Rabbi Ron Shulman, Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, Rancho Palos Verdes, California
“A Defining Moment” Yom Kippur 5762 Sermon September 27, 2001
On this Yom Kippur we find ourselves emerging through a defining moment. These past days have become a moment of clarity for our loved ones, our country and each of every one of us.
I have met people in the weeks since September 11th who still want to deny that there exists in our world hatred on the part of a fanatical few for all that we cherish. I listen to suggestions that if only America had done this or that, if only we understood the circumstances of their lives, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I hope none of the victim’s loved ones are hearing these suggestions.
The hatred that was unleashed against America through this horrific terror is aimed at who we are not what we do. It was focused against our democratic freedoms and personal liberties, not any of the good or bad, right or wrong policies of our government. Let’s be clear about this so that we can move forward as individuals and as a nation.
On this Yom Kippur let us give voice to the conscience of our country and the morality of Jewish tradition. Apparently, we shall soon be witness to the unfolding of a uniquely styled, compulsory and just war against a recognized and real evil. But we should also realize that the death of more innocents in any country will do nothing to heal the pain of this tragedy, nor will it bring honor to the memory of our nation’s victims. Of course, neither does a timid defense of our citizens and our values protect anyone from this plague. So let us trust in the wisdom of our nation’s collective will, and let us take part in those debates, to walk the necessary balance as we strive to adhere to all of the principles, secular and religious, which give meaning to our lives.
Defining moments challenge us in a variety of ways. This event is no exception. With the passing of time many of us are now asking important questions – questions of theology, questions about God. For Jews such questions are certainly nothing new. They are however, now as always, of vital significance. They require thoughtful, honest and clear answers.
“Good morning to You, Lord of the World!
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, am coming to
You in a legal manner concerning Your people of Israel.
What do you want of Israel?”
Levi Yitzhak’s prayer of protest, a prayer uttered from anger, is a good place for us to begin. We ask questions today just like he did in the 18th century. Anger, just as appreciation at better times, confirms our dynamic and active relationship with the mystery that is God’s reality.
What does it mean that the religious beliefs of some, and religious issues common to us all, are at the center of current events? What does it mean to believe in God and to confront evil in our world? What do we say about God to those who grieve and who suffer? How do we understand and make sense of God’s place in the Bible and in history? How is it that religious institutions, not only religious zealots, are responsible for so much pain and hurt throughout history? What can we ask and expect of God? For what shall we pray?
Judaism teaches that free will is God’s moral gift to humanity. In our choices to do good or bad, right or wrong we discover the ethics and justice that derive from God. Maimonides even argues that if human beings were not endowed with free will God could never demand of us justice. Our actions must be our choices, not God’s. There will be in life those who violate boundaries of acceptable behavior. As we are hurt by their wickedness, God too, grieves amidst the victims. “I regret that I made them,” the Torah records as God’s sad answer to those who do evil. (Genesis 6:7)
Before God all people are equal, each of us endowed with the potential to do good or bad. That equality is the only measure of Divine justice we can know. For God to intervene and prevent our choices, even when we might ask for such help, would make of God a referee in human affairs. Imagine then the battles that would be waged by different people to gain God’s favor. God’s presence, as God’s love, must be something equally accessible for all of humanity.
For these reasons I have repeatedly said that God did not will the events of September 11th to take place. In my view, anyone whose personal theology implicates God in these events, in any way, corrupts the goodness we must ascribe to God’s nature and undermines the moral Sovereignty of God to inspire in our lives righteousness and peace.
The Torah describes the nature of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son. ‘He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; he shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.” (Genesis 16:12) It’s a description that catches our attention. Could it be a reference to those whom our government now pursues? No, is my answer, intrigue aside. There are many statements in the Torah about the peoples of its times and the retributions of God. The Torah contains more than a few passages many of us find difficult.
The Torah was written to form the Jewish people’s first memories and beliefs. It lays the foundation of both Judaism and humanity’s quest to know of God. It is sacred; it is holy as the expression of our people’s eternal covenant with God. But the Torah’s texts, like the personalities it describes, could only be aware of their time and their world. While our lives are to be guided by the Torah’s wisdom, the events of our times were not anticipated by the Torah’s words.
The genius of Judaism is midrash, interpretation. As Jews we do not claim to know God’s will, rather we claim to discern our best understanding of God’s will. Our understanding grows and evolves for every generation of Jews and for those who teach and study Torah. Our views, which are sometimes different from those of our ancestors, are validated when the conclusions of those who came before us and the conscience of our own community exist in dialogue with each other.
Sadly, not all who profess the faiths of Judaism, Christianity or Islam share in the ethical monotheism that is the Torah’s central teaching. Fundamentalism does not usually respect the truths of history, reason or even democracy. Our religious faith must always be practiced in consonance with these principles.
Throughout this sacred day we recite from the Torah: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7) Notice that these attributes of God are spiritual in nature, not physical. They tell us that awareness of God is something intangible in our lives, something that touches our souls.
No matter your personal concept of God, which I encourage you to nurture and share with your loved ones, I ask you not to overreach. Personal and emotional strength is what God gives us. God is not the guardian of our bodies. We are all human and therefore mortal. God is the source and the guardian of our souls and of our individuality. Moments ago we uttered, Yizkor Elohim – May God remember, an act of spiritual awareness and compassionate concern.
And so we always pray. Our souls urge us to place before God’s presence all of our feelings. Prayer is the utterance of genuine emotion: our hopes and our fears, our pains and our joys, our wants and our needs. The real experience of our lives, however, urge us to approach God’s presence with the expectations that what prayer achieves for us is comfort and peace, insight and change, inspiration and self-evaluation, gratitude and meaning.
I have explained these few theological perspectives as a response to this defining moment in our lives. I have done so to help you think about these questions as you make your way into the coming weeks and months. For the better and because of the worst, religious themes are now at the center of current events. You will hear many points of view. Some will touch you as thoughtful and effective. Others will leave you empty or even confused. You may even be asked to share your own.
So let this day be only a beginning. Bring these questions, and the answers you may hold, to the course of your days in this New Year. They, in turn, will bring you dignity, comfort and strength as events continue to unfold around us and as our country continues to search for a meaningful definition in the aftermath of September 11th.
I conclude for now, as did Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev generations ago.
“And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say:
I shall not go hence, nor budge from my place
Until there be a finish
Until there be an end of exile –
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mey rabah
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.”