Rabbi Steven Lindemann
Rosh Hashanah 5762
Since Tuesday Morning’s attack on America we have felt the whole swirl of emotions—shock, sorrow, grief, anger, resolve. Political analysis, security analysis, news analysis abound. War on Terrorism, The Middle East connection, Israel. It’s all on our minds. But the first issue—the primary concern for this day is life.
Zahreynu L’Hayim—Remember us For Life; Katveynu BaHayim—Inscribe us for life. We come together on Rosh Hashanah to pray for life.
According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of Creation, specifically, its culmination with the creation of Adam—the first human life. Talmud Sanhedrin is the source of an oft-quoted Midrash responding to the question: Why was only one single human being created and not many. L’fikhakh Nivra Adam Y’hidi—For this reason was Adam created a single individual: To teach that whoever destroys a single life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world; whoever saves a single life; it is as if he or she saved an entire world. It’s about the value of life.
Terrorists have destroyed thousands of lives—4 plane loads of lives, the Twin Towers the Pentagon, fire fighters and rescue workers and police—5,537 lives, each a world, each a potential for future worlds. And the lives of all Americans, our lives have been touched too. Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin—the Day of Judgment. God and humanity will pass judgment upon those terrorist; it will be harsh; it will be war. That response will come…later. But now—life.
When Peter Jennings interviewed Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman so frequently on TV, she went into her usual diatribe detailing the abuses of America and Israel which she asserts to be the reasons for the terrorist attack on Israel. Then Jennings interviewed David Makovsky, the Diplomatic Editor of Ha-Aretz and current fellow of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy. David Makovsky, who spoke here last spring responded by saying the first issue is life. It is time for leaders of the Arab world—political and clergy—to tell their people that suicide bombing is wrong because it denies the value of life—perpetrator and victim. It is time for them to preach sermons about the value of life.
We value life. America values life.
Kol Ham’kayeym Nefesh Ahat—Whoever saves a single life is as if he or she save an entire world. Stories. So many stories.
The firemen who ran into the Towers even as they were in flames, the firemen who ran up the flights of stairs with their equipment and then provided light and assistance saved so many lives…300 of them lost their lives. What extraordinary courage; what love of life. The fireman who was going off duty and jumped on the truck as it answered the call after the first plane struck and who is now missing—loved life. The fireman who stood weeping at the door to Company 54, the pride of midtown, spoke about his lost comrades; he was on a day off, but came when he heard what had happened, only to arrive after the building collapsed. Now he searches for his fellow firemen, his friends because he loves life. Three dozen fire companies—ladder company 132, engine 33—missing; five elite rescue units unaccounted for. Chiefs William Feehan and Peter Ganci died at their command post when a tower collapsed on them as they were working to save lives.
Dennis Smith is a firefighter and a writer. He described his participation in
the rescue effort. Listen:
…because of the pervasive gray dust, I cannot read the street signs…There is a lone fire company down a narrow street wetting down a smoldering pile. The mountains of debris in every direction are 50-60 feet high, and it is only now that I realize the silence I notice is the silence of thousands of people buried around me.
I am pulling a heavy six-inch hose through the muck when I see Mike Carter on the hose just before me. We barely say hello to each other.
I see Kevin Gallagher who is looking for his missing firefighter son. Someone calls to me. It is Jimmy Boyle, the retired president of the union. “I can’t find Michael,” he says. Michael Boyle was with Engine 33 and the whole company is missing. I can’t say anything to Jimmy, but just throw my arms around him. The last thing I see is Kevin Gallagher kissing a firefighter—his son.
It’s about life. Kol HaM’kayeym Nefesh Ahat—he who save a single life saves the entire world. How many lives did they save, how many worlds…these missing men and women?
And how many lives have been saved by the EMT’s and the doctors and nurses. I saw a piece of ABC TV about Downtown NYU Hospital. It’s a small hospital, 122 beds, that handled 370 emergency cases in the first 24 hours after the Towers came down. One case was a woman who was brought in with extreme trauma from a variety of injuries. She had already been intubated and sedated and nobody knew who she was. No ID. Once she was stabilized, a plastic surgeon was called in—Dr. Ginsberg. He explained to the interviewer that his work requires some interaction with the patient to guide what he does in reconstruction. With a pad and marker they managed to get her name—Debbie-- and part of a phone number. She couldn’t write more, but she kept trying to say something, she was agitated—m’, m’. Dr. Ginsberg thought who his daughter would ask for and realized “m’” was mom. At that point in the interview, he broke down in tears, his professional detachment gone. They worked the partial phone number till they found Debbie’s mother. Kol HaM’kayeym Nefesh Ahat—He who saves a single life…saves an entire world.
I used to think that this Talmudic teaching meant that the future generations were saved. Actually, I think that’s what it does mean in the original source. But this week I see something more profound in the text. The world that is saved is our world—the world you and I live in. Let me explain.
The morning after the attack on America, my radio woke me up to an NPR commentary by Alex Chadwick. Listen to what he said:
Wherever you are waking up this morning, you’re in a different country, in a different time. This is a country without airplanes. There is no more normal American life. Schools close. The mail doesn’t get delivered. You wonder about family across the country. Wasn’t someone going to be on a plane? The phones don’t work; circuits busy. And then when a call does come in, the sudden phone ringing sounds like an alarm going off.
We’re in a different country this morning, one where the national military headquarters comes under attack …We were safe, and now we’re vulnerable.
…a bomb, an attack…we’ve had warnings…we’ve seen simulations…it never seemed real. Now it’s real, and we dread learning how real as New York begins to count its dead.
We’re in a different country. There is this: We are all in it. We are all New Yorkers this morning, all victims, all mourners, all vulnerable, all spent and tired and dazed after hours huddled around the televisions and radios. Here we are waking up in a new country, and in a way we didn’t imagine yesterday, wondering what could happen next.
Scary. True. There will be changes; have been already. The whole world looks different after September 11—911—an emergency mentality, a crisis condition, a war footing. Our world has changed…but stories of those who have saved lives redeem our hope and faith in each other, in our humanity, in our country. America has not collapsed…it has come together. Americans have come together. We value life. The stories are about all that is noble and most meaningful. They save us from a world of despair and darkness and doom. Each story about the saving of a single life saves an entire world—our world.
You know, there’s another Midrash about why Adam, the first human being, was created singly—alone—one. So that no person could ever say my ancestors are better than yours. We share a common beginning, a common humanity that precedes and goes beyond differences of race and religion.
Here’s another wonderful story. A white radio reporter was riding on a train in Philadelphia and sitting across from him was an African American who was looking at the Inquirer with her child. The child looks at a picture of some of the dust-covered survivors and rescue workers and says—look, Mommy, they all look the same coming out of the smoke. This past week, I attended two interfaith services. There were many. Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Moslem, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, all prayed together. This country came together. At the Trinity Presbyterian Church I prayed and sang “America the Beautiful” with Rev. James O’Dell and Fr. Joseph Wallace and Evelyn Santiago-Schulz; at the Cathedral in Camden I stood hand in hand with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Baptist Reverend George Holland and we prayed for healing and for life. We prayed with the law enforcement officers Camden and the prosecutors office and with firefighters and rescue workers who wanted to reach out to their comrades who have saved lives at the risk of their own. Our prayers may not save them, but coming together in prayer preserves and saves our world view as Americans and our common humanity. We’re coming out of the smoke—together.
We have fears and questions and concerns, of course we have them…and for us they are part and parcel of Rosh Hashanah. Mi Yihyeh U-Mi Yamut—Who shall live and who shall die? Who in his time and who before his time. And we don’t know…4972 missing in New York. Missing. We don’t say dead. Their families can’t bring themselves to do that; we can’t bring ourselves to do that..yet. We cling to life. We pray with them, for them. Mi Yihye U-mi Yamut—who knows what will happen next…vulnerable.
Our Mahzor’s response to this ultimate and frightening question:
U-t’shuvah U-t’fillah U-tz’dakah--Repentance Prayer and Deeds of kindness—Ma-avirin Et Roa HaG’zeyra—Avert the Severe Decree. But that’s not exactly true. Sometimes the severe decree cannot be changed. We say “missing” but we fear for worse. So what can the Mahzor mean? An answer lies in the translation: Roa HaG’zeyra—actually means, the severity of the decree. We cannot bring back the lost lives, but we can comfort and console, we can ease the pain, lessen the severity of the decree with caring.
Do you know what the children of Oklahoma did—the children who survived the bombing of the federal building and who lost members of their families—do you know what they did? They sent care bears and cards to the children of New York. That’s ma-avirin et roa hagzeyra. Neighbors went to the fire departments to talk to the surviving firemen—to hug them, embrace them, listen to them. Ma-avirin Roa HaG’zeyra.
As I was writing this, my phone rang. It was Harvey Hersh, a TBS member. He wanted to tell me that for the first time ever he would not be at Rosh Hashanah services. His friend John Yamnicky was on Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon, and Harvey needed to be in Maryland with his friend’s family for a memorial service. John Yamnicky was a Naval flyer, a
captain, who flew 400 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. He was shot down 4 times serving his country and lost an eye the last time. Retired from active duty, John was still working for the government, for his country. Harvey asked if we could say a prayer for John Yamnicky and his family. I’d say Harvey’s being there is a Rosh Hashanah prayer—Ma-avirin Et Roa Ha-G’zeyra.
Actually, it may be much more. Kol HaM’kayeym Nefesh Ahat—means more than “He who saves a life”—M’Kayeym also means “sustains.” Anyone who sustains a life—saves an entire world. To sustain a survivor with your love and friendship is to save that person’s entire world. It changes it from a world of despair to one of hope; it helps the person go on living.
Did you see the interview with Howard Lutnick? He’s the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading firm that had 700 employees in the North Tower, on floors 101-105. More than 600 are still missing. Howard Lutnick’s brother Barry is among them. Barry called their sister and said “I’m stuck in a corner office. It’s really black and its really bad. I’m not going to make it. I love you.” Howard Lutnick was not there because he was taking his 5-year old son to the first day of big boy school--Kindergarden. He ran to the Towers as soon as he heard and then had to flee for his life when the first one collapsed. Now he sobs as he explains that he and the remaining employees have gone back to work because “I have to take care of these families.” He’s put a million dollars into a fund for immediate use and established a service center in a hotel where families call and gather for help. Kol HaM’kayeym Nefesh Ahat—He who sustains a single life saves an entire world.
You know, before all this happened, it was my intention, today, to appeal to all of you to come to New York on Sunday for the Israelnow Solidarity Rally sponsored by the United Jewish Communities—the parent organization of all US Jewish Federations. It has, however, been postponed. The cost of the trip was $18. Anybody who registered can get a refund…or you can contribute it to the UJC, which has started a fund to assist the families of those who have sustained losses in the terrorist attack on America. And if you didn’t register for the rally, you can still contribute--$18—Hai. Life. That’s the way we respond. U-t’shuvah, U-t’fillah, U-tz’dakah –Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy shows us a very meaningful way to help soothe the severity of what has happened Ma-avirin Et Roa Ha-G’zeyra. Hai--Life.
Actually, the word Hai—is a verb form—a command: live. That’s what we say when we give 18. We want to help people live. The real word for life in Hebrew is Hayim. It’s a plural word. In Hebrew there is no singular word for life, because life is about relationship. Now I don’t know about you, but I have listened again and again to those cell phone calls from the planes and from the burning buildings. I cannot get them out of my mind.
Sturat Meltzer called his wife from the 105th floor of Tower 1: “Honey something terrible is happening. I don’t think I am going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children.
Veronique Bowers, age 28, called her mother: “Mommy, the building is on fire, there’s smoke coming through the walls. I can’t breathe. I love you Mommy, goodbye.”
Mark Bingham called his mother and aunt from flight 93: “I Love You.”
From the same flight, Thomas Burnett called: “I know we are all going to die; there’s three of us who are going to do something about it.” ( We know what they did; they brought the plane down in a field near Pittsburgh saving who knows how many at the intended target in Washington.)
Brian Sweeney, age 38, was on flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower. He left a message on an answering machine for his wife Julie: “Hey Jules, it’s Brian, I’m on a plane and it’s hijacked and it doesn’t look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I hope to see you again. If I don’t, please have fun in life and live your life the best you can. Know that I love you no matter what…”
Live your life the best you can—the message from a man to the woman he loves, from a child to a parent and a parent to children. Hayim—the plural of life reaching out from even beyond life. Live your life the best you can--that’s what this day of Rosh Hashanah is all about. That’s the message of T’shuvah T’fillah and Tzedakah. The title of the New York Times article that carried all of these is; “Voices from Above.” The message also comes from the Voice from Above. The Torah portion we read this past Shabbat, when so many people shared their own stories of near misses and missing friends, concludes with these words: U-vaharta BaHayim—Choose life. That’s what God says—choose life. That’s how we respond to those terrorists who held their own lives in such little regard. Life is precious. Choose life. Live the best you can.
We come together on Rosh Hashanah to pray for life…for another year. I remember a story that my teacher Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, Z”L, Yank Rosenberg told me…several times.
Actually, I think he told me every Rosh Hashanah. It’s about Psalm 24, which is, according to tradition, recited on Erev Rosh Hashanah:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof;
The world and they that dwell therein…
Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord:
And who shall stand in his holy place?
The that hath clean hands and a pure heart;
Who has not taken My name in vain…
That line—Who has not taken My name in vain—is never translated correctly for some reason. In Hebrew, it reads—Asher Lo Nasa LaShav Nafshi—Who has not taken in vain Nafshi—my nefesh—which means soul or life. We are challenged not to take the life which God gives us in vain--Not the lives of others or our own. Life is not to be taken in vain. So Yank would tell this story:
Hayim and Avram were friends. They went every year together to the shul on the evening of RH. One year as Avram arrived he saw that Hayim was not his usual self. On the threshold of the joyous New Year, Hayim was sad, and downcast. “What is it,” asked Avram, “how can I help?” Hayim explained that business was bad and he did not know how he was going to make it through this next year. “Let me help with a loan,” said Avram, and immediately went home and brought back a bond good for all that Hayim needed. “Give it back when you can.” They went to shul. RH came and went…months passed and Hayim never said a word to Avram. Not one word about how business was going, even though he seemed to be thriving now. As the year drew to a close Avram became more and more annoyed that his friend not only didn’t repay him, but didn’t even mention the loan. On Erev RH, when he came to pick Hayim up for shul it was Avram who was quiet and withdrawn. “What’s the problem” asked Hayim. “Well,” said Avram, “I wouldn’t mention this, it’s not really about the money, but I don’t understand why you’ve never said one word about the loan, even though you seem to be doing very well.” “Oh,” said Hayim, and he went to the desk and took out the bond, “things changed and I never used it, and I forgot all about it.” Avram was furious. “You just let it sit and did nothing useful with it. How could you?”
And Yank would say—that’s the way it is with so many people. They pray to God for the loan of another year of Life, and once they have it they take it for granted and it just sits there. They don’t do anything with it.
Have we heard the calls from above? The emergency calls of 911 are not first and foremost about terrorism or a war on terrorism. They are about life. The terrorists attacked symbols of wealth and power, Trade Towers and Pentagon, but they missed the point. We care most about life. So we come together and support each other—Hayim; and we give—Hai—and help each other go on with life. The calls from above tell us—Love, cherish the relationships, and the time together. The voices from above and the Voice from above challenge us: Live the best you can. “Who shall ascend the mountain of the lord and who shall stand in his Holy Place?” Those who do not take life in vain.
So today is about Life. We have that, thank God. Tomorrow we can talk about important political and military responses to terrorism, but today, on this first day of RH, let’s just stop to appreciate Life. The value of life. The love in life. Let’s go home from here today, and gather our families around the table and recite a blessing of thankfulness, Sheheheyanu V’ki-y’manu V’higiyanu Lazman Hazeh—We thank You, O Lord, for keeping us in life, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day. And then let’s recite a blessing of sanctification, of Kiddush. And then let’s say—L’Hayim. L’Hayim--To Life.