Peter J. Rubinstein | September 27, 2001
I believe the real sermons for this day have been given by the mayor and the governor, who honored us by their presence at Rosh Hashanah services last week, and by the police commissioner and the chief of the 8th Battalion and his lieutenants, who have been with us this Yom Kippur. These firefighters were among those who fought the fire in this Sanctuary three years ago and were among the first at the World Trade Center on September 11. Our local firehouse lost ten of their own. Their humility is the real sermon for this evening. Their courage is a model for all of us.
When last we were gathered on Rosh Hashanah, I talked about Yiddish words which expressed what we were feeling. After the catastrophe on September 11, the best we could do was to muster from deep within us an “oy.” “Oy” said it all.
Then we spoke of how we needed to “utz,” to urge each other and ourselves forward, slowly at first and stumbling. As we recover our composure and a sense of steadiness, we will strive onward purposefully, taking each other by the hand and putting our arms around each other. With enough time, we will be able to run forward, racing for the mountain top, thirsting for sunlight, able to climb the heights, ultimately to see a horizon of a better day dawning. We will “utz” ourselves forward as a community and individually.
Our world has changed. We know that! Since September 11, we cannot put the tragedy out of mind. We still search and hope and comfort each other. We still celebrate our heroes who have demonstrated the absolute best of what it means to be a human being: compassion and courage, boldness and conviction, and commitment that makes for the best of people. We would like to believe, as I do, that time is a gentle healer, that there will come greater peace, that there will be comfort in our spirits.
But we know that we will never be able to put these events out of mind. We will carry scars as certainly as anyone who passed through the Nazis’ kingdom of darkness. We will experience unexplainable waves of anxiety and fear, trembling, trepidation and sorrow. We will not be the same.
Sadly, calamity is not a stranger to our people. Indeed, we might consider our entire history a manual for how to deal with catastrophe. The Torah, the entire Tanach (the Hebrew bible), is a narrative of the pockmarks of Jewish history and civilization from our enslavement by the Egyptians to desolation under the Romans, from campaigns of murder during the crusades to genocide under the Nazis. We have lived through it all!
Villainy and evil are not strangers to us. And yet among all the villains and disciples of evil known in our history, the paradigm of evil singled out by Moses and by God is not one of the usual suspects. The person considered by God to be of greater villainy, far greater perverseness, far greater depravity than Pharaoh, is Amalek.
Do you know about Amalek? What made Amalek so evil is that he snuck up from behind the Israelites. He murdered the weak, the innocent, the enfeebled. He caught the tired in his clasp. He marauded. Amalek is the paradigm for evil. The Torah commands us never to forget what Amalek wrought. “Remember what Amalek did to you.” (Deut. 25:17) “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:19)
You must wipe out his name. Do everything to forget his name, but never, never forget what Amalek did. For to forget what Amalek did is to be innocent to the possibility of what descendants of evil might do.
Sadly, we know Amalek’s descendants. We know about those who would catch us from behind. We know about those who would kill the innocent. We know about those who would trap the tired and the enfeebled and the weak. We know about those who would maraud and murder. We know about catastrophe.
But how do we recognize the villainous descendants of Amalek? The commentaries say that what made Amalek essentially evil and contemptible is that “Amalek did not fear God.” He was without pity and fundamental humanity. These are the words of the commentators who themselves searched for the basis of evil. What made Amalek disgusting and repugnant is that he lacked a fundamental respect for life. And it isn’t that he murdered us. He repudiated all life. Amalek didn’t respect life, even his own.
We have met enemies on the battlefields. We have been besieged in our cities. We have been killed and become victims of genocide. We have been enslaved in Egypt. But when we face enemies across the battlefield, or look out from besieged ghettos, we typically assume that while those who want to hurt us may not have any concern for our lives, they care about their own lives.
But not Amalek, and not Amalek’s descendants. Amalek did not fear God. He had no concern for the basic human value of life. He had no pity.
As we learn from the Torah about Amalek and his descendants, let us learn what the Torah teaches about fighting back.
How do we repel and resist evil?
There is an amazing biblical story that relates how Moses stood on the heights over the battlefield as our people fought against Amalek. Moses raised his hands and the people triumphed.
We know that it’s not difficult to raise our hands or to keep them up. But try keeping your arms raised during the course of an entire battle. Try keeping your arms raised during the course of a war. You will find it is not easy to keep your arms raised.
The story about Moses says that as Moses’s hands began to fall from fatigue, Amalek triumphed. So Moses’ lieutenants Hur and Aaron stood beside him, one on each side, and held Moses’ hands high so that the Israelites were victorious in their battle against evil.
Moses’ friends held his hands up so they would not fall. They kept Moses from slumping. They remained beside him.
I know that we will be beside our leaders who are at this time taking us by the hand and leading us down a previously untraveled road. I know that we will be with them, encouraging them and helping them, committing to support them to stand strong in the face of evil. We know that this is not a short battle. We know that this battle will take the commitment and the energy and the conviction and the discipline of our entire nation. We know that we will need to stand beside our leaders holding their hands high.
But what about ourselves? How do we, in our own lives, confront the forces of evil? How do we repel them? How do we make a statement about what we would want this world to be? How do we declare that good will triumph over evil? We too need to raise our hands to be victorious in this battle.
There is a manual for us in the Torah readings that we read every Yom Kippur. They are wonderful readings that provide three guidelines.
Firstly, they tell us that if we want to live well, we must choose life.
I have a model in mind. I don’t know if you had the same experience, but in my home we had a ritual. Every year, about the same time of the year, my parents would make my two brothers and me stand against the side of a door where our height would be measured. My parents would put a ruler on our heads and would make a little pencil line on the door post to mark our heights. Because we were three boys they would put our initials next to each annual mark to gauge our growth. Depending upon our growth spurts, the distance between these annual marks would be greater or lesser. The progress of our growth in height was quite visible.
As we became teenagers, our growth began to slow, a fact I didn’t like. I wanted to be the tallest in my family (which I became). But it was not only that I wanted to be the tallest in my family. I wanted to be even taller than I was.
So I admit that in my teen-age years, as my growth slowed, I would rock forward on my toes when my parents placed the ruler on my head. I wanted to be taller so I would rock onto my toes, straighten my back a little bit more, raise my head a little bit higher. I wanted to show that I was going to be taller than I was. I wanted to stretch.
That is what we need to be doing now. We need to be taller and straighter. We need to rock forward on our toes. We need to stretch ourselves and grasp higher, and we do it by choosing life.
Our mayor and governor and the police commissioner and the chief of our local fire battalion gave us a lesson. We cannot go home and pull the covers over our head.
“U’vcharta b’chayim—Choose life,” the Torah commands us today in the Torah reading.
Choose life. Take the little steps to leave your apartments, to walk the streets, yes, even to go shopping. Sit in restaurants and go out to cafes. Make certain that this city of ours, this nation of ours, this world of ours, knows that we are not pulling the blankets over our heads. We will not retreat!
Proclaim in every minute of every day and in each of your actions that we are choosing life. We will be strong. We will march forward with conviction and commitment. We may have been silenced in mourning but we will raise our voices. We may be anguished, but we are not going to cower. We may feel anxiety and fear, but we are not going to forfeit our commitment and determination and discipline. We are going to choose life, every part of life, all of life all the time.
And the second thing we’re going to do is live life sacredly. “Kedoshim tih’yu—Be holy,” the Torah teaches today. “You shall be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
You might suspect that as your rabbi, I would tell you that living sacredly means you should come to synagogue. But it is not that alone. Yes, you should be coming to synagogue to celebrate the contours of life in celebration and sorrow.
But living life sacredly means that you help every child who has lost a parent. Living life sacredly means that when you walk the streets of this city, you meet the eyes of the homeless and the hungry. Living life sacredly means that you put your arms around those who are in need, you wipe the tears from those who are in pain, you feed those who are hungry. Living live sacredly means that you never get so angry with anybody that you scar them permanently. Living life sacredly may mean helping those who have lost work, find new work.
Intuitively each of us will know how to live life sacredly. The challenges will continuously face us. We will know implicitly what it means to live a sacred existence, to raise ourselves up, to stand tall, to choose life, and to live it sacredly so that in the end we may be holy like our God.
The third lesson that our Torah reading for today imparts is in the words “Atem nitzavim hayom.” Moses was about to leave the people forever and to ascend Mount Nebo where he would die alone. He would never to enter the land to which he had led the Israelites for four decades. As he prepared to address the people for the last time, Moses said, “You are all standing here this day.” “This day,” Moses affirms.
Most of us often have reason to put off what we know we should be doing now.
We have reasons to wait until our vacation. We have reasons to wait until the market turns around. We have reasons to wait until the configuration of the constellations of our life are in order to do what we want or must do. We have reason to wait until somebody comes to us before we’re ready to go to them.
There is no time to wait! We have learned that. It has been put before us. We are to suck the deliciousness out of life now. We are to put our arms around those we love, now. We are to tell them we love them, now. We are to be with each other, now. We are to talk honestly, now. We are to take the steps forward to life, now. We are to speak of love and commitment and dedication now, not tomorrow, but now. We have no power to change the past. We can’t control our future. It is now, my friends. Now!
We are commanded by our Torah to raise our hands to repel the forces of evil and to do it in these three rather simple ways: to live life, to live sacredly, and to live sacredly now.
I believe that is what this moment is about. That is what it means to repel Amalek, and that is how we’re going to repel the forces of darkness.
We are going to stand near our leaders, holding their arms high. We are going to hold our own arms skyward.
We are going to roll forward on our toes so that we are measured by God and ourselves as a bit taller and straighter and more courageous than ever before. We will become more than we have ever been. We will become more complete than we have ever been before.
We will choose life. We will choose to live life sacredly. We will choose to live life sacredly now. We will make this moment count. We shall be gauged as having grown in our lives and we will make ourselves, our city, and this nation a far better place. By so doing, we will make this world a better place.
May God be with us. Amen.
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