Rabbi Richard Hammerman

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 Richard Hammerman- B’nai Israel, Toms River, NJ

After the turn back to our earliest traditions and link our arms with our ancestors and embrace the faith which embraced them to give us strength and fortitude. When we recognize that we are part of an eternal people, God’s chosen people who can never be destroyed, we gather strength to overcome evil and
crisis. At times like these we turn to our tanach and search in our Bibles for meaning and understanding. The major sections from the Bible which we read on shabbat and festivals are the Torah and Haftorah. The Haftorah sections always come from the words of the Prophets of Israel.

When we heard the Haftorah this morning we could understand why the rabbis chose it as the reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. During the Torah reading we learned of Isaac’s birth, as it’s described in the Book of Genesis. It was natural, then, that we learned of the Prophet Samuel’s birth in this morning’s Haftorah. The connection is clear. But why do we read tomorrow’s Haftorah from the 30th chapter in the prophecy of Jeremiah? I wasn’t sure of the connection with Rosh Hashanah, myself, until last week. As I reviewed Jeremiah’s optimism and hope, despite all he experienced, I understood how much we need to hear his words echoing in our ears as we begin a New Year, especially this year.

You might find it surprising to hear me speak about Jeremiah’s optimism. In common usage, Jeremiah is always seen as the “ Prophet of doom.” His name is always associated with warning, mourning, destruction and desolation, exile and annihilation. It is Jeremiah who warns that Judah will be destroyed. It is Jeremiah who speaks of the coming exile. It is Jeremiah who criticizes the Priests and the King, the rich and the powerful. It is Jeremiah who prepares the people to worship God outside of Jerusalem and to believe in God even when the Temple is destroyed.

But Jeremiah isn’t so much a pessimist as he is a “realistic optimist.” For all of his public wailing and warnings, for which he was imprisoned by his own King, Jeremiah looked beyond the moment of destruction and saw rebirth and hope, he envisioned a better future and offered a promise of hope and redemption.

With Jerusalem under siege, just as he, himself, had predicted, Jeremiah bought property in Jerusalem. He publicly redeemed his cousin Hanamel’s estate and gave the deed to his loyal Scribe Baruch so that all could see that he was investing in Jerusalem and was confident about tomorrow. With all of the destruction which he envisioned, and the suffering which he experienced from his own nation and from his nations’ enemies, Jeremiah never gave up his faith in a flowering future.

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to be in Israel for the second time this summer. I went back for a couple of days to celebrate my nephew Yosi’s wedding to Ayelet. The wedding was held in a town outside of Jerusalem which received its name from the Prophet Isaiah, Mavaseret Tzion, which means, “a herald of joy to Zion.” The town has become a Jerusalem suburb perhaps best known today for its shopping center with a huge McDonald’s arch overlooking the road to Jerusalem advertising its kosher addition to the McDonald’s franchise.

The wedding wasn’t held at the shopping center. The Chupah was set up outside, overlooking the hills of Judah. As we gathered together for the ceremony, we saw the modern city of Jerusalem light up in all of its splendor. There we sang Jeremiah’s own words with new meaning: “ od y’shama b’orey Yehuda u’vachutzot Yerushalayim”

After the attack on America which we experienced last week, the unprecedented loss of life, and America’s loss of innocence, we,here, now know how horrible terrorism can be. Until now, the land which makes up our United States of America has been safe from foreign invaders and free from horrific strikes of terror. Last week, as Americans, we entered a new phase of our history and a new era in our relations with terrorists. America will be strong and will continue to be a bastion of democracy and a beacon of freedom. The destruction of the World Trade Center, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and the attack on the Pentagon will be a constant reminder to us that we must be vigilant and prepared to fight for our freedom and sacrifice for our ideals. No one can intimidate us. We will not allow anyone to terrorize us. Freedom is not cheap. Liberty has to be protected and democracy nurtured. These values are not only an inheritance they are also a challenge. These values are not only our legacy they are also our responsibility. We will live for these values, we will fight for these values, we will secure these values and pass them on proudly to our children and our grandchildren.

Though we continue to mourn the tragic, unprecedented loss of innocent life this past week, we also must look forward to tomorrow and back to the blessings of yesterday. We have much to be thankful for and much to look forward to.

We thank God this morning for all of the blessings of the year past, the joys and the achievements, the simchot which we enjoyed and the challenges which we met. This morning, as we welcome Rosh Hashanah 5762, we also bid farewell to sickness, mourning and loss which we experienced and look forward to a better year. We pray to meet any misfortune with fortitude, any disappointment with faith, any adversity with hope. Our belief in God strengthens and fortifies us to meet whatever faces us this year.

On the threshold of this New Year we offer thanks to God for recovery from illness. Some who are with us this morning were too sick to be with us last year. Some who are here this morning were unable to be with us last year.We join them and their loved ones in offering thanks for a new beginning and a New Year. We join in prayer and thanks to God that they can join us in worship this Rosh HaShanah morning. We also pray, today, on behalf of those who can not be with us and think about those confined to their homes, hospitals and care facilities.We join in prayer for the families of victims of terror in the United States, Israel and throughout the world. We join in prayer for the families of firemen and policemen, volunteers, first aid workers, volunteers and innocent bystanders who were killed in this recent act of terror and horror.

I would like to invite anyone who was ill this past year to offer a special prayer of thanks to God. If you raise your hand our ushers will bring you special prayers to recite for this occasion. If you can, please stand at your seat. If you are unable to stand, then join us in prayer while seated. Whether seated or standing, let us thank God for recovery and respite from illness and look forward to a new beginning this Rosh Hashanah morning.

At times of joy and trial, tragedy and celebration it’s only natural for us tool sason v’kol simcha, kol chatan v’kol kalah,” Again there shall be heard in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the bride, the voice of those who call ‘Give thanks to God, for the Lord is good, and His kindness is everlasting.’ ”

Jeremiah could see that destruction was coming. But he could also see that gladness would follow. Jeremiah wrote these very words when he, himself, was in exile. Jeremiah saw the worst of tragedies but foresaw happiness and celebrations. We live in Jeremiah’s kind of world. We live in an olam hafuch, a topsy-turvey world.

On the one hand we experience terrorism, fear, destruction, anarchy, planes falling from the sky, skyscrapers tumbling, 1000’s of innocent civilians being killed without meaning and without purpose. We’re imprisoned by fear and overdose on a constant barrage of bad news and frightening reports. We can’t escape 24 hours, 7-days a week, the constant drone of news, so little of it good, constantly reporting the evil human beings are inflicting on each other. We need Jeremiah’s “realistic optimism.” We need to hear tomorrow’s Haftorah where Jeremiah tells us:
“ranu l’yaacov simcha, v’tzahalu b’rosh goyim,”
“Sing out in gladness for Jacob, shout in joy for the head of the nations. With tears shall they come and with consolation shall I lead them back. They shall come and sing for joy on the heights of Zion. Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded. Your children will come back from the land of the enemy. YESH TIKVA L’ACHARITACH, There is hope for your future, says the Lord. Your children shall return to their own land.”
“V’shavu banim ligvulam”
Unfortunately, we Jews are experts in confronting tragedy. Our history has given us too many experiences in how to react to adversity. After two- thirds of the Jewish People in Europe, one-third of world Jewry, was decimated by the Nazis we created the modern State of Israel. In May, 1948, when the Arab armies tried to destroy the tiny State of Israel and snuff it out even before it blossomed, the Israeli nation fought back and gave us more secure borders than the United Nations had ceded to us. In June, 1967, when the Arab armies declared war on Israel and threatened to drown us in the Sea, we fought back in six days and doubled our territory and provided a greater margin of security for our Israeli citizens for three decades.

Now we’re the experts in terrorism. Unfortunately, we have to face it every day in contemporary Israel. One thing we have learned is not to give in to terror. Not to allow the terrorists to terrorize us. That’s just their plan. Their mission is to disrupt normal life and wreak havoc with daily living. We’ve learned in Israel, and we have to teach America, that we won’t play by their rules, we won’t give in to the terrorists’ blackmail. We won’t allow ourselves to be terrorized and frightened. We won’t cave in to pessimism and give up on hope. We won’t be frozen in our tracks. We will rebuild. We will go on with the joy of daily life.

Five weeks ago, during the lunch hour rush at the Sabaro restaurant at the busiest corner in downtown Jerusalem, a terrorist suicide bomber killed 15 men, women, children and babies who had come in to eat lunch. The force of the blast wreaked havoc on the entire corner of King George and Jaffa Roads. The building was in flames, the windows broken, the furniture burned, the restaurant destroyed. Last week the Sabaro restaurant re-opened. And again it was filled with patrons coming in to eat their noon time meal.

The day of that tragedy, a colleague of mine in Jerusalem spent the morning at the funeral for the brother of one of his students who had been killed in an automobile accident. He was a newly arrived Russian immigrant and he and his family was just finding their way in their new home. There are more traffic accidents in Israel and, incidentally, in New Jersey, than victims of terrorism in Israel. My friend’s day began at the cemetery. Then he heard about the terrorism at the Sabarro restaurant and learned that the daughter of another friend of ours just missed being killed there. Dvora arrived at the restaurant a couple of minutes before the bombing but, because there were no empty tables, she left and went across the street to eat.

That night this rabbi was supposed to officiate at his son’s best friend’s wedding. He wondered what he should do. He decided that he should be even more enthusiastic in wishing the young couple well under the Chupa and praying for their joy and happiness. “ I danced at their wedding,” he told me. “Even more enthusiastically than usual. We have to maximize our joy and celebrate each simcha with all our hearts.”

This has to be part of our answer to terrorism and tragedy. We must enjoy the good moments. Make certain to attend every joyous event, every family simcha, every happy occasion.

We also have to be strong as individuals and as a nation to bring the guilty to justice and destroy those who would destroy us. We don’t believe in “turning the other cheek.” We have to use every means to prevent terrorist acts before they occur and eradicate the terrorists and their dens of iniquity.We have to put more effort into prevention and take bold actions to rout out our enemies. We have to be willing to sacrifice for our freedom and be inconvenienced for our liberty. Liberty and freedom were not won easily in this country, nor in Israel, and they can not be guaranteed without our sacrifice and commitment.

Finally, we must teach love and not hate. We have to be careful not to accuse those who are innocent, not to condemn an entire religion or ethnic group because of the sins of a small minority of their members. We have to be careful not to stereotype or paint everyone with the same brush of guilt. We have to open dialogue between people of different races and religions and bring people closer together. We have to build bridges of friendship and towers of understanding. We have to work harder to use our sophisticated, instant and inexpensive satellite, telephone and Internet communications between nations to bridge the gaps which separate us and develop friendships and cooperation across religious, national and ethnic divides.

Last Tuesday, the same day that America was attacked, a Moslem friend of one of our kosher-meals-on-wheels volunteers came to the synagogue to offer her assistance in delivering meals to the homebound. This volunteer came to America from her native Turkey ten years ago so that she could provide a safer home for her son to grow up in. Being a Turkish Moslem by birth did not prevent her from walking into the synagogue, along with her Jewish friend, to help provide kosher meals to the elderly.

We’ve made so much progress in the sciences; we’ve made so little progress in the humanities. We’ve learned to reach the moon and propel people into orbit. We’ve yet to learn how to sit down and speak together here on earth and communicate with one another across the table. This is the challenge which faces our nation and our world this Rosh Hashanah.

Last month US News and World Report ran a cover article about heroes. They concluded that most Americans could not name any public figure alive today whom they would honor with the title “hero.” One in six had no hero at all. But 100’s, indeed 1000’s of heroes came through for us last week to save lives and to help the injured in New York City, Washington, DC and in Pittsburgh. Firemen and policemen, first aid workers and volunteers, American citizens and foreign visitors, legal residents and illegal aliens helped to save lives. They were all heroes, and they are all heroes. Some of them-in the air and on the ground- risked and lost their lives to try to save others. We are grateful for their heroism.

Pearl and Samuel Oliner, in their book “Toward a Caring Society,” suggest that if we want to create a better, more caring society we need to tell the stories of ordinary people who are caring and kind. 10’s of 1000’s of those people fill our cities and our communities, our Churches and our synagogues. 100’s of those people are members of our own Congregation B’nai Israel. We have to tell their stories to help our young people, and their parents, see the good in the world and learn that they, too, can make a difference.We need examples of godliness to learn to act like God. We need heroes of goodness to encourage us and our children to fulfill our potential for good.

There’s a famous debate in the Talmud regarding when the New Year really begins. Rabbi Joshua claimed that the world was created in the first agricultural month, in Nisan, in the Spring, at the time of new life. Pesach, Passover, Rabbi Joshua suggested, should be our New Year. Rabbi Eliezer disagreed. He said that the world sprang into being in the 7th month, in Tishri, as we observe it today.

Their debate reflects two distinct perceptions of reality. Nisan occurs in the Spring when nature revives after winter’s hibernation. Tishri, however, marks the onset of Autumn, a time of fading blooms, dying leaves and shorter days that invariably precede Winter’s stormy blasts. Logic would tell us that we should begin the new year in the Spring when nature erupts with fresh energy.

Yet Jewish wisdom defies logic, casting a decisive vote for Autumn. We are summoned to renewal precisely when Autumn skies cast their lengthening shadows upon us, when nature’s decay engulfs us. Rabbi Eliezer’s challenge to begin the New Year in Autumn might defy logic but it is psychologically sound. He urges us to believe that new beginnings are possible even when the spirit of death stalks our byways. Life can start afresh even when standing on the threshold of decay. Just as in the story of creation in Genesis, life bursts forth from primeval chaos. Our of disorder comes order. Out of chaos arises cosmos.

What is true of nature holds equally true for mankind. Real life for Adam and Eve truly begins when they are forced out of the Garden of Eden and must cope with the ‘autumns’ of harsh reality and decision making. So, too, life can begin for us out of the ‘falls’ of our lives. Out of pain and palpitations we can turn over a new leaf with fortitude and begin life once more, again.

Nature’s death at Autumn challenges us to meet adversity head-on and continue with faith, optimism and resolve. We can’t afford the luxury of wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for ourselves because loved ones died, because violence exists, because death surrounds us and terrorism frightens us. We only have one chance at life. We have to make the most of it. Optimism is a choice we make each day. It is not a gift granted to us. True hope is hoping against hope. Faith is not to trust when all goes well, but to trust, in particular, in the autumns and winters of our journeys when shadows cast their pall over us and we want to hide in the comfort of self-pity. Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we have to welcome the New Year when we need it most. We have to give birth to a New Year when darkness falls; we have to say “yes” to life when disappointment and depression threaten to overwhelm us.

This Rosh Hashanah, in the shadow of the greatest tragedy our generation of Americans has known, we must strengthen ourselves to experience our own rebirth. We must continue our celebration in this autumn of increasing darkness. We know that we can not determine our own fate or fortune.But we can determine to meet our fate with optimism and resolve and increase our sense of fortune by being grateful for what we already possess.

We, along with so many others, are the good people. We care. We care deeply. We try our best to make the world better. We pray. We act. We lead and we teach our children and grandchildren. We are the good people and we are the heroes whom God depends on to keep this world together.

We ask ourselves the question each day, “If I am only for myself- What am I? And, If not now when? As we remain seated, Cantor Green and the B’nai Israel choir will sing for us from the Talmud, from Pirkei Avot, “Im any ani li- me li?
If I am not for myself, Who will be for me?

“Uchsheani l’atzmi, mah ani?”
And if I am only for myself, What am I?"

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