Rabbi Sanford Ragins

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.


TISHRI 10, 5762/ SEPTEMBER 26, 2001

Like many of you, every morning when I get up, I go out the front door of my home to pick up the morning newspaper on the driveway. Before I take off the plastic wrapper and check the headlines (which have been so overwhelming painful of late), I look around to take the measure of the day. I hear the hum of the freeway off to the east, and a glance at the sky tells me, as is usual now in our part of the world, that it will be another lovely day. But this time of year, the huge tree in front of my house just next to the curb is starting to drop its leaves. Fall has barely arrived, and already the lawn is carpeted with a layer of dead leaves, and soon, too soon, there will be more.

It is autumn, too soon, before we are ready. Dead leaves, more every morning, drifting down silently during the night. Shadows longer. Sunset earlier. A bit of chill in the air. September. The end of Elul and the beginning of Tishri. A hush falls over the world. Once more the new year is here, a time for change. Too soon.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven…” Kohelet, the preacher, tells us. Nothing stands still. In due time, everything changes. But does it always have to be this way? Why can’t we stop the action, freeze the frame, pause and hold? Not forever, but just for instant to allow us to catch our breath, to savor the moment, to hold our kids close before they break away and leave us, to hold close all those we love and need before they too slip away. Stop the train! I want to get off!

But we can’t do that. Those of you who are of my generation or older certainly remember from the pre-television dark ages that newsreel called the MARCH OF TIME. At the matinee which I attended with my buddies faithfully every Saturday afternoon during World War II it was there every week: THE MARCH OF TIME, sandwiched in somewhere between the serial, the cartoon and the double-feature. But the title is wrong. Time doesn’t march. It zips. It races and rushes with infuriating, ever-accelerating momentum. Time, indeed life itself, is like a river, a Niagara in furious full flood. It seizes us and sweeps us along, leaving us bewildered and sometimes gasping for breath.

That’s why we are here tonight once more, as we are every year at this season, just like our ancestors. Why do we come? For our annual anxious reality check. Denial is wonderful, and we all resort to it from time to time. Sometimes you have to. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, certain aspects of life can be endured only by shutting our eyes for a while or putting on the rose colored-glasses of fantasy. We learn from the ostrich.

But now come these High Holydays. Our ancestors called them Hayamim Hanoraim, the Days of Awe, the terrible and awesome days. They come to remind us what life is really about and to help us confront the deepest truths of human existence. Here is how my British colleague Jonathan Magonet, his perceptions sharpened by the horror which struck America, put it for his congregation in London last week on Rosh Hashanah: [We need to recognize, Rabbi Magonet said] “that from the moment we are born to the moment we die we are living on borrowed time. Nevertheless we are here for some kind of task. No life is trivial. No event within it is without some kind of meaning. Our life is like a detective story, our challenge to discover what that personal task is in the limited time available to us, a time that can be cut off at any moment.”

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die [cut off at any moment]…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

A time for reality. A time for truth-telling. A time to look back, and in the same moment to look ahead, mindful we can never know what the new year will bring, never. An impenetrable veil lies between us and the future, and that, I suspect, is one reason our joy at welcoming the New Year is always tempered with uneasiness. With trepidation we ask ourselves: What will the New Year bring us? Blessings? Or curses? or both? And in what proportions and magnitudes?

At the same time I was kid on the West Side of Chicago, novelist Anne Roiphe was growing up in a tony section of New York City. In her memoir, 1185 PARK AVENUE, she recalls what she sensed as a youngster when she heard her parents and their friends exchanging greetings at this season: “Behind each Happy New Year [she writes] I heard an anxious ringing, don’t get sick, don’t let the enemy win the war, don’t let the stock market fall, don’t let my business fail, don’t let this be the year my spouse is run over by a truck, killed in a train accident. Happy New Year, let only good things, honey and apples, sweetness and love befall you, all the rest is there, biding its time, not now, not this happy new year.”

Anxious ringing. That’s what we Jews always hear at this season, but it is especially audible this year. It’s in the air. It permeates the music. It is laced into our prayers and our greetings. L’shanah tova Tikateyvu. Please God, let only good things, honey and apples, sweetness and love befall us, all the rest is there, biding its time, but please, not now, not this happy new year. This year, once more, the book of life.

But there is another reason for our uneasiness on Yom Kippur, and it has to do with way memory works in Judaism. Every society remembers. The ability to recall what has already happened is human nature, rooted in the very structure and chemistry of the brain. Our yesterdays may fade but they do not vanish into oblivion. They abide deep within us to emerge in pensive moments or sweet dreams or frantic nightmares.

In this, as in so many areas, we Jews have our own special twist, our unique spin on the human condition. To be a Jew, especially at this season, is not just a matter of remembrance. In Jewish tradition memory and moral evaluation are intertwined. Judaism asserts that we look back in order to prepare for judgement. That is why memory is so uncomfortable. A year, a lifetime passes in review. We savor the moments of achievement and celebration, the joys and the victories. But we don’t stop there. We forge ahead and probe more deeply to seek out and confront, with as much honesty as we can muster, those times, and they were far too many, when we failed to be what we should be and did not do what we should have done.

Although I have not yet seen it, I have been fascinated with a wildly successful musical smashing records on Broadway. THE PRODUCERS is a remake of that marvelous old flick with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder about a couple of con-men who try to swindle millions out of investors by mounting a show so unimaginably bad that it is certain to fail. So they create SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, which in the musical version now includes, in addition to the title song, such memorable tunes as DER GUTEN TAG HOP-CLOP, HABEN SIE GEHĂ–RT DAS DEUTSCHE BAND? and especially one called WHERE DID WE GO RIGHT?

Well, that is NOT the tune we Jews sing at this time of the year. Our song is WHERE WE DID GO WRONG? We sing it in chorus and solo. We sing it collectively and privately. We sing it about ourselves and our society, about the way we act and think and feel, and how we neglect responsibilities and avoid duties and sometimes do really bad things that hurt other people in terrible ways.

WHERE DID WE GO WRONG? It’s not easy to sing such a song. It is full of discord, dissonance and disharmony. But for a Jew on Yom Kippur the singing is not optional. Who sings it? Everyone. And no one can sing it for you. No professional choir, no stand-ins, no surrogates, no intermediaries. Moreover, no lip-synching. Simply mouthing the words is definitely unacceptable. This is a command performance. Sing it off tune or melodiously. It doesn’t matter, as long as you raise your voice and belt it out. From your diaphragm? Yes, if you can, but mainly from your heart. From your kishkes. From your neshoma, your inmost voice which quivers with anxious ringing as we sing: WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?

Not an easy question to answer. Most of the time we refuse to think about it, and we are ingenious in our evasions, skilled in hiding from unpleasant truths about who and what we really are. We could teach the ostrich a thing or two. That’s why we need Yom Kippur. Not to wallow in guilt, although moral guilt is very important and good for the soul. But to confront the pain we have inflicted on others, especially those closest to us, by our insensitivity, our inability to listen, our refusal to care, our arrogant self-righteousness, our flagrant narcissism, our betrayals and our infidelities.

WHERE DID WE GO WRONG? We also sing that song on Yom Kippur as Jews, and especially with regard to Israel. Here I have two things to say.

The first is essentially an echo of what my colleague Rabbi Feigenson said on Rosh Hashanah morning about the vital importance of our rock solid support for Israel. In the American Jewish community, including our congregation, that support that has not always been as strong or as constant as it ought to be have been. Why is that support so vital?

Some fifteen years Masayo and I made our first trip to Germany. It was not easy for me to be in that haunted land. In the course of our journey we came to Marburg, a lovely university town which once had a small but important Jewish community. One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of modern times, the neo Kantian Hermann Cohen, who influenced Rabbi Leo Baeck, was a professor at the university, and there were also a number of merchants in the town.

All that is gone now, of course. There is a small park on a main street where the synagogue once stood until it was destroyed on Kristallnacht. A plaque has been set up there by the city. It reads: "In memory of the synagogue which was sacrilegiously destroyed on November 10, 1938, and of our murdered Jewish fellow citizens."

On the outskirts of town there is an old Jewish cemetery. On a quiet morning in mid-summer as a misty rain was falling, Masayo and I wandered among the tombstones, until we came across two that were right next to each other, obviously marking the graves of a family. One of the stones was rather old and had been set up before World War One to mark the burial of a child, a little girl who had died. That stone was weathered and worn with age. Next to it was another, freshly chiseled.

On it were listed the names and birthdates of four people. First a father and a mother, obviously the parents of the dead child. They had been born in 1879 and 188l. Then the name of their other daughter, born in 1906, and at the bottom, the name of their daughter's child, their grand daughter, born in 1938. But what shattered me as I read the stone carefully was the fact that for none of these four was a date of death listed, only the German abbreviation “deport.” – “deportiert” [deported] followed by a date. The father had been deported in 1938, the mother in 1941, and the daughter and grand daughter together on April 30, 1942. No death date. Not even a grave really. Just the terse abbreviation "deport." and a simple marker to recall the extermination of a family, of a people: a grandfather and a grandmother, their thirty eight year old daughter and her youngster who had not yet celebrated her fourth birthday.

I was firmly committed to Israel long before visiting that cemetery, but any lingering hesitations I may have had about the need for the Jewish state as a haven for our people vanished that morning. We need Israel, and Israel needs us to demonstrate unwavering support for her right to exist within secure and stable borders.

I have a sermon which I carry around in my head for Yassir Arafat and his people. It is harsh in tone and full of rage at those who believe the slaughter of teenagers at a discotheque or of toddlers and their mothers in a pizza parlor are acts of valor. That hard Yom Kippur question – WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?— is addressed to the Palestinians and their allies as well as to us. They have much soul-searching to do and many deep changes to consider.

But tonight, my sermon is for us, American Jews, lovers and defenders of Israel, who also have much soul-searching to do, changes to consider. Here is my second point.

To love and defend Israel does not mean support for everything done by our brothers and sisters there. A religion like ours which has social justice at its core, which asserts again and again and again that we who were slaves in Egypt must remember the heart of the stranger, can never accept that outrageous maxim: “my country, right or wrong.”

As American Jews we have to be careful when we consider making moral judgements about Israel. We will not bear the immediate risks or pay the price in personal suffering for the results of those judgements. Moreover, as recent events in Durban reminded us, there is a vociferous chorus of Israel bashers out there who refuse to accept her existence and use every opportunity and every forum to demonize Zionism.

Yet with these cautions in mind, we ought not, indeed I would argue, we must not remain silent. We do not have the right arrogantly to lecture Israel about its policies. But we do have the right and the responsibility to give our vigorous support to those Israelis, and they are many, whose vision of the future goes beyond endless warfare, who believe the land and even Jerusalem must be shared, that the establishment of a Palestinian state is inevitable and just, and that the occupation of the West Bank is unjust and must end.

Call a spade a spade. Occupation. That’s what it is: occupation by one nation of the territory of another. Occupation always breeds exploitation, humiliation and oppression. "There can be no enlightened occupation!” said Chaika Gross, who survived the Holocaust as a partisan fighter in Poland. Years ago, before the first Intifada, he rose in the Knesset to declare: “Let all who hold Zionism dear cast off any illusion that an occupation that lords it over a million-and-a-half Arabs can be humane. ...We are being led to the brink, if not into the abyss."

And here is the judgement of our own Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations: “Occupation [always] involves acts of degradation and cruelty, [he said this summer] and Israel’s occupation has been no different. Her settlement policy, it often seems, is in the hands of fanatics… Israel has also been guilty from time to time of demonizing her enemies. Tragically, the voices that teach hatred of Arabs and Palestinians are usually religious voices.”

WHERE DID WE GO WRONG? No, Zionism is not racism. That canard is ugly, false and unjust. But so are the occupation and the settlements. When you rule another people against their will for more than thirty years, cut down their trees, take away their land and their water and their dignity, you become “unwittingly …a colonialist society with all the attendant moral …distortions.”

Sadly, the realization of the dream that was born in Oslo and on the White House lawn has been postponed for the time being, but that dream must not be abandoned. Here is Rabbi Yoffie again: “…while the road ahead is full of terrible dangers, the road back leads only to oblivion. We believe that the day will come when this dream will be shared once again by soldiers weary of fighting, by mothers and fathers weary of weeping, and by Jews and Palestinians weary of a terrible history of blood.”

Finally that fateful question, WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?, is also addressed to us as Americans, as citizens of this glorious, complicated, imperfect and deeply-wounded country. Frankly tonight with the trauma heavy upon us and our national wounds still open, I do not have the heart to thunder, as I sometimes do, about American misdeeds. Not that they don’t exist. They do. Before long I hope the current surge of patriotism, which at times borders on jingoism, will subside. Then, perhaps soon, we will muster the moral courage to consider calmly and thoughtfully what this, our beloved country, is and is not, and what it might become. When that day comes, we will need to reflect on some serious questions.

Questions about what kind of message we send to other nations when our government turns its back on global agreements to preserve the environment, unilaterally cancels its treaties to not build a missile defense, and accelerates the processes by which a global economy has made some people in the third world richer but many poorer.

Questions about how American economic and military power have been used in recent decades, about the kinds of regimes we have supported, and our attention, or inattention, to human rights and human suffering.

Questions about how much truth there is in the accusation that we callously exploit weaker nations and that others pay the price for our comfort and our wealth.

Questions about whether those magnificent ideals we proclaim about the ‘inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ are actually core values which we take seriously and translate into policy, or merely rhetorical flourishes which we abandon when expediency and profit demand.

Yes, we all desperately want God to bless America, but the God we Jews beseech on Yom Kippur has another agenda. On this day the Master of the Universe looks down from beyond the spacious skies, far above the fruited plain, the mountain majesties and the amber waves of grain; looks down to scrutinize the soul of a nation. Before shedding grace on us, the Judge of the entire earth wants to know whether liberty is indeed confirmed in law and whether every flaw will be mended.

Kol Nidre Eve, the Day of Atonement, judgement day. Alabaster cities dimmed by human tears. Flaws that need to be mended. Work to be done, Yom Kippur work. There is a chill in the air and the lawn is covered with leaves. It is fall. Too soon.

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