Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon
Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5762
September 17, 2001
This is a New Year like no other. We are each changed in profound ways. We have been wrenched from the past. Our sense of security as well as our faith in a rational, safe world has been shaken. Words are not adequate to comfort. Silence is far more eloquent. The power of community is itself most poetic. Yet we still search for meaning and consolation. Our lives are not what they were just one week ago. For many of us, the tragedy is personal. Friends, colleagues, and family have been lost or seriously injured. For some, there are personal stories of miraculous rescue and safety. For all of us, we are touched by profound loss. Among the victims of this horrific tragedy is our innocence and trust.
There is shock. There is a numbing sadness. There is grief. There is, as well, anger and the desire for retribution. There will be that, as it should be, but that will be through our military forces. And I hope it is obvious to all of us, yet it must be said, that any individual retribution based on prejudice or fear is unwarranted and wrong and goes against all of our values—as Americans and as people of faith.
But here we are. After a trauma and tragedy such as this we are left to make some sense of it, to try to absorb, internalize, and integrate this searing experience. That really is not completely possible, but I hope, during these Ten Days of Awe, we will all be able to check in with each other, to share thoughts and words of hope, to hug and comfort, and to gain strength from our collective being.
Why did God allow this to happen? I do not believe that it is a theological question that we seek here, though I know that some may wonder about the meaning of faith and prayer, or about the fairness of God and fate. I do not see the “will of God” at work in this event. But there is that question, and so many of us are hearing the question on the lips of our children. Many of you have come up to me or e-mailed me and asked for help in explaining God in the light of this human terror.
We could search for the cause of evil, but we might do better to probe the source of heroism, courage, and hope that was displayed so often during this past week. In our anger, we might lash out at God, but we might instead praise the source of inspiration of all that we saw of nobility and selflessness so evident in New York, Washington, and in the skies over Pennsylvania. If you agree with my personal theology of “When is God” or “What is Godly,” then you can know that God was witnessed among the NY City firefighters and police rescue squads and paramedics. Individual office workers who helped rescue fellow workers and disabled strangers were acting in Godly ways. The passengers on United Flight 93 over the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania were responding to the Divine call within them.
Terror was not God at work. Terror was a desecration of God. It was an act of destruction of the sacredness of all life. Each of us has within us a breath of the Divine, and to kill any one of us is to kill the spirit of the Eternal One. God has given us the ability to choose how we manifest that Divine presence in our lives. We can act in Godly ways or we can act in un-Godly ways. The nurturing of life is Godly. The desecration of life is a denial of the Eternal One. Tonight God mourns.
And in speaking to our children, the most important lesson to teach is that they are safe. They are loved. The world does make sense. And there is the presence of an Eternal Divine force that is loving and real and within us. We may not always see it or hear it or even understand, but there is the Divine at work in each one of us. That is what we must teach our children, and it is that which we must continue to strive to create and build. In a shattered world, we are inspired to work for tikkun olam-a healing of the brokenness and a restoration of the shards of our world.
When all of this began last Tuesday, I went to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, No Ordinary Time, the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. As I opened the book to the chapter on Pearl Harbor, it was enough to see the chapter title, “A Completely Changed World.” Some of you, who are here today, were alive then. You can tell the rest of us the story and the impact. For many of us, we heard about Pearl Harbor second hand, from our parents. Many of us know the shock of John F Kennedy’s assassination, or Bobby Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s. Some of you are younger, and you remember the Challenger tragedy as the event that will always stay with you. But as of September 11th, all of us alive today have a new reference point in time. From that moment, we know that our lives, the way we view our world, our sense of order, will forever be changed. The world will never again be for us what it was last Monday night. Seven days ago. It is now “A Completely Changed World.”
There will continue to be comparisons with Pearl Harbor. Even before last week’s events, there was Pearl Harbor, the summer movie. There has been a great deal of nostalgia lately for what Tom Brokaw called, The Greatest Generation. I have read as many of the Stephen Ambrose books about World War II as I could get my hands on. I would rather see Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan than in Forest Gump. There is a part of us, I think, that envies the years of struggle, and even of war, because we have felt the lack of national purpose and meaning in our current America. This new, more horrific, Pearl Harbor may create another time of struggle as well as purpose and meaning. That may be an aspect of this new changed world.
It is up to us to try to understand that new reality. But first, what does it all mean? I know many of you, during this last week, have heard many comparisons with Israel. It has been said that now Americans will understand what it is like to live in Israel with the constant threat of suicide terrorists. But I think there is a deeper issue here. For those of you who feel unconnected to Israel, for those who have never been there, I know that it is often difficult to understand why people love Israel so passionately. It is not really because of the scenery or even the history. It is certainly not because of luxury or the graciousness and charm of Israelis. It is something far greater.
In Israel, life matters. Everything matters. There is an intensity to life with all its meaning and purpose and vision. There is a shared culture of service and dedication. It is something that has been missing for a long time in American culture. When I have lived in Israel for extended periods of time, I have come back here and confronted culture shock. If we look at our American culture, and if we are honest and critical, then we know that it is often trivial and frivolous. Self-indulgent and meaningless. We concentrate on personalities, whereas in Israel there are events. We are a culture of People Magazine. There, it is a culture of The New Republic or The Atlantic Monthly.
In recent years, Israeli thinkers have been wondering if Israel had changed. Were the Israelis in danger of losing their shared sense of purpose and the spirit of communal service? Would consumerism and prosperity make them too complacent and comfortable? Was Israel becoming too Americanized? Today we are beginning to wonder if America is not about to become too much like Israel. And perhaps it has. For bad as well as good. Since Tuesday morning we have had to confront the most terrifying aspects of terrorism. It seeks to produce chaos. In a world that we might think we can control, we are made to feel completely vulnerable. In a world that once seemed to make sense, life is suddenly capricious and unpredictable. My Israeli friends will say that everyday decisions become existential choices. Should I make an appointment for a haircut at 10 AM or perhaps at 2:00 in the afternoon? The choice might determine if I live or die. Who knows what time a bomb might explode?
With terrorism you have to decide whether your life will depend on whether you meet friends at Sabaro Pizza for lunch or go to Windows on the World for breakfast. If the alarm clock doesn’t go off, and you sleep late, are you spared? If you decide to go to work early, is your fate sealed? When you realize that there really is no adequate defense against a suicide bomber, you need to make some very difficult choices. For Israelis who have lived with this for a long time, the choice has always been: Life goes on. Choose life. Continue. It is not a naïve choice or one of innocence. They are supremely aware of how dangerous our world really is, but they do not give up. Life for us goes on as well. It is why we are here tonight.
And like in Israel, we have changed in other ways. It is painful, but there is an equality of mourning. In Israel, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Morrocan, South African, American and Canadian, Polish and Russian Israelis all are equally vulnerable. All families grieve, and in a country with only 4,000,000 people, everyone knows each other or someone close. There are far fewer than six degrees of separation between Israelis. A bomb explodes and everyone knows someone affected. Each time there is such a loss, the Israeli newspapers publish the photos of those killed. Each has a name, and each has a story. We have begun to see the same here in America in this last week. Sadly, we anticipate that we will be seeing far more pictures in the days to come. We will be telling each other of a person we know, were related to, worked with, or went to school with.
And perhaps we are becoming more like Israel because we share the same enemy. The terrorists are not battling America or Israel or Zionism. They are battling the modern world. Theirs is an intractable hatred. They aimed the planes at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon not because the United States supports Israel. Nor is this a battle between Islam and Judaism or Christianity. This is not about the Arab world versus the Israeli, nor even a struggle between East and West, developed world against the Third World.
We are the Modern world, and they wish to remain Medieval. We represent the world of the Rational. We are the inheritors of the Age of Reason, whereas they fight for the Fanaticism of a different age. The truth is, our world is full of ambiguity, but they believe in a world of certainty, of black and white, pure good versus pure evil. We are, to them, pure evil. And they seek to destroy us and our world. We threaten their world, because they see their people longing to share in the dreams of the modern world. They know that this modern culture might seduce theirs. So they try to destroy our centers of world commerce, our military headquarters, and, we assume, they sought to demolish the assembly hall of our democracy. Tom Friedman, of the New York Times, points out that the targets in Israel are the most secular and modern of settings. An American franchise pizza parlor, a Tel Aviv discotheque open on a Friday night.
They hate what they see as our decadence, but do not make the mistake of buying that argument. America and the modern do not represent just consumerism, self-indulgence, and hedonism. There is that to be sure, and at times Western culture has been imposed on other people with a heavy hand. But we remain inheritors of the Enlightenment because the values fought for in the 18th and 19th Century continue to be the core values we defend. The modern world is a world of freedom. It is a world of law and justice and tolerance. There is freedom of religion. We are dedicated to free expression of ideas and thoughts, a commitment to equality of all, no matter gender or color, or race, or religion or sexual orientation. Our society and culture are the enemies of their feudalism, oppression of women, inequality based on religion or ethnicity. They force Hindus to wear yellow symbols on their clothing. They destroy Buddhist sacred statues. They deny women basic human and civil rights.
They wish to destroy American culture because we threaten to bring their own people into the modern world. They think we seduce their people with Coca Cola and McDonalds. That is where they are wrong. We offer hope and freedom. There is equality and human rights. There is openness and liberation. And that is what we are defending.
Amazingly, there are some who have tried to explain their actions, if not justify them. But there is no possible excuse for the mass destruction of innocent human life. Let no one argue for moral equivalency. There are those who have said that this is the response of the powerless to globalization and western economic strength. Others seek to ascribe their motives to anger over Israeli occupation of the West bank and Gaza. But such arguments are wrong. This heinous terrorism is not a justifiable response to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are at war, but wars are fought between combatants. Wars might be fought in street battles and with rifles, mortars, and rockets, but war does not mean blowing up children and their parents sitting in cafes, purposely targeted by suicidal walking bombs.
But Israel is not what this battle is about. Israel is an issue to Bin Laden only because it is an outpost of Western values, of the democracy and freedom that is anathema to his extremist fanatical worldview. The only tie to Israel is the example of suicidal terror bombers unleashed against innocent civilians.
Now the war of terror has been widened. Single Palestinian suicide bombers are not the same as a small force of highly trained suicide soldiers who sought to destroy the foundations of American society. They have destroyed a great deal. They have shattered our complacency and our trust. They have attempted to end the world that we knew and felt so secure in. Will they also destroy our values? Will they succeed? Our lives have been changed. We can never again be so carefree and even hedonistic. But we have also seen remarkable outpourings of strength and fortitude. We have witnessed a nation come together. We have watched a people mature.
Many commentators have asked whether the changes will last? They wonder whether all these new strengths in American society will be sustained. I am actually an optimist—in a perverse kind of way. I think what happened last Tuesday was so traumatic that there is no going back. Our world has been completely changed. We will be dealing with this trauma for the rest of our lives and it will have impacts on our future choices in ways we cannot possibly anticipate. But we have seen a bit of the promise of what those changes might be.
I doubt that we will suddenly become another “Greatest Generation.” But in this past week we have indeed witnessed a depth of spirit few might have anticipated. Even as we were shocked by our vulnerability, we discovered our resiliency and determination. We were inspired by selfless courage and a spirit of giving that ran deep among all Americans. We found some unexpected heroes, from individual passengers on a business flight to Rudy Giuliani defining natural leadership.
This was not Pearl Harbor. In many ways, it was worse. The enemy today is more elusive and not so easy to define. The human loss is greater. But this past week we have reacted as a single nation. We have joined together in prayer, in vigils, in seemingly small acts that have nurtured the spirit. We have felt connected to all Americans across religious, ethnic, racial, and regional boundaries. And most surprisingly, there is a patriotism that is neither jingoistic nor chauvinistic, but that is a genuine love for and appreciation of our country and her people.
Three weeks ago was the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, one of the first and key battles of the Revolutionary War. There was a re-enactment of the battle on August 19th of this year, just under a month ago. It was a battle that would define the UNITED States as distinct from the American Colonies. There was a brave stand at a place called the Old Stone House in Park Slope, scarcely a mile from the World Trade Center. Washington’s troops were far out numbered, 6,000 to 30,000, by the British and their Hessian mercenaries under the command of General Howe. Had Washington been defeated, the Revolution would also have been defeated. This was the first battle of the United States and its army. On that day in Brooklyn one State militia came to fight on behalf of a different state’s army. The militias of Maryland and Delaware fought the British in a diversion at the Old Stone House. The Americans lost the battle, but in the process, Washington and his army were able to escape, regroup, make it safely to Manhattan and survive to fight the British again and eventually win the war that created the United States.
This battle represented the birth of our nation. It occurred within sight of Battery Park and Lower Manhattan. There was not another war encounter in that area for the next 225 years. No person picnicking in Brooklyn a month ago could possibly anticipate what would occur in a mere three weeks. They were gathered in order to watch the re-enactors play war for the sake of the spectators. But the people there that day were reminded that selflessness and dedication to the cause of liberty and freedom built an America of strength and fortitude and determination. The soldiers of Maryland and Delaware knew that they were united with the people of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. There was a nation that was one family, joined together, fighting for freedom.
During this past week, we have witnessed some of that same unity and resolve. Our nation represents the bravest attempt to insure liberty, equality, and opportunity for all Americans. We must never allow this act of gratuitous evil to drive us away from being the people that God has called us to be. We must heal this nation, and we must reawaken in ourselves the spirit of selflessness and dedication. We must choose not merely to go on with life, but to enhance and ennoble our life and our world. Let this be a New Year for us and for our nation. Let us know that we are united not in anger and despair but in compassion and hope. May the vision of freedom that stirred the generations, that called our ancestors to these shores, continue to inspire us and guide us.
May God always make this nation a beacon of Freedom, Justice and Peace to all the world, and may we, in this New year, once more know peace, security and well-being.