Peter J. Rubinstein | September 16, 2001
This is an uncommon year, a difficult year, unlike any that we’ve had before. God willing, no other city will ever again have to face the immensity of the sorrow and tragedy that our city and our nation is facing now.
This is also a different year for our congregation. For the first time since 1997, we are not all gathered in one place. In our attempt to knit this congregation together in the experience of these holy days, your rabbis decided to write this single sermon that would be shared in all locations.
Yiddish is a wonderful language. We have ways of expressing ourselves that no one can match. If any of us were asked how we feel since the September 11 tragedy, our most descriptive response would be “Oy.” That utterance from the gut transcends all languages. It is an utter expression of despair. Oy! It’s awful!
Today we need to move from “oy” to “utz,” another Yiddish expression. We talk about “utzing” when we want to push each other forward.
We begin with a text that we read every Rosh Hashanah. It itself is a text of terror: the Akeda. You know the story, painful to retell. A father holds a knife over his own son at God’s command.
This year, we are the text of terror. We cannot close the book. We cannot stay the pen. There is no escaping the horror. It was just about this time a week ago that the story was unfolding in all its immensity, in all its sorrow and terror and horror and hurt and pain. Innocent people, thousands murdered in the Pentagon, on airplanes, in the streets of our city, our buildings. They were ours.
They were our neighbors, and friends and family. They were ours.
They were the ones who woke up and rode with us on elevators to work. They were ours.
They were the ones who brushed by our shoulders on the streets. They may even have been the ones into whose eyes we glanced that morning or the day before. They were ours.
They may not have been our fiancés or lovers or brothers or fathers or sons or mothers or cousins, but they are ours. Their stories are ours to tell. Namelessly, at first, but now with the naming of their names they become ours. We carry them on our shoulders. We carry them in the melody of our hearts. Our footsteps are etched a little bit deeper into the sand because we are carrying them with us.
The Torah account that we read today is about a potentially cataclysmic event—about near death and sacrifice, about a fanatic interpretation of God’s word, about the near termination of our own history, about the death of our mother Sarah, and about the loss of innocence. It is a predictive tale that casts human history in the ongoing battle between forces of decency and compassion and goodness on the one hand, and the forces of fanaticism and the taking of life and destruction on the other hand.
We don’t like the story. We probably shouldn’t like the story. But it has put us on notice for thousands of years. Our forbears made certain we knew of this story, which tells us of the possibility of murder and destruction when we allow belief in a vengeful and parochial God to cloud the thrust of faith; when we believe that God would command the death of someone else, and thereby sabotage our Torah’s command that we need to bring the very best of sacrifice and sacredness and decency to the relationships that we have with God, and therefore with our fellow men and women.
But in our story God stayed the hand of Abraham. The angels called forth, “Avraham, Avraham”— “Abraham, Abraham, how dare you? What are you doing, Abraham? Don’t you see that there is a ram behind you? Why have you been so blind and incapable of seeing the larger world around you? Why have you closed your eyes, believing that this is the only way to serve God, that this must be your sacrifice?”
In our story, the knife was held back. The arm didn’t fall. Isaac arose from the altar and both Abraham and Isaac arose and went on, but they were never the same. They were scarred, maimed, saddened. It says that the tears of Abraham’s eyes dropped into Isaac’s eyes and blinded him. Isaac never saw clearly again, which is why he didn’t even recognize his own children.
And what about Sarah, Abraham’s determined wife, Isaac’s loving mother? The Midrash tells us that she heard a fabricated account of what happened—the ending that we feared—that Abraham indeed had slaughtered their son Isaac. It says that a wail of grief came from within her guts, up through her throat and shot forth to God, and on that wail of grief her spirit left her body. She died, as she took haven with God.
But Abraham went on with Isaac. Hand in hand, they descended from Mount Moriah. Abraham learned that his wife had died. The tragedy on the mountain top that had been averted struck Abraham. He was in utter shock. How could Abraham have imagined that it would turn out like this?
This week, we are in utter shock. How, we ask, could it have ever turned out like this?
Our Torah tells us though that Abraham picked himself up, mourned for his wife: “Vayakam Avraham mei-al pnei mei-to”— “Abraham arose from before his dead.” He made the precise detailed arrangements for her burial, the site of which has become a testimony to her memory. And he moved on. One step, probably stumbling, at first, then with walking some resolve and finally, we would hope he ran forward.
The story tells us that Abraham married again and had more children. Sad, scarred, a son blinded, aching, but Abraham moved on! Carrying memory, feeling the sadness of what might have happened, he moved on! Burying his dead, he moved on!
And we know now that life will move on, must move on. It’s impossible to return to where we were just a week ago. Too much has changed. Sirens mean different things now to us. Seeing a cloud in the sky means something other to us. Seeing a knapsack being carried means something other to us.
But we move on! We go back to work. We return to museums. We take our children to schools. The clouds of smoke have diminished. Concerns that plagued us before last week seem so frivolous now.
This holiday is a time of new beginnings. It is a new year, the time that school begins, the time of a new chapter in the life of our congregation. We will arise and we will move on.
Abraham mourned, he wept, and he arose. We are mourning. We weep. And we will arise. We will arise by telling the stories of those whose lives have been lost. We will arise by telling the stories of great heroism. We will tell our children of those who have become the models of the best in humankind: those men and women who ran into those buildings to save others; those faceless, nameless people who now are ours. We will carry them within us.
The grieving has begun for those who are missing. We prepare for our life with them in our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our spirits, but without them to hug and to hold.
There are fliers posted all around the city in front of apartment houses, on benches, around hospitals, fire houses and police houses. A recent Times editorial noted:
“By Thursday, there were as many fliers across the city as there were American flags. People going about their business stopped to read them, to touch them, in mute homage.
“And as the fliers spread, so did the obituaries. We are now just getting to know these people, the missing and the dead: bond traders and secretaries, custodians and firefighters, people living in nearly every neighborhood in New York, people who had grown up in nearly every state in this country. The reach of the families they had come from was truly global. We witness a portrait of this nation assembled out of memories and pictures, out of the efforts of everyday people to explain in everyday words who it is they lost on Tuesday.”
We are already rising, lifting one another to our feet, “utzing” each other on. The hospitals have too much food for now. The donations have been overwhelming. Fundraising continues. Volunteers keep flocking to Ground Zero. How moving and touching it is to see the signs that are being held by ordinary people thanking those who are working at that site and fighting for life, saying, “You are our heroes, we thank you. You are the best of this country. You are the best of humanity. You are the best that God has made.”
They are our heroes. They are the best of this country. They are the best of this Creation. They are the best that God has made. And we, like them, can still have the ambition for life and move on.
Last night, the Mayor came and spoke to our congregation. He said this was the worst of weeks and this was the best of weeks. We know why it was the worst of weeks. It was the best of weeks, he said, because New Yorkers have rallied in a spirit of compassion and decency and goodness. We New Yorkers have arisen. We have been strong. We have been good. We have ridden in elevators and looked into the eyes of people we may never before have looked at. We have heard them say, “I have lost my son,” and some of us have needed to say, “I, too, have lost my son.”
We are the ones who stand in front of firehouses simply to give testimony. We are the ones who bring condolences simply with our eyes, to thank our firefighters for who they are and for what they have done. We are the ones who are showing the best of the human spirit. We are the ones showing the best of what this city and this nation is about.
During this past week, my colleagues and I have visited our local firehouse whose firemen were the first on the scene when our building burned three years ago. Just weeks ago, we dedicated the rear clerestory window to them at a reception as a way of showing what they enabled us to do. They are now missing ten of their own from a single engine they call the “Ghost Engine.”
I asked the commanding officer of that firehouse what we might do for them. He looked at me and said, “Rabbi, do what you do best. Pray! Pray especially that God sustains those who are still trapped in the rubble.” And then he added, “Our city has been called the Big Apple. I believe we should change our name to the City of Courage and the City of Love.”
The best of us, throughout our tradition, have been tempered on the anvil of hardship. We are strong and we are resilient—we as a people and we as a nation. We are courageous and we have learned from our Torah and our history about the need to begin again, to nourish the seedlings of creation. We have been taught to arise from before our dead and to move to the best of what we can be, to the horizon that holds the promise of all humanity.
I ride the subways. You know the pole in the middle aisles? When it is really crowded, we grasp that pole. You hang on to it to steady your balance. When you look at the hands of other people holding that same pole you see the hands of people of different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, religious convictions, the young and the old. As that subway sways and jerks from side to side, as it screeches to a stop in the middle of the tunnel and as it surges forward, we all hold on. No matter how bumpy the ride, we hold on. We bang into each other. We rumble about. But we hold on. We feel solid and we feel together.
The pole to which we hang on now as we bump and struggle along is the anchor of the very foundations of this nation, the foundations of our people. It is the pole of goodness and compassion and justice and mercy. We hold on together and to each other. Together we raise our vision. Together we take next steps. Together we move on.
You and I, people of all colors and creeds and national backgrounds and religious convictions, people who are young and old, hold on dearly to the anchor of our convictions and to the greatness of this country. We will rise up and move to a mountaintop. We will “utz” ourselves onward. We will struggle. We will stumble. We will walk. And then we will race to a better tomorrow.
And this country will be better and this city will be rebuilt, and we will carry memories and we will begin again.
This is the moment of beginning. On this Rosh Hashanah, we mourn. We will rise up from before our dead, sing their songs, carry them on our shoulders, and etch our footsteps deeper in the sand. Then we will arise and move on.
May God be with us along the way. Amen.
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