Rabbi Scott Corngold
Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York, NY
“Gibor”: A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5762
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Last Wednesday evening, right after our community service here at the Temple, Howard Teach and Joel Marcus came up to Rabbi Stein. They asked him if he would help the people in their 85th Street apartment building do something, some kind of short prayer vigil for the guys at the firehouse next door, who lost nine of their men downtown. Rabbi Stein said of course, and invited me to come along. So I joined him and a gathering of neighbors, called together at an hour’s notice, at 10:15 on that sad night.
About a hundred people had assembled. On the sidewalk by the firehouse, folks were already starting to leave flowers and candles. Inside the garage, the names of nine men of Engine Company 22 and Ladder Company 13 remained on the outcall chalkboard, the ones who still haven’t reported back. Those names deserve to be mentioned here: Firefighter Martin McWilliams, confirmed dead. Captain Walter Hynes. Firefighter Thomas Casoria. Firefighter Michael Elferis. Firefighter Thomas Hetzel. Firefighter Vincent Kane. Firefighter Dennis McHugh. Firefighter Thomas Sabella. Firefighter Gregory Stajk.
The captain in charge Wednesday night called down the fellows on duty, and soon about fifteen or so appeared. And they sure looked like the kind of guys who could –-and would-- run up 110 floors of a burning building carrying 70 pounds of equipment. Their eyes were red, but they did their best to smile some appreciation. Rabbi Stein said a few words, which were very beautiful. We all sang “God Bless America.” And everyone offered them quiet applause of gratitude. But that didn’t seem enough. So people started calling out “Thank you,” softly; and that still didn’t seem enough. So everyone started going up to these brave, weeping men, thanking them one by one, shaking hands, hugging; then a lot of people started embracing one another. And of course, even that was hardly enough. But there was power and strength in that hugging, in the tears, in coming together --at least enough power to help us get to the end of that day.
I went back to the firehouse on Sunday, and the scene was very different. Those few bunches of flowers were now multiplied into a vast sidewalk memorial, surrounding the photographs of nine young and middle-aged men. Maybe you were there too; there were just hundreds of people stopping by or staying to help. Helping collect donations for the family fund that has been set up. Helping the firefighters we met on Wednesday move and sort all the goods and materials donated for the rescue efforts. And I asked the captain: “Are they going to be able to use all that stuff?” Well, don’t stop bringing those donations. The captain told me: “What they can’t use downtown, we’ll bring to the Armory and the Javitz Center. And what they can’t use there, we’ll give out here in the neighborhood --to the homeless shelters, the battered women’s shelter, the AIDS shelter.”
After awhile I left, and I was pretty overwhelmed, yet again. The idea that the firemen of these two companies, amidst everything else, with all they’ve already given, with all they’ve lost, were spearheading a food and clothing drive to help the community. And I wish I had something more profound and eloquent than a cliché, but these guys are just such heroes.
In a week of tears, we’ve probably all cried many in gratitude, in awe, of the kind of heroism that has been displayed. And tears in grief over the amount of honor and decency and bravery that we lost when we lost all these five thousand people. I don’t have to tell you the stories; they’ve been the consolation for an inconsolable city and country and world. The ones who ran up into the buildings to save lives; the ones aiding those on the ground as the debris fell; the ones who overcame the hijackers on Flight 93 and took the plane down, saving us all from who knows what other tragedy; the ones in the planes and the buildings who made the calls to let family members hear a last tender word; the ones who must have been helping their friends and coworkers and total strangers in their final moments.
But then again, this experience has simply shown us what has always been true about the magnificent possibilities of courage and of love, just never tested in quite this awful way.
Many generations face hard tests. We’ve looked back with respect, honor, disbelief at the feats and heroism of those of the past. There’s even a wistfulness and nostalgia: look at the due paid in recent years to the World War II experience and what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation.” Well, haven’t we now seen, if we hadn’t known it before, the greatness in this generation? And it is a greatness that we can measure without the obscuring haze of the past that turns events into myths and people into titans. On the contrary, here, in this great generation of ours, we have heroes like a mayor, for instance, whose flaws are no secret to any New Yorker, but who rises so extraordinarily to the occasion when we need extraordinary behavior most, to be better than we could have ever hoped him to be. “Sometimes,” observed a former mayor and adversary, Ed Koch, last week, “a flawed individual can do great things that make those flaws pale in significance.”
I’m not sure if it takes a Jew to recognize that, but it is certainly something that Jewish tradition has always taught. Judaism has never pretended that most people are not deeply flawed. That’s surely what this annual appointment with God over the High HolyDays acknowledges. But our tradition teaches that our very imperfect selves can do good acts, heroic acts, redeeming acts. And in the end it is those deeds that matter most. In a literal sense they define who we are and what we can become.
Hebrew conveys this in the very grammar of the language: take the word “gibor.” Gibor --it is an adjective: strong, courageous, brave. And it is also a noun: hero. To do a courageous act, to be brave, is to be a hero. If you are gibor, you are a gibor. And that is what this week has taught us too, how great and simple acts have made heroes. It has shown us what real heroism is, in its breathtaking and tragic manifest forms, and, if we can listen through the noise, in its hushed expressions as well. Go out walking in the streets of this city and you’ll see them to your right and left, and right here in this room. All the heroes, all the quiet heroic deeds that are getting us through this chaos, and that make this generation a great one. Think about it.
I think a man who has lost a best friend, or maybe the friend of a friend, and funnels his grief into raising funds for families and for rescue efforts is a hero.
I think a woman who, along with the exhaustion of her regular job, volunteers her skills as a psychologist to be a counselor at the Family Assistance Center is a hero.
I think it is heroic to be a schoolteacher, as scared and upset as the rest of us, who projects calm and normalcy to ease a classroom of children.
I think it is heroic to be a worker in dozens of different professions and vocations trudging on to do the unglamorous, unrewarded jobs that keep this city running in the middle of a crisis.
I think it is heroic to be a teenager overwhelmed with the same unanswerable questions we all have, but still willing and able to lead a congregation of young people in prayer during a youth group High HolyDay service.
I think it is heroic to return to downtown, to get back on planes, to come to synagogue -–to show our children, our community, ourselves, and any haters who think they have won some kind of victory—- that we will not be made afraid.
And I think it is so heroic to be a woman who will come to a community service and call her missing husband’s name out, and who will brave television cameras in her darkest time to give the human face to what has been lost when we say “5,000.”
And I hope that kind of heroism fortifies all of us in the hard days ahead, as we keep trying to grasp that, as poet Maya Angelou put it last Friday, “5,000 is five thousand ones.”
Gibor -–brave, courageous, strong: a hero. But there is another Hebrew word too, another Hebrew phrase. A phrase that teaches us the source of courage that sustains and fortifies us. The word is “hazak.” It also means strong, firm. The phrase is a phrase we say in synagogue, sometimes when a bar or bat mitzvah is called to the Torah, all the time when we finish reading a book of the Torah. The sheliach tzibur, the service leader, calls out these words to the congregation: “Hazak Hazak, v’nithazak!” –“Be strong, be strong, and from that we will all be strengthened!” And the congregation calls those words back: “Hazak Hazak, v’nithazak!” A dozen or a hundred or a thousand “ones” whose individual voices, whose strength strengthens one another, fusing us together to make a mighty, maybe even heroic force. That is why we are stronger when we are not alone. That is why there can be such power when we come together in synagogue --or churches, or mosques, or outside firehouses, or in Union Square. It is why New York City, where so many have come together, is the greatest city of our great generation. It is why this is a great country. It is why good, heroic people around the world together will find strength from one another across the borders and cultures, struggling together to vanquish hate.
“Be strong, be strong and we will all be strengthened!” Please call it out after I do: “Hazak Hazak, v’nithazak!” In the balcony, together: “Hazak Hazak, v’nithazak!” In the sanctuary, together: “Hazak Hazak, v’nithazak!” Be strong, be strong …and, please God, may it be Your Will, we will all be strengthened.
Ken y’hi ratzon.