic adults passing their angst along to their children then it was about actually protecting those children. In fact, sociologists have since determined that making those children believe that the world was constantly on the verge of being destroyed was actually detrimental to them, as it was to an entire generation.

You see, it is our role, our job, to be a non-anxious presence in the lives of our children. Let me repeat that. It is our role, our job, to be a non-anxious presence in the lives of our children. Every organization, every family, needs someone that lets everyone know by his words, by her actions, by their demeanor, that everything is going to be OK. And I know that even in the face of our sorrow and our fear, we are up to that task. As one teacher put it recently, “We all know that we will be forever changed by this. But we get to decide how we change.”

I know it is scary. We all know that it will take great sacrifice from us as an American people to overcome this foe, but as in earlier generations I do believe, in perfect faith, that we will prevail, that the forces of justice and mercy and goodness shall overcome the forces of hatred and evil in the world. What we must do is to come together to heal. To reach out to those who have lost loved ones, who are in pain, and to work together boldly to support our nation and our president in this war of good versus evil.

On this day of Rosh Hashana, We pray that our nation shall ever be a stronghold of peace and that our people will ever be a light unto the nations. May God bless America. And let us say… Amen.

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