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Peter J. Rubinstein
After Immense Tragedy (Rosh HaShanah 5762)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 17, 2001

This has been an uncommon week, a unique week. We have suffered an immense tragedy. We pray that no other city again has to face the agony and devastation and suffering that enemies have visited upon us.

This evening is different in another way. For the first time in three years, we are not together as a congregation. As we return to our home, to our buildings, our congregation will be hearing the service read and chanted by different voices this evening. Your clergy are leading four congregational services tonight. Though at different times and places, together we are one. In fact tonight each of us is preaching this same sermon. We cannot pretend that it is life as usual. Thus we begin this service with this welcome and sermon, a litany of loss and the yearning for hope.

These are somber days. Though gathering for typically a joyful occasion of the new year, we enter this year 5762 with a sadness and vicious weight bearing heavily upon us. The comforting cloak of innocence has been rudely stripped from our shoulders. Never again will we contend that the violence of terror is cordoned off far away from our shores.

Enemies have come to our nation, to our city. They trapped us in our homes and offices and airplanes. They perforated what we thought was an impenetrable armor of security. And they established a new benchmark for evil. The Holocaust remains the severest measure of genocide. This heartrending episode expands horror and terror to a previously inconceivable measure. These High Holy Days are without compare.

We are reeling. We suffer powerful, uncontrollable emotions. We are afraid and sad. We are angry and anguished. We are bewildered and battered. More than before, we know that destiny is beyond our control.

This we know also… that in more than one way, the World Trade Center was a symbol of the best America. Lost in its rubble were Americans of sixty national backgrounds from a vast array of ethnic and religious convictions, from the spectrum of economic and social class. It didn’t matter who we were. The terrorists struck every one of us. No one can say the tragedy is someone else’s challenge. Together we are one. We weep together and we cling together.

Together as one, we are thankful to the New York City Police and Fire Departments and emergency services and personnel and hospitals and doctors and nurses and the volunteers from around this country and world who are working tirelessly, themselves suffering tremendous loss. Some of them are here this evening. Together as one, we mourn with them.

And for their fallen colleagues, the words of the poet:

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
Stephen Spender (Reprinted by permission of Ed Victor Ltd.)

Together as one, we are grateful for and proud of the leadership, support, and courage shown by Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, and President Bush and those who lead us in these difficult days. We have been especially touched by the comportment and focus of our mayor and governor.

Together as one, we will pursue justice. We are determined to hunt down and destroy the machinery of evil. It will require patience. It will require trust. It may require trial and error. It will require perseverance over years.

Together as one, we will talk of pain and agony. We will cry and hold each other, sometimes with words, sometimes in whispers, and sometimes in silence. We are not poets or elegists. We do not know how to speak of such horror. So we tell stories, and we must, of those who are lost, those for whom we still have hope, and those for whom hope has given way to the sad reality of death. We sing their songs. We raise our voices to the vaults of heaven to call to them, to tell them of our love, to pray that God care for them, and to continue the melodies of their lives. We will proclaim the ground where they died as sacred ground. Like wisps of billowing smoke, their souls hover above us.

Together as one, we are anguished and frightened. We yearn for protection from God, from our government, from a carefully woven safety net. Yet we now understand vulnerability to a degree beyond any conceived before.

Of God we will ask, “How can this happen? Should not evil be vanquished and the good and just be raised on high?” Of our authorities we wonder, what did we miss?

It may not yet be time for questions. We barely hang on, each minute feeling like an hour, the past week feeling like forever. We are glued to the television, needing to see and at the same time repulsed by the images of horror and affliction.

We are reminded in the book of Ecclesiastes:

To everything this is a season and a time
to every purpose under the heavens.
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot
that which is planted,
a time for weeping and a time for laughing,
a time for wailing and a time for dancing. (Eccl. 3)

We wonder how there will be again a time for laughter and joy and dance. How could we find within the capacity to burst forth again with joyous singing? How can we feel the heartaches of our own losses or look into the tearstained eyes of those who are missing family members and friends, fiancés and lovers, and talk about hope and renewal?

It is difficult to know when we will turn the corner and feel committed again to better days. It is difficult to know when we will believe that there will be a time to sing and dance, when the pall under which we function like the smoke that hangs above the World Trade Center will be carried away by time.

But this we do know… that if you love, you grieve. There are no exceptions. Even for the stranger, we grieve.

We will take each other’s hands, hug and hold each other, and urge and help each other to move ourselves forward. This great congregation rebuilt its Sanctuary. Our governor and mayor used us as a symbol in conversation with President Bush when he visited on Friday. They told the president, “Just as this congregation rebuilt, so we will rebuild!”

Our city will rebuild buildings but we cannot replace lost life. Yet we are a people with a long and holy tradition of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, then rising to the mountains warmed by the sun to set our eyes upon the horizon. We are a people that embraces each new year with the ultimate belief that goodness will triumph over evil, that justice will “well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) We have founded ourselves upon the pillars of mercy and goodness and lifted ourselves in striving to be holy like God.

We have embraced the faith of Nehemiah, who looked upon a destroyed city and proclaimed, “You see the bad state we are in — our city lying in ruins… And they said, ‘Nakum u’vaninu—Let us rise up and rebuild. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”

We will rise up. We will rebuild our lives, our visions, our dreams. We will carry with us forever the names and faces and stories of those who have been taken from the face of this earth. We take them into our hearts and give them a place beside the cherished memories of our own loved ones. They now are ours.

We are here because we need to be together, we need to be resilient, we need to pray, to search for and express our faith—the need, albeit difficult, to voice hope and renewal. We have been devastated. But we have not been destroyed and we will not be vanquished.

And we will hope for and move toward better days. God has granted us an indomitable spirit. God has given us this creation with its abundance and beauty, forests dancing with life, mountains rising like prayers, seas roaring their creative hymn. Together we raise our hands, our hearts, our souls, and reach toward the heights, resilient, determined, strong, courageous, and compassionate.

Thus as Jews we pray—through the depth of the night. We pray to demonstrate the undying commitment of Jewish life, of life itself. We pray to affirm our trust in the ultimate decency of humanity. We pray as an act of courage and thanksgiving and gratitude to those who bravely fight to save life. We pray and remember as we mourn those who have died, and to seek healing for those who are hurt and safety for those who are still missing.

We will pray this evening for comfort and strength and hope. Thus we hold high forever the banners of conscience and decency and life. May God be with us, together as one, as we lift our eyes to the mountains.


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