Rabbi Phil Warmflash

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 Philip Warmflash

Rosh HaShana 5762 First Day

From Hiding to Hineini

While I am always glad to be back hear year after year, this Rosh HaShanah I find special comfort being back together. This past week has been one that none of us would ever want to live through again. The horror of last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks and its aftermath is still very much with us. The images are fresh in our mind, and will remain that way for a long time. I am dreading our next trip up to New York when it will all become real once again. And I have to tell you that I am unsure about my remarks today. Everything is so new, so different, so unbelievable and unimaginable, that trying to fit it into a sermon, to look at it, as if, through a lens seems more than a bit presumptuous on my part. Still, I feel that there is a need to begin to delve, to try to come to terms with the reality of what happened to all of us and to begin to move forward.

Last Tuesday afternoon, as the pictures were flashing and the horror of Tuesday morning’s events had not even begun to truly sink in, I heard a brief interview on Public Radio. Terry Gross was talking to Billy Collins, the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She was asking him if there was any poetic response that he had to the events of the day (the question almost seems comical). Was there anything he was reading…writing, that was helping him to deal with the tragedy and horror that we all had all witnessed. He thought for a moment and then answered her, “the only thing that I could possibly think of reading at a time would be something from the Psalms. His words stuck with together with all of the horrible images of that day and the days that have followed. It stuck with me because it hit a chord that I understood, he was speaking to me. He was telling us, telling me, to do just what Jewish tradition says to do at times of trouble, fear, mourning…to go back to our sources, to our texts, to the wisdom that we Jews have always relied on to help us through times of trouble, texts that offer us lenses through which we could begin to understand, to begin to make sense, to hopefully help us move forward, even after the horror we have witnessed.

I went back to the two texts that I had planned to share with you this morning before 8 am on September 11th. I read them again, and saw they were the same, their message had changed. Now they seemed offered a way of dealing with the world that had changed so dramatically in a few hours. And it is that new meaning that I want to share with you this morning.

These texts stand at the foundation of Rosh HaShana and of our service today. The have to do with two individuals and the way they respond when their lives are uprooted, when that which they had assumed the day before is suddenly drastically altered. These two individuals are Adam who is here because Rosh HaShanah, as we know is yom harat olam, the anniversary of creation, and Abraham, who’s stories we read today and will read tomorrow in the Torah.

Not only is Adam the first human, he is the first to be asked a question. Ayekha? This first question in Human History shatters the calm in the Garden of Eden, Where Are You, God asks Adam. We know what had lead up to the question, Adam and Eve had just eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Remember the way that the serpent described the power of that fruit, “..as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will … know good and bad. “ Before eating the fruit they lived in a naïve state of bliss, a world in which all of their needs were met, where there were no threats from the environment around them. Upon eating the fruit, they see the dangers that lurk all around them, they see peril, they see that they are naked, and they have no way to protect themselves from this new reality.

Ayekah? Where are you? God asks. And Adam’s reply, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, and I hid.”

Listen to the answer…I heard you in the garden and I was scared and I hid. Why did Adam hide? I have always read this as we all had. He is the child who disobeyed his parent and is about to get caught. Now he is now afraid of being punished. This year, in light of last week I read this passage differently and see Adam and Eve in a new light.

Look at the encounter: Adam and Eve have just eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; they have just learned things, dramatic things that they previously did not know, things that completely changed the picture of the world which they had been living with up to that point. They are no longer the naïve creatures who God created only two chapters earlier. They now know about evil in the world and about danger. And what is their first reaction: to turn and hide. I have seen things, I have learned things that I wish I had never learned. I know that things are possible that I never thought were really possible before…and I want to go back to the way it was before, I want to hide.

Tuesday morning I felt like Adam. I was teaching Tuesday morning when all of this was happening. I left and when I lear[ned the enormity of what had happened I called Amy to find out where she was and where the children were and quickly went to pick them up and bring them home, to bring them to safety. My reaction, like, I am sure, many of your reactions was to gather with those we are closest with and close the door. We would watch the news unfold on television, but at least we were all together.

On Tuesday we unwillingly ate a new fruit from the tree of knowledge, and we all graphically learned an unwanted lesson about the potential of people for evil. my first reaction, get home, hunker down, lock the doors. Yes, I have had similar feelings at other times in my life in a reaction of shock, when Jordana was diagnosed with Cerebral palsy, when Amy and I learned about the fire in our home, but this was different. But this was different, here the horror was even greater. This was not happening to me as an individual, this was happening to us as a nation, to us as a citizen of the world. It was meticulously planned and executed by a group of intelligent, committed individuals. This was evil planned and carried out by human beings against human beings. Like Adam, I, we, did not want to know that this was possible. Our bodies became numb and we hid.

And hidden is where Adam stayed. Even as Adam continued the conversation with God he continued to try to hide himself from the new world he had just met. And so God punished Adam, how? First by explaining to him the new world in which he was now to live. His new life meant that he would have to truly encounter the world, now, the world would now be hard and would be painful. Still, Adam does not respond to God, he is fighting so hard to make life the way it was before he ate the fruit. Ultimately God is forced to drive Adam and Eve out of the Garden. God must force them to come to open their eyes, to come to grips, to live in the real world. And, as we learn from their list of progeny, they do manage to survive.

I do understand Adam’s reaction. Reacting to new knowledge by hiding is understandable because new knowledge not only leads to change, it leads to pain. Out of our comfortable, familiar surroundings out of our sense of security, we have to navigate through new territory, never sure if we are going the right way: and it is scary. But, at the point of being banished from Eden, I find Adam a pitiful character. Yes his first reaction, his desire to hide, to go back to the way it was is very, very human. But when that is as far as he can get, when he can’t find the strength to assimilate his new knowledge, however painful, into his world view, into his way of life, that is where I must leave him and move on. Because there comes a point, or, more correctly, a series of points, where we must begin incorporate our new knowledge in our world view. We must begin to go on living.

To learn about moving forward we need another model to teach us how to go on with life. That model is Abraham. Tomorrow morning we are going to read the last significant story of the life of Abraham, the story of the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac. That, as we know is a difficult story to understand, and it is not the story which I want to focus upon, it is the initial call of God to Abraham in that chapter, before anything has been asked, And God says, “Abraham Abraham,” and Abraham answers Hineini, Here I am, I am ready, I will move forward. And it is not only Abraham that answers God’s call in this way, Jacob, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah also respond to God with Hineini – I am here, I am ready to go forward.

Finding Abraham's "Hineini" in ourselves is the challenge that confronts each of us.

It's the challenge of being willing to move forward even when you understand that you may be hurt in the process. We Americans have been hurt. There has been a fundamental change to our sense of the world and our role in this new world. And while our initial reaction may be like Adam--to hide , we can't continue to hide and pretend that the world is the same. It's not. We need to find our own Hineini, to give ourselves the courage and conviction that this new knowledge, the knowledge of this evil, of this terrorism, will not lead to paralysis, but to a deepening of what really matters in our lives.

And where does Abraham find the strength to say HINEINI? I think he gathering his strength from his knowledge and belief that while some significant aspect of his life is changing forever, and while the new journey, the new knowledge may bring with it some pain, still his core values his beliefs about himself and the world and God will remain constant. Those beliefs are, I believe, the source of Abraham’s Hineini.

As I write this I still cannot even put into words how much has changed for us in the last week. Even if we knew no one directly affected by this tragedy, our feeling of safety, of security has changed…if not in reality, then virtually we were all there at the Word Trade Centers. The images of the plane striking the tower, and the falling and the rescue workers are firmly etched in our minds. We now know that we are vulnerable as a nation to horrendous acts planned by brilliant, evil minds. We don’t know exactly who did it, how it was done, and where this invisible enemy might strike next. This is a tremendous burden. This is the stuff that can make us get back into bed and attempt, with Adam and Eve, to hide and still fills me with anger, and nausea, and horror and disbelief.

So where will our Hineini come from?? First, I believe that for most of us, we will not be ready to utter our Hineini as quickly as Abraham. But it will come. It will come, I hope from our knowledge that, despite the events of September 11, our core values and beliefs about ourselves and the world have not changed. They may even be stronger than they were, on Tuesday morning September 11, 2001 at 8 a.m. when it was still possible that it would just be a beautiful late summer day. These “core values” are things that I do not often think about and, even if I do, rarely express. Let me share just a few with you to give you a sense. then you can add to the list yourself.

The first is one that I may never have voiced. I feel fortunate to live in America and I deeply believed and still believe in the principals of freedom and democracy that stand at the foundation of our country. I am stunned by my own desire to own and display an American Flag, to think of my ancestors as not only our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, but also those who fought to establish and to maintain this country and what it stands for. I know that those values have enable me as an individual and us as a Jewish community to thrive and develop in ways that we have never seen at any other time in Jewish history. Freedom has not only effected our ability as Jews to live, not only without fear of religious persecution, but to be fully integrated members of American society in every way. To push ourselves to take meaningful roles in every area of American life. America has allowed us to blossom religiously as well, exploring new modes of worship, to foster new movements, to live meaningful Jewish lives in more ways than our ancestors could have imagined.

Second, and despite the actions of these and other terrorists whose evil is still unimaginable, I believed and I still believe that each individual in this world is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. I believed and still believe that the vast majority of people on earth want to live lives that reflect the divine image. Look at the fire fighters and policemen who ran to try to save lives, even at their own peril. Remember the pictures of doctors and nurses, of volunteers from every walk of life who came to try to save lives. Picture the hundreds of people in lines at hospitals and Red Cross Centers to give blood because they had to do something, they had to help. The terrorists, those who could carry out such evil are the minority. Those of us who live and desire letaken olam bemalchut shaddai, to make the world a better, more peaceful, more Godly place, are the majority. We see it no clearer than at moments of adversity.

Third, I believed and I still believe in the power of community, of people coming together to find strength in each other, to look to each other in times of need, in time of tragedy. At time of trouble and in everyday life, we are not strengthen by, Bowling Alone to use the name of the popular book by Robert Putnam, we are stronger because we are part of a community. A Jewish community, a synagogue community. Community is healing. Those of you who were here last Tuesday night will know well what I am talking about. That night, that first night when we were all still numb, 400 people gathered at Beth Sholom in the evening for a service, but more than a service, they came together to feel part of a great whole. Thousands more joined together at other area synagogues and at churches and mosques because being part of a community give us strength, gives us a place to belong.

Finally, I believed and still believe that God is a source of comfort of strength and of direction for any person who is open to finding God. Our God does not bring judgement on mankind in the form of airplanes hitting building, or in the form of tropical storm, or in the form of illnesses, or car accidents, or in any other form. This atrocity, like other horrors that we have seen in world and in Jewish history is not an act of God. What do I mean, go back for a moment to the Garden of Eden. Eve was tempted by a serpent, not by God. Ultimately she chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge as did Adam. And where was God? God was there, Adam could hear God, “walking through the garden.” And what was God doing? God was waiting for Mankind to turn, to seek God. I believe in a God who is waiting for mankind to call out, to seek comfort, to seek strength and to use that strength to repair the world to make the world better and to make the world sweeter.

I hope that these beliefs, in freedom and democracy, in the divine nature of man, in community and in God will help each of us move forward. In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah we are taught that, just like Abraham, like Joseph, like Moses, and like Samuel, in each generation there will be someone to stand and to say Hineini. Last Tuesday, when our world was jarred, when it was changed forever we could be like Adam, we could gather up our families and try to find safety in hiding. But now a week has passed, and while the wounds are still fresh, while the pain is still strong, we need to begin to look ahead, and when our neighbors, our families, our communities and our God ask us Ayekha?, WHERE ARE YOU? We need to begin to prepare ourselves to respond with Hinneni, I am here, I am next to you, I am ready to move with you towards the future.

May we never again have to experience the horror that we experienced on September 11, and may this Rosh HaShanah of 5762 for each of us, for our families, our community, our country and the world a SHANA TOVA, a year of joy, a year of prosperity, a year of health a year of strength and, most of all, a year of peace.

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