|In the Aftermath of the Attack on America
a sermon by Rabbi Marx
"Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies." The psalmist knew heartfelt pain. He knew what it was to be hated and alone. I suspect that we resonate with his misery.
September 11, 2001 will be a day that we will always remember. It was a day that changed our lives forever. Whether we knew one of the approximately 6,000 Americans killed or we didn’t, doesn’t affect the profound pain, shock and fear that we all felt and still feel today. I must admit, it doesn’t feel like Yom Tov today. I’m still in a daze, going from event to event, without fully appreciating the sanctity of the day. Many of us are not here to welcome the New Year in joy. Many come here in mourning.
I stand before you as your Rabbi, but also as an American, who like you is searching to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The World Trade Center, the center of our economic machine is gone. The Pentagon the foundation of our national defense is vulnerable. Travel is restricted. Sporting events are canceled, if only for awhile. President Bush, often in tears before the nation, spoke of terrorism as an act of war, which of course, it was.
The terrorists were not uneducated bumpkins who went in to blow up a pizza shop or a bus stop with dynamite strapped to their backs. They were trained pilots, who believed in their cause of hatred so much, that they were willing to die and kill thousands of innocents. They chose four airplanes loaded with fuel to crash into their destinations The terrorists weren’t even trying to make a political statement by blowing up a symbol of America like the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell. Their goal was clearly to kill as many people as possible, so they chose the World Trade Center where tens of thousands work and they chose the Pentagon, which also houses thousands. What kind of human beings can do such a thing? There have been many who have likened this to December 7, 1941. But there are profound differences, the Japanese attacked service men, fighting soldiers who signed up for combat. It was horrible to be sure, but that was soldiers killing soldiers. This past week, we witnessed the murder of civilians, working men and women and their children in day care centers. Think of the countless children who have lost their mothers and fathers.
Are we weakened by this dastardly event? Absolutely. Our lives will not be the same for a long time. We will see security the likes of which we could only imagine. We will feel real fear when we travel to public places. The country is very nervous. The Capitol, the Empire State Building, Penn Station to name a few have been evacuated, because of suspected packages. America is afraid. It is angry and it is vulnerable. I’ve heard some expressing concern about terrorist flying planes into nuclear reactors. We are not a people accustomed to war or terrorism. Life will not be the same in this country for a very long time.
Are we destroyed? Absolutely not. I am certain that in the minds and hearts of our people still, there still lie well springs of inexhaustible and indestructible amounts of faith; faith in the things we cherish, courage, determination to defend ourselves, of sacrificial devotion and unbreakable unity of purpose. I am certain that, however great the hardships and the trials, which loom ahead, our America, will endure and the cause of human freedom will triumph.
On the day of the attacks, many didn’t want to send their children to Hebrew school. Many have expressed fear for their children on Sunday morning. And yes, some of you have stayed away today, I suspect, out of fear for their safety. We have armed guards to respond to that fear. As important as that is, however, this is not the best armor that we can use. The best armor against fear is internal. We must first of all, not lose our Jewish nerve and our fundamental American values.
Moments of crisis test our character like none other. We must struggle not to be consumed with hate. I remember reading about an American soldier who liberated Auschwitz. He entered the barracks and saw the degradation, smelled the fetid conditions, and witnessed death in the eyes of the inmates. He wrote, "Now I understand what hate can do. It can make us turn others into animals." We must learn from him. We must not allow ourselves to be transformed into bigots. We must fight the demons within that threaten to turn us into the evil, that we are dedicated to destroying.
We must be prepared to make profound sacrifices for our country. George Romney wrote, "Our founding fathers did not hand any generation of American a neatly packaged, ready-made America. Instead, they handed us a set of tools-principles and institutions-for us to use in shaping the kind of nation we want. The people must win and rewin America in every generation." My generation has not been called upon to rewin America. Most of us had had it pretty easy. Now, we must think of what it means to give for the benefit of our country and its ideals. We must be brave. We must have faith. We must be willing to serve in a way that will transcend our own self-interests. Just yesterday, as I was leaving the shul to go home to prepare for Yom Tov, I received a call, from a congregant still grieving. He spoke of his pain and his willingness to help. So, with that, he asked me to call upon Beth Or to join him in supporting the New York firefighters and police officers. He started a fund with chai, $18,000. No names, he said, you can’t use my name; just tzedakah from our community. He is one of many examples of what it means to pull together.
The blood that flowed in our streets, was not the blood of women or men. It was not the blood of English, German, Hispanic or African Americans. It was not Jewish, Christian or secular blood. It was the blood of Americans. And this blood courses through our collective souls. On Wednesday, the day after the attack, I felt a camaraderie with my fellow citizens that I have rarely felt before. People asked, how are you doing, how are you feeling, and they really meant it this time. I hate to say it, but this event, might just pull us together, as tragedy has always united the Jewish people.
As I watched the news, I was filled with dread. I thought of all those lost lives. I thought of my fellow citizens and their orphaned children. I thought of the conflict that is yet to come, knowing in my heart that there probably won’t be a quick end to it. But, I also looked at the news and interpreted the events as a Jew, and a lover of Zion. I must admit that I initially become fearful that Muslim fanatics, possibly connected to the Palestinians made Americans suffer. The attacks, as you know, coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the Camp David Accords, the beginnings of the peace process. As time went on, however I realized, thankfully that the attacks were not specifically about Israel, but more likely about America and it’s policies and values. Israel's terrorist crisis, ironically changed on September 11th. Americans will no longer criticize Israel’s targeted assassinations of known terrorists. America will no longer accuse Israel of provocations when it aggressively responds to terrorist attacks. Sharon moved tanks into the Palestinian town of Jenin and tightened the blockade of other Palestinian areas following the attack, for once without eliciting the charge of "disproportionate" from the State Department and other Western foreign ministries. I don’t think that the world will call upon America to negotiate with Osama bin-Laden, as they call upon Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. No one will call bin Laden a "partner-for-peace," as Arafat is called. No one will accuse America of being provocative when it finally responds aggressively to terror. No one will call for American concessions to the terrorists, as the world regularly demands of Israel. Instead newspapers ran these op-ed articles with headlines, "We must fight this war," "Destroy the network," "Hidden hand of horror," "American holy war," "To war, not to court," "End of illusion." No one, from now on, will call terrorists "guerrillas" or "freedom fighters", as Palestinian terrorists were often identified in the international press.
May America look and look again at the footage of the Palestinians rejoicing in the streets, handing out candy to the children, to understand what Israel and now the USA are up against. Arafat is struggling to confiscate media footage of jubilant Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. I pray that they leak out and that America understands who’s on our side and who isn’t.
This past weekend I received several calls from troubled families. Some were concerned with how they will explain this to their children. In truth, that is nearly impossible. There is no sense to this senseless act. Others were concerned with how they will rejoice at their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and their weddings. Was it appropriate to have a big band and a grand affair when our country is in mourning? I knew in my heart that despite the profound pain, life must go on. I take my lessons from two sources. First the Talmud. It teaches us that life should not be delayed because of death. If a funeral and wedding procession meet at an intersection, the Talmud teaches that the wedding takes precedence. Life must go on. My second lesson comes from the Israelis. Despite death and carnage on a daily basis, they continue to live as normal a life as possible. They will not give in to the terrorists. They will not grant evil in the world the right to destroy the lives of the living. Weddings, celebrations, life go on. And it must go on here as well.
We must have courage. David Ben Gurion wrote, "Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared." When I learned about the heroism, the courage of those on United Flight # 93 who fought the terrorists, I was so inspired and uplifted. While the terrorists were brutally murdering women on the plane, Thomas Burnett, an American hero, phoned his wife from the plane and said that he had to do something. He couldn’t let the terrorists destroy Washington. So he, and a few others fought and died for others. Was he afraid? I suspect he was. But he taught us Ben Gurion’s invaluable lesson. Heroism is not being unafraid. It is knowing what to fear. Be afraid of passivity in the face of evil. In an instant, without any training for the moment, he and several others were there. I wonder, would you or I be able to be so heroic? I pray that I would.
It’s stunning, how one minute something is so important and the next it seems trivial. Diane Sawyer, in her broadcast, made this point crystal clear to the American viewers of the tragedy. She bent down and picked up a stack of important papers scattered on the street. She held invoices, faxes, checks and memos. She commented, "Twenty four hours ago, these papers were important. Now they are meaningless." On Rosh Hashanah, we are bid to reflect on what truly matters in life. We are called upon to differentiate the trivial from the profound. September 11, 2001, has taught us that lesson in vivid detail. Please, don’t get caught up in petty hurts. Make amends. Bring peace. Value life, while it is ours. Do some good. Keep the ridiculous annoyances of life in their proper place. Death teaches us to keep our troubles in perspective.
I found myself drawn to sacred text over and over again. As I watched that fateful moment; as I witnessed the bravery and dedication of our faithful fire fighters and police officers; as I wondered what will become of our great country, my soul took me to Ezekiel 37. Listen to its words carefully.
Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley, and they were very dry. The hand of the Lord was upon me and he brought me out (to the valley). And he said to me, ‘…..Can these bones live?’ And I answered, "O Lord God, only you know." Again he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones. Behold, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God. So I prophesized as I was commanded: and as I prophesized, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them and flesh had come upon them and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy , to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God, come from the four winds, O breath and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesized as he commanded me and the breath came into them and they lived and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host."
These words were read to the people of Israel when they were lost, when their cities had been destroyed, the people butchered and those that survived the carnage were exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel inspired his people that life can come from death. Not that the dead will live again, but rather the community as a whole can be reborn from the ashes. We are never dead so long as there is hope. We are never dead so long as we dream. We are never dead so long as we have faith. We are never dead so long as we hold together. We are never dead so long as we are courageously dedicated to rebuilding our lives. May New York rise from the ashes, taller, prouder, more just, more committed to freedom than ever before. May our leaders and our soldiers in Washington repair the breach, rebuild the wall, strengthen the bulwark of freedom. May the God of hope and goodness breath new life into our dry bones, our weary souls.
May God comfort all those who mourn in our country. May God strengthen the hands of those who heal. May we find the knowledge that will bring us a realistic courage. May we have faith in our dreams, honoring the dead, building a better tomorrow. May we never forget how great this country is, for God has indeed shed His grace on thee. Please join together in "America the Beautiful" on p. 532.
Gregory S. Marx Rabbi Rosh Hashonah Sep ‘01