2016-06-30

This past Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, America woke to a beautiful late summer day. By lunchtime, it had turned into a day of national tragedy that surpasses any single incident in our history. Our morning time had been turned into a time of mourning. Our national innocence was burning on two pyres some 80 stories above the earth, the first tragic victim in a well-coordinated terrorist attack. Countless thousands have perished, and even more victims will suffer the loss of parents, spouses, siblings, and children for years to come.

This week's Torah reading eerily anticipated our headlines. Words that we have seen for centuries take on new significance. "Re'eh natati lefanechah hayom et hachayim v'et ha-tov; v'et ha-mavet v'et ha-ra"...I have set before you this day life and goodness; death and evil. (Deut. 30:15) "Ha-odoti bachem hayom et hashamayim v'et ha-aretz hachayim v'ha'mavet natati lefanecha, habrachah v'ha'klallah; uvacharta bachayim l'ma'an tichyeh atah uvanechah." I call heaven and earth as witness this day that life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse; therefore you must choose life in order to live, you and your children. (Deut. 30:19)

We are conflicted with emotions right now. We are numbed by the sheer numbers of missing and presumed dead. And when we can move beyond the numbers and consider the unique individual losses, we are paralyzed. It could have been any of us in the air that Tuesday. It could have been any of us who went to work at some office job in the Pentagon or the World Trade Center like normal, on a normal-looking day. We cannot even begin to guess how many children have been made orphans, how many spouses have been made widows or widowers. We grieve deeply, not for the loss of strangers. No. We grieve deeply at the loss of people who but for an accident of geography, could well have been us.

We are angry, angry beyond belief. We are angry at the rejection of the standards of civilized behavior that leaves us feeling so violated and victimized. How dare civilians be considered a legitimate military target! How dare someone decree that innocent children of God, of all races, creeds, colors, beliefs, and religions, need to be slaughtered so that "America can be punished!" We are angry that the blessings and openness of this country, unique among the nations of the world, be subsumed and subverted in a way that not only makes these attacks possible, but ultimately threatens the continued existence of these very blessings and openness.

We are afraid, and on so many levels. We are afraid for whatever might come next. We are afraid of what this portends for the world our children might inherit. We are afraid of the sheer hatred that has unleashed this attack. When we look to the television and encounter reports of celebrations in certain corners of the world, celebration prompted by nothing more or less than the fact that America has suffered a terrible tragedy, we feel the fear borne of the thought that somehow there are people who actually approve of this viciousness. We are afraid that the chaos unleashed means that God is not in control of this world. In particular I have heard a number of people express their fears that somehow this attack is a sign that Jews are not safe in this country. I have even heard rabbis try and suggest that this attack on America was somehow something other, as though it were specifically an attack on Jews.

Yes, we feel these emotions and countless others. Dear friends, all of these emotions are understandable, and even reasonable. Yet, I suggest to you that they need not be our main response to this tragedy. Yes, we need to grieve. Our grief is nothing less than a show of love and support for the victims and their families. We need to be angry. We need to appreciate that not every society, not every country, indeed few societies and nations, could have been the target of such an attack, all for the simple reason that no other place in the world is so under-policed, so under-regulated, so open and absent restrictions. Part of what makes America so special was taken and used against America, to our own harm. We have a right to be angry when we are betrayed by a perversion of our values. Finally we have a right to be afraid. No longer can we afford the naivete that has been the hallmark of the American, along with Levi's jeans, chocolate bars and infectious smiles, for the last hundred plus years.


Yet friends, this is not all the answer. First and foremost, we should not be afraid as Jews. While many Jews did die in this terrible attack, it was not targeted against Jews. It was targeted against America and what this country uniquely stands for among the families of nations. We were targeted because of our values. The fundamentalist Moslem sees the liberal democratic state as an existential threat to the idealized theocracy of a strict Moslem society. This liberal modern state encourages free dialogue in the market-place of ideas. This liberal democratic state offers its opportunities to all, not to the scions of the ruling elite. This liberal, democratic state professes no allegiance to any one religion and thereby all religions can prosper while all their adherents can both benefit from and contribute to the common wealth of our country. If often these American values can be conflated with Jewish values, it simply points to the contributions to western thought that Judaism has made over the last 5000 years. No friends, we were not attacked as Jews, nor should we be afraid as Jews. If our history makes us more tuned into threats against our survival, so be it. At the same time, let us not try and particularize this attack as a Jewish experience. It simply isn't appropriate.

Second, we are due our outrage. Yet, let's keep in mind that "outrage" is different than plain "rage." Rage is simply uncontrollable, furious, and destructive anger. Rage has no redeeming element to it. Outrage is different. Outrage is the righteous anger that stems from witnessing an injustice. So yes, we are right to be angry. We are even right to be outraged. But let's make sure that our righteous sense of outrage does not devolve into senseless rage and hate. Just four days before this heinous attack, this congregation was brave enough to invite Mr. Farooq Hussaini, a leader from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, to visit and speak with us. The words we heard on our pulpit last Shabbat were enlightening, and I dare say encouraging. We heard with our own ears that Islam is not a religion designed to hate Jews and Judaism. We heard with our own ears that no Muslim should look to the Koran to find a justification for hate. We heard with our own ears that in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity, God is a god of love, of compassion, of mercy, of righteousness. We heard with our own ears that most Muslims do not countenance violence towards Jews and Judaism. And yet. A mere four days later we feel the hatred of fundamentalist Muslims against our country. We need to note that every major Islamic political action group in this country has condemned this horrendous attack. Today even in Tehran, Iran a minute of silence was observed in respect for America's loss in advance of a World Cup Soccer qualifying match. We can and should be outraged that the lives of innocents could so cavalierly be disregarded by terrorists. At the same time we need to make sure that we do not let our outrage devolve to rage and in turn see other Americans unfairly victimized because of their religion or ethnicity or their country of origin. We as Jews are the people most able to be sympathetic to what Americans who are Moslem or of Arab descent must be feeling right now. We above all should make sure that the evil perpetrated by a few does not come to besmirch others who are innocent.

Finally, we have a right to our grief. Our country suffered a horrible lesson last Tuesday; we have learned that absolute security and absolute freedom cannot coexist. We are a young country, and if our naivete and innocence is a victim of this attack, it can only mean that we will mature in the wake of our experience. America learned the lesson of the Kishinev pogrom of the early 1900's. As Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote in the wake of that pogrom in his famous poem "The Slaughtered City," in the wake of a slaughter, the sun will still shine, the wind will still blow, flowers will still bloom, and the birds will still sing. We will and do feel the sense of disconnect between the horrible, man-made tragedy, and the beautiful late summer sunshine. It is our grief that affirms to us what nature cannot: America has suffered this week, suffered something terribly. Yet, despite our grief, we know we have but one option. It is set in front of us for us to choose. We need to choose life.


The most profound question I have heard during this entire tragedy centers on God. As we better and better appreciate the horrors of the attack, more and more I hear people wonder about God. Some wonder how God could have let this horrible catastrophe happen. Some have even suggested that somehow God approves of this terrible attack; that it serves as a wake-up for us as a nation. I even heard one rabbi suggest by implication that we as Jews might have deserved this attack because we did not support Israel enough lately, in that we canceled trips or were too sympathetic to the Palestinians, or whatever. I absolutely reject any and all such claims. For those who wonder why God "let" this catastrophe happen, I suggest that we must not blame God for the evil acts of human beings. For those who wonder where God was Tuesday, I suggest that God was indeed busy on Tuesday. God could be found busy making sure some had the opportunities for last goodbyes as they called from airplanes or their workspaces. God could be found among those working

to save those injured at the Pentagon. God could be found among the people who struggled to contain the damage inflicted to our nation's military command-and-control structure. God could be found alongside the brave souls of the Fire Department of New York, the Emergency Medical Services, and the New York Police Department busy fighting fires, and helping victims. God could be found in the presence of volunteers all frantically trying to pull people from the rubble that today stands eight stories high. God could be found in the hug of Red Cross workers giving comfort to the distressed. God could be found in the presence of doctors and nurses and hospital staffs overwhelmed, but undaunted by the difficult tasks in front of them. God could be found in the huge lines of blood donors, who lined up for blocks and blocks ready to help anyone that might use their blood regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity of either donor or possible recipient. God could be found among the members of our military far away from home, on the highest alert to protect us in case there were more attacks on the way, while they in turn had no idea if their own families and friends were safe or not. God could be found in the shared tears of all America, for last Tuesday, God too was a victim. Yes, last Tuesday God's holy name was the first victim alongside our sense of national innocence, as it was used and abused to perpetuate violence and hatred instead of peace and love. And God was also present as an entire nation looked beyond skin color and accent, beyond religious belief or sexual orientation as countless hands reached out to save the lives of total strangers. God was also present when we came together, and continue to come together in shared grief and in common purpose to express our sorrow, in churches and synagogues and mosques throughout this country.

I have set before you this day life and goodness; death and evil. I call heaven and earth as witness that life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse; therefore you must choose life in order to live, you and your children. I know that many of us feel helpless, powerless to make a difference. Certainly we cannot turn back the hands of time and prevent the horror from happening. Yet as we struggle to reassert order over chaos, there are things we can do. First and foremost we can refuse to be cowed. We can refuse to let these terrorists stop us from living our lives; we can refuse to let these terrorists hijack this country and make it any less than the magnificent nation it is. Yes, we will have to live with some changes. Going through airport security will no longer be a cakewalk. Yet I urge that we understand that so long as America by and large does not go through drastic change in the wake of this tragedy, then and only then will we have denied these fundamentalists what they really want most of all: the diminishment of America in our own minds, and then in the theater of world events. We cannot allow these criminals to encourage America in abdicating her indispensable role as world leader. The sooner we can be forward looking and affirm "things will be different" instead of being caught up in a lachrymose sense of a lost past by chanting the continuous litany that "things will never be the same" then the sooner we will have moved to minimize the impact of this event. We will have moved to choose life.


There are other things we can do to help us move forward. The United Jewish Federation here in Pittsburgh announced at the community prayer service Wednesday night that an open relief fund has been founded for the families of those killed in these attacks. I urge that all of us make whatever contributions we can to this fund. Further, there is still a critical need for blood, especially types O Pos and O Neg. If you are medically able to do so, I urge that you contact the local blood bank and make an appointment. You might want to know that UJF will be sponsoring a blood drive in October; it is the earliest that the Central Blood Bank could make it happen. If you do not want to wait until then, call the Blood Bank office at St. Margaret's and make an appointment to give blood soon. Both the gift of money and the gift of blood can make a difference to those directly affected in New York and Washington. The next suggestion I have is designed to make a difference here at home. Buy and fly and American flag. It is a simple thing, yet it really does make a difference. The simple fact is that we need to do something not just for those directly wounded by the attack; we need to do something to help our psyches heal here in Pittsburgh. The statement made by flying a flag does that: it reminds us that we are one people, under God. It reminds us that we are not alone in our individual grief, that we as a nation are grieving and that we as a nation will heal. I have a sheet with information on where you can donate or what you can do to help that will be available for you after our services tonight. I urge that we each find something positive and proactive to do given our own abilities and resources, and then go do it. Then too, we will have moved in the direction of choosing life.

I have set before you this day life and goodness; death and evil. I call heaven and earth as witness that life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse; therefore you must choose life in order to live, you and your children. This last week we have indeed seen life and goodness, death and evil. We have seen some make the choice for evil and death; we have seen many more make the choice for goodness and life. This last week we have indeed faced the reality that it is now up to us to choose between life and death, between blessing and curse if we and our children are to live. We can and must make the right choices. We can and must choose life and goodness and blessing for us and for our children. In doing so we deny terrorists their influence. In doing so we affirm for the world exactly why it is that we are the envy of so many. In doing so we prove why it is this country is indeed so great. It is up to us. We pray tonight for the souls of the slaughtered innocents. We pray that God's comfort and grace will envelop the families who grieve. Let us also pray for the strength to make the choices we know we must make. And once granted that strength, let us be steadfast in our determination that we too will choose life.

We have set before us this day life and goodness; death and evil. Heaven and earth witness that life and death are set before us, blessing and curse; therefore we must choose life in order to live, we and our children.

I pray that we all make the choice for life, and that we are blessed with a Shabbat of Shalom.

I have set before you this day life and goodness; death and evil. I call heaven and earth as witness that life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse; therefore you must choose life in order to live, you and your children. This last week we have indeed seen life and goodness, death and evil. We have seen some make the choice for evil and death; we have seen many more make the choice for goodness and life. This last week we have indeed faced the reality that it is now up to us to choose between life and death, between blessing and curse if we and our children are to live. We can and must make the right choices. We can and must choose life and goodness and blessing for us and for our children. In doing so we deny terrorists their influence. In doing so we affirm for the world exactly why it is that we are the envy of so many. In doing so we prove why it is this country is indeed so great. It is up to us. We pray tonight for the souls of the slaughtered innocents. We pray that God's comfort and grace will envelop the families who grieve. Let us also pray for the strength to make the choices we know we must make. And once granted that strength, let us be steadfast in our determination that we too will choose life.

We have set before us this day life and goodness; death and evil. Heaven and earth witness that life and death are set before us, blessing and curse; therefore we must choose life in order to live, we and our children.

I pray that we all make the choice for life, and that we are blessed with a Shabbat of Shalom.

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