September 21, 2001
Rabbi Paula R. Goldberg, Rabbinic Scholar
Picture the scene. Flames and smoke everywhere. Dust and rubble crashing. Men, women, children fleeing for their lives. Enemies rejoicing. Disbelief, despair. A central symbol of society and nation destroyed. A city in shock, a nation beginning to mourn. Everything changed -- forever.
I am not speaking of New York in 2001. I am describing Jerusalem in the year 70CE -- the year in which Roman armies destroyed the Holy Temple, as Jerusalem itself was besieged and destroyed. For the second time in Jewish history, a powerful and cruel foreign army had breached the walls of Jerusalem, plundered the city and -- unthinkably -- pillaged and destroyed the Holy Temple - the center of religious and national life.
It was to thoughts of that long ago tragedy -- so far away in time and space -- that my mind turned in the days after Tuesday, September 11, 2001 -- a day which I believe will come to represent for Americans what Tisha B’av represents for Jews -- commemoration of the national tragedy.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon burst into our lives, shattering our tranquility, leaving us -- and all other Americans-- numb and angry. And questioning. Who was behind this? How was it done? Why -- why would anyone do such a thing? Where were the security measures ? How did intelligence fail to protect us?
And the deeper and more painful question : Where was God? As the planes hit the towers, as the towers fell, and as the search went on, the expression was heard, over and over again -- O my God! O my God! Some of us, in our pain wonder: O my God, Eili Eili, my God -- where are You?
My thoughts turned to that other day in history, that other destruction, because the same questions were asked, the same anguish was expressed, and -- out of the dust, the same determination and resourcefulness emerged.
Tonight, Rabbi Strom and Rabbi Joseph give me, as Rabbinic Scholar, the privilege of speaking to you. On this evening we recognize those who have earned the Keter Torah Award, the Crown of Learning. In years past, I have focused my remarks, on the joy, rewards, and sacred obligation of studying Torah.
But I cannot do that tonight. Not because the subject had been exhausted, and not because I think it is any less important than in years past. This year, in the shadow of the events of two weeks ago, and the slowly-unfolding effects we are feeling, speaking to you about Jewish studies seems inadequate.
No, tonight, instead of talking to you about Jewish study, I want to share with you my inner journey these past days, a journey which, not surprising to anyone who knows me, is one of Jewish learning, at its deepest and most meaningful level.
This Shabbat Shuvah, Sabbath of Return, I want to do what I feel is the most essential act of a Jew -- to return to our sacred sources -- for help to give voice to our emotions; to turn to our people’s collective wisdom for consolation and hope. And above all, to turn to our heritage of values for guidance and understanding.
How do we proceed in the days and weeks ahead?
On that Tuesday morning, we all stood in disbelief, glued to televisions or radios as events unfolded. A torrent of emotions came, and still come, flooding through us. Tears flow freely, rage burns within, fear, uncertainty and despair weigh on us like boulders that cannot be moved.
To bear these feelings in silence is too hard. Yet, it is even harder to find words. How incomplete, how inadequate they seem. Only one who has experienced terror and devastation can give proper voice. I turned to sacred sources - to the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the first Temple, and his Book of Lamentations -- not because I am a rabbi, not because I felt in a prayerful mood, not because I thought I could learn something.
I turned to sacred scripture because I needed the sense that I was not alone in grief, that at some time in some place, someone had felt and spoken this same despair. So I read these words, which eloquently expressed for me the words my own heart could not find.
Jeremiah (8:23) O that my head were water, my eyes a fountain of tears, then I would weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.
Lamentations ( 3: 46 - 50) All our enemies loudly rail against us. Panic and pitfall are our lot, death and destruction. My eyes shed streams of water over the ruin of my poor people. My eyes shall flow without cease, without respite, - until the Lord looks down and beholds from heaven.
Sadness congealed into trepidation. Fear has settled in like an unwelcome visitor. And for this too, I found voice in the words of Jeremiah, and in the Psalms of David, revealing, from the depths of their souls, the terror that I felt in my own.
Jeremiah ( 6:24) We have heard the report of them -our hands fail, pain seizes us - agony like a woman in travail. Do not go out into the country - do not walk on the roads - for the sword of the enemy is there - terror on every side.
Psalms (55:5-6) My heart is convulsed within me, terrors of death assail me, fear and trembling invade me, I am clothed with horror...
As the hours and days wear on, other emotions choke me -- doubt, desperation, rage, revenge. Again, I find, not only meaningful expression, but even some solace in the knowledge that these dismal feelings, too, could be -- had been -- declared so poetically in our sacred literature.
Psalms. 13 3-5 How long O Lord will you ignore me, forever? How long will You hide your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Look at me, answer me O Lord my God; restore the luster to my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemies say “I have overcome him” , and my foes exult when I falter.
Psalms 63:10-11 May those who seek to destroy my life enter the depths of the earth -- may they be gutted by the sword - may they fall prey to jackals.
As the work goes on to clear the debris, and debate goes on as to how -- or whether -- we will ever see an end to terrorism, whether there will be - or can be justice -- we can find utterance and validation for our jumbled, confused emotions in these ancient sacred words.
But is it not only expression of grief, fear and anger that our collective heritage of wisdom offers us. In these past days I have also turned to our sacred writings for relief, comfort, hope.
Psalms 147 1-2. The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; he gathers in the exiles of Israel. He heals their broken hearts and binds up their wounds.
From our prayerbook - “You send help to the falling and healing to the sick, You bring freedom to the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.”
There is consolation, and solace in these words. And also in the writings of our ancient sages who creatively interpreted the Bible and history, giving us new understandings of the human connection with God.
Shmuel bar Unia said the verse from Jeremiah, “My soul shall weep in a secret place” refers to the Holy One, [seeing the destruction of the Temple and the exile of its inhabitants] for even the Divine Presence itself sits in mourning and weeps in a secret place for the children of Israel.”
The Divine Presence -- the Eternal One -- weeping in the face of tragedy -- weeping along with us now for the lost and the slain. It is an amazing - and for me, a very comforting -- image of God.
Finally from the prophet Isaiah (58: 9-12)- words we will hear again on Yom Kippur - words of hope.
When you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, God will say, Here I am.. If you remove the chains of oppression; if you make sacrifices for the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted ; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night be bright as noon. The Lord will guide you always.
God will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body’s strength; you shall be like a watered garden, like an unfailing spring. Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins, and lay the foundations for ages to come.
Our traditions - in scripture, from sages and in the prayerbook offer comfort, consolation and hope.
But we wonder, in the days and weeks ahead, how will we -- how should we go on. What might we do -- what must we do. For guidance, we must turn again to our history - to that other time of calamity . The Talmud records events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple in the year 70, -- and focus on one of the great sages of the time, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.
Ben Zakkai was a pacifist in Jerusalem when the city was under siege by the Roman General Vespasian. Ben Zakkai urged surrender, but there were groups controlling the city that would rather die than surrender ; so ben Zakkai faked his own death and had himself smuggled him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He made his way to Vespasian and greeted him, “Praise to the Emperor.” The general was very angry, thinking ben Zakkai was mocking him, but just then, word arrived that the emperor had died and Vespasian had been proclaimed the new emperor. He offered to grant ben Zakkai one request because of his insight. Knowing that to ask for an end to the siege would be too much, Yochanan ben Zakkai asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh, a town North west of Jerusalem, where he and other Torah sages could start a small school and study Torah in peace. The emperor agreed and kept his word. [ from Talmud Gittin 56a b].
OK, it’s a nice little story -- but what can it possibly tell us about today, about now, about what we might do in the face of our modern-day tragedy?
Well, It tells us -- as Jews -- everything.
The tiny school that was established at Yavneh, saved Judaism. It became the center of Jewish learning for centuries after Jerusalem fell. It was there -- through determination, creativity, resourcefulness, and a refusal to let the enemy destroy Jewish life -- that the Judaism we know and practice today -- Rabbinic Judaism -- was created and developed. Out of the pain of destruction, new ways were invented to allow the Jewish people to survive without the priesthood, without the Temple. Public prayer was instituted as a replacement for the Temple service and the synagogue became the center of Jewish communal life.
These same sages, through their teachings, gave us some of the most exalted visions of what it means to be a Jew, to be a human being. In the face of potential annihilation, our ancestors -- scholars and sages -- focused themselves on life. In the face of unspeakable cruelty, they taught compassion. They gave us words which I believe can be our beacon in the weeks and months ahead, a pattern by which I believe we can guide our lives . They remind us what is truly important,
what really matters. Not the offering of animal or grain sacrifices, not the special privilege of the priesthood, not even the focus on public worship. No. Our sages teach us that there are some acts for which the reward is so great that it will extend into the next world. And the words are familiar to us. In fact, this congregation commissioned its own special musical version of these words, first sung on Rosh Hashana by our Cantor and choir: Ei-lu d’va-rim she-ein la-hem shi-ur These are the duties whose worth cannot be measured:
Honor of father and mother -- Who among us - in those first awful hours on Tuesday the 11th did not try to make contact with parent or child or sibling or spouse? The value of these loving bonds cannot be measured. Our task for the days ahead -- deepen the bonds of family attachments -- in reality or in memory, hold your loved ones close.
Acts of love and kindness -- How many scenes can we recall of firefighters and rescue workers rushing without hesitation to save strangers? How much blood has been donated? How much money has been raised? How many simple kindnesses are being shown daily to those who are worried and frightened? How wonderfully are we all reaching out to one another! Our rabbis knew and understood the pricelessness of kindness. Our responsibility to the future now is to not become hardened by pain, but to hold kindness up as a beacon.
Hospitality to strangers -- Who can forget the scenes of New Yorkers -- New Yorkers (!!) opening their businesses and homes to those who were injured, lost and frightened. In the ancient world, travel to far-off communities was uncertain. To know that someone would offer respite was reassuring. To be the one who offers that respite is an ideal we can learn. And even more, we must open our hearts to those “strangers” in our community who feel alone, or outcast, or abandoned -- Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh -- this is a time especially for reaching out. Our rabbis did not limit their vision only to Jews - we shouldn’t either.
Visiting the sick -- there are so many sick --sick in body, sick at heart, sick at soul. These events have wounded us deeply -- all of us. To maintain contact, to bring a word of cheer, or a gesture of kindness to one who is suffering is one of the greatest of all our sacred obligations. As we face a future altered by brutality, we must uphold the value of humanity.
Celebrating with bride and groom -- Rabbi Strom mentioned this so eloquently in his words to us on Rosh Hashana evening -- we are not merely permitted to celebrate -- we are commanded to celebrate -- to affirm life and goodness and future. To plan and to gather and to rejoice is our mandate. And, possibly, a pathway to our healing, as individuals, and as a nation.
Consoling the bereaved -- only after the celebrating - that comes first. Life before death. Joy before sorrow. But our eyes do flow with tears -- every one of us mourns. Those who have been most directly touched need our words of comfort, or perhaps just our presence. Some of us hesitate when it comes to being with someone who is grieving. It is difficult -- it is painful -- and we think perhaps we are making things worse. Our sages understood the need for the presence of others, the power of even silent support, the help it provides towards healing.
Praying with sincerity -- These past days we have seen a tremendous outpouring of prayer of all kinds. It has been uplifting and reassuring. But I have always marveled that this obligation is so far down on our rabbis’ list -- almost as if they imagined the Holy One saying -- “It’s all right, I can wait -- your prayers can wait. Wait until you have loved , and celebrated, and visited the sick, and buried the dead. There will be time for your prayers of praise and thanks and request.” And, sometimes the best, most sincere prayer to God are not words, but actions -- our hands held out to others in support and assistance.
Making peace where there is strife -- This one is difficult, especially when we do not feel peaceful, when we are so enraged that peace seems elusive, if not impossible. But I think that our sages were not thinking so globally -- they were thinking locally. This week the petty arguments, in families, at work, in politics, in classrooms -- seemed insignificant and were set aside. But those small differences that divide people will creep back -- and our chore is to seek ways to bring people together -- to find agreement, compromise and understanding --and, especially during these Days of Awe, to seek , and also to offer forgiveness. Difficult? Yes-- but anything of value is difficult, and can only be gained with effort.
And finally, on our rabbis’ guiding list, is my personal favorite:
The study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all. Engagement with sacred texts is not an only interesting hobby, not just a good way pass time, not even merely one of the obligations required of a Jew, although it is all of these things. For me, immersion in sacred study -- Talmud Torah -- is life itself. The blessing for such study -- la-a-sok b’div-rei To-rah -- means, literally, to occupy oneself with words of Torah. This means more than just to sit and read these words. It means to engage ourselves -- to live the words. For me, Talmud Torah is to act on these words, walk with these words, build through these words, celebrate according to these words, weep with these words, -- to love, both God and fellow by these the words. The study of Torah leads to them all.
So, this is my journey, my message and my hope. In sacred text and collective wisdom we can find the voice for our emotions, gain perspective and comfort from our pain, and light our pathway to the future by showing us what is valuable, what is uplifting, what is life-affirming.
O God - Melech Cha-feitz Ba-Chaim Sovereign who delights in life, we turn You and to Your Torah and the wisdom of Your people Israel. Calm us, heal us, restore us an sustain us in life. Guide us in the days ahead with Your wisdom and grant us Your greatest gift -- the gift of wholeness, of harmony, of peace. Ken Yehi ratzon. May it be God’s will.