Sermons and Parsha'iot          One Year Later - Reflections on September 11                           

We’re still hoping we’ll wake up. We’re still hoping we’ll open a sleepy eye and shake our pillowed head and think, “My, what a dream.” But we won’t. For what we saw was not a dream. It was unspeakable, unthinkable, but it was not a dream. People did perish. Buildings did fall. And we are sad. We are sad for the innocent people who died, for their children who will never see them again, for their spouses who had to bury them. We grieve the loss of life.

But our grief goes even deeper. As we mourn the death of people, we mourn the death of an image. Just as the skyline of the city was forever altered, so was our view of the world. We thought we were untouchable, impenetrable. With the loss of innocent lives is the loss of innocence itself. Perhaps we should have known better, but we didn’t.

Lost Dreams

The longer we live, the more dashed hopes we have to look back at. Even the most accomplished of us lives with the disappointment of unrealized dreams. Experience makes us ask questions about our dreams: Are they worthy? Have we done everything possible to ensure they come true – or are they just daydreams that give us an excuse not to engage with the world? But even when we apply ourselves with all the diligence in the world, there are some dreams that we lose because the dreams themselves are miscast. Such dreams fail because we do not know ourselves, or the world, deeply enough. And then there are those worthy dreams that the world does not help us to realize. The medieval poet Abraham Ibn Ezra lamented that if he sold candles, the sun would never set, and if he sold burial shrouds, no one would die.

What happens to us when reality whittles away our dreams? Some of us simply stop dreaming altogether; but some of us know that even in the midst of unmeasurable sadness, we can rebuild on our losses. When a dream vanishes it can leave wisdom in its wake. Clearly, we will never be the same people we were before; some things cannot be reclaimed. Still, there will be truths we can teach, things that we will know that we did not know before.

The biblical book of Job presents one such example. Job was a wealthy and pious man. Ha Satan – that is, the adversarial angel in the heavenly court – accused him of being pious only because he was fortunate. So to prove a point, God allowed the Adversary to take away all that Job had, including his children, and to cover his body with painful boils. Three friends came to visit Job, and their conversations are the bulk of the book. Job complains that his suffering is an injustice from God. His friends defend the idea that God is just with a variety of arguments, including that Job must have done something to deserve his suffering – that his very protestations of innocence prove that he is proud, arrogant and blasphemous. Job declares his innocence and challenges God to be his accuser. God appears in a whirlwind and asks Job if he was around when the world was created. He asks whether Job can perform great feats of strength and wonder. God flexes God’s celestial muscles, and Job is silenced.

Why does God lecture Job about the creation of the world? Rabbi David Wolpe suggests that it is to inform him that the world was not created the way he believed it was. Ultimately God is telling Job that faith cannot meet the test of earthly success, that God’s world cannot conform to human standards. In this world there is no iron law that metes out goodness to those who are good; nor is punishment always stored up for those who do evil. The idea that this is a fair world – and that, therefore, Job is entitled to redress – is Job’s idea and not God’s.  God has made a world filled with beauty, splendor, strength, majesty, awe. The task of making it moral falls on us.

The Crisis of Faith

In the light of 9/11, the lesson of Job seems to take on greater urgency. Many of you have spoken to me of your anger that God could permit such a crime to occur. My answer has been that the root of many problems of faith lies in a misunderstanding of the nature of faith, all too often encouraged by religion itself. We believe that if only we are good, or act in a certain way, God will reward us. Then we are struck by an act of evil that kills thousands of innocent people. For all the candles lit, the prayers poured forth, and the devotions upraised to the heavens, human pain is undiminished. We see that there is no power that will save us from loss. And if the universe has no guidance, whether we call it God or not, then how can the catastrophe have any meaning? And without the certainty that tragedy does have meaning, it brings unbearable pain.

Rabbi Wolpe argues that we cannot expect God to part seas for us and heal our broken limbs. Rather, God must be a God of relationship. The highest human relationships are not based on what we can get from one another. True love has an element of disinterest – it leads us to love the other without thought of what we can get in return. True love has an element of abandon, it goes beyond calculation. Such love makes me think of the fire fighters who ran into the burning towers to save lives, knowing full well the dangers that they were courting.

In times of crisis in my own life, I pray; but my prayers catch me in a contradiction. On the one hand, I believe that I am praying for the strength to endure whatever will happen. Yet honesty compels me to admit that I cannot help hoping that God will somehow intervene magically to save the situation. Nevertheless, I return to the same thought: If God matters only because God does things for us, then God does not really matter at all; only we matter. Is God important only insofar as God dispenses favors? Can we reach high enough in our hearts to love God, to be open to faith, no matter what has happened to us in this world? Can we use loss as a platform to believe that although God does not prevent loss, God is there to help us create meaning from what has happened?

While we cannot count on miracles to save us, we can be miraculous. We ourselves can do the things that change the world and reshape our own souls. Faith teaches us not that life will be easy, but that life’s difficulties can yield beauty. There is a story of a man who looked up at the heavens and said, “Dear God, there is so much pain and anguish in your world; why don’t you send help?” And God answered, “I did send help – I sent you.”

Faith is not impossible; but that doesn’t mean that it will ever be easy. The faith that I have today does not represent a return to the certainties of my childhood. As I understand it, faith is a recognition that there is something ultimately mysterious and deeply beautiful about the world. We cannot fully understand it or plot it out. Some may be uncomfortable with the term “God,” but whatever you call the mystery, it does not stand aloof. We can enter into it, come closer to it, in some way join it.

Such a faith cannot for a minute compel me to close my eyes to the real world around me – nor would I want it to. My faith requires that my heart be open; but it does not require that I abandon my head. The sound of suffering will not go away. But I am a Jew, and when I engage through the printed page with another Jew who lived at another time, and who struggled with the same issues, I find that the shared human struggle inspires me and comforts me. For me, faith is about the simple certainty that I am not alone. Elie Wiesel tells the following tale of a young man, assailed by doubts, who sought the solace of a rabbi:

Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz invited the visitor to come closer, and then he said with a smile:

    Know, my young friend, that what is happening to you also happened to me. When I was your age I stumbled over the same obstacles. I, too, was filled with questionings and doubts. About man and his fate, creation and its meaning. I was struggling with so many dark forces that I could not advance; I was wallowing in doubt, locked in despair. I tried study, prayer, meditation. In vain. Penitence, silence, solitude. In vain. My doubts remained doubts, my questions remained questions. Impossible to proceed, to project myself into the future. I simply could not go on. Then one day I learned that the Rebbe Israel Baal Shem Tov would be coming to our town. Curiosity led me to the shtibel where he was receiving his followers. When I entered he was finishing the Amidah prayer. He turned around and saw me, and I was convinced that he was seeing me, me and no one else – but so was everyone else in the room. His gaze overwhelmed me, and I felt less alone. And strangely, I was able to go home, open the Talmud, and plunge into my studies once more. You see,” said Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz, “the questions remained questions. But I was able to go on.”

The Black Part of the Eye

Another lesson of 9/11 is that failure does not spell the end of our dreams, although it seems to at first glance. Rather, it is through failure that dreams often grow. The Talmud (Gittin 43a) remarks, “One cannot acquire Torah who has not failed in it.” The times when we feel utterly defeated are precisely the moments when we have the chance to see farthest, to reach down deeper into ourselves, to acquire wisdom. It is the time to begin dreaming wise dreams. As Rabbi Hanina teaches in the Midrash Tanhuma:

    The eye has a white section and a black section within it. It would seem logical for a person to see through the white section. But a person sees only through the black section.

We see through darkness, through failure, if outside there is light. In other words, if we move through failure with faith, it can become a powerful shaper of character. Yousef Karsch, the portraitist who photographed many celebrated men and women of the 20th century, concluded from his encounters with so many famous people that “character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”

The Maggid of Dubnov used to tell of a king who had a precious diamond:

    He would take out the diamond each night to marvel at its beauty and perfection. One night, to his horror, he dropped it and saw a small crack had developed from its base to its crown. Panicked, he summoned all the craftsmen of the kingdom to plead with them to repair his diamond. They all insisted that it could not be done – a diamond, once cracked, is irreparable. The king initiated a search throughout the kingdom for anyone who could fix his jewel. Eventually a humble jeweler in the outer provinces of the kingdom saw the notice and volunteered to help the king. The king showed him the diamond and asked if he could fix it when everyone else had failed. The jeweler assured him that he could. “If you fix this,” the king said, his voice shaking, “I will give you unimaginable riches. But if you fail, you will be killed for deceiving the king.”

    The man went into isolation under the king’s guard and began to work. Days passed, then weeks, then months. Finally he emerged. There was great fanfare in the city as the time came to unveil the diamond. With trembling hands, the king took the wrapping off his jewel. He saw that the crack was still there, just as before. In fury he called for the jeweler’s head. But the jeweler calmly told the king to turn his diamond over. Turning it over, the king saw what he had not noticed before. At the very top of the diamond, the man had carved petals, so that now the crack was not a flaw but the stem of a flower, making the diamond even more beautiful.

Not every flaw can be made into a flower, but each failure offers us a chance to make something more beautiful, more profound, than it was before. When we lose the dream of what should have been, we are given the gift of what might be. As Judith Viorst puts it:

    I’ve learned that in the course of our life we leave and are left and let go of much that we love. Losing is the price we pay for living. It is also the source of much of our growth and gain. Making our way from birth to death, we also have to make our way through the pain of giving up, and giving up, and giving up some portion of what we cherish. …

    And in confronting the many losses that are brought by time and death we become a mourning and adapting self, finding at every stage – until we draw our final breath – opportunities for creative transformations.

The Greatest Dream of All

We do not dream only as individuals. We also dream as a people, and our grestest collective dream is the hope for an end to the savagery, hatred, and strife that have plagued us since our first steps on earth. This is the dream of salvation in this world, of a human order both joyous and just, of a world ungnarled by viciousness and anguish. The Messiah represents a liberation from the darkness of history. It represents the promise that the travail of this world will be overcome, that the darkness will give way to dawn, that humanity will stride toward a different future.

Even though messianism is one of the most durable dreams of the human heart, it is also the hardest to realize; it is our greatest disappointment. We wait for the Messiah, and the Messiah does not come. There are even jokes about the man who stands on the watchtower of the town – his job is to wait for the Messiah. Someone asks him, “Do you do it for the pay?” “No,” he answers, “the pay is lousy.” “Well, then, you must get a lot of respect for this position.” “No,” answers the man, “people give me no respect at all.” “Then why do you do it?” he is asked. “Well, it is steady work.”

There is a strange passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) – a passage whose author was surely looking through the black part of his eye:

    Where shall we look for the Messiah? Will he come to us on clouds of glory robed in majesty and crowned with light?” Rabbi Joshua ben Levi put this question to no less an authority than the prophet Elijah himself. “Where shall I find the Messiah?” he asked, and the prophet replied: “At the gates of Rome.” “But how shall I recognize him?” “He sits among the lepers.” Rabbi Joshua was startled and exclaimed: “Among the lepers? What is he doing there?” “He changes their bandages,” Elijah replied, “he changes their bandages one by one.”

    So Rabbi Joshua went among the diseased poor and confronted the Messiah: “When, Master, will you come?” “Today.” Elated, Rabbi Joshua departed. But as the sun set, the Messiah had not yet come. Elijah appeared and asked. “What did he tell you?” “Surely he was lying to me,” Rabbi Joshua answered, “for the day is over and he has not arrived.” “You are mistaken,” Elijah said, “for the Messiah was merely quoting Scripture to you: ‘Today … if only you would listen to my voice…’ (Psalm 95:7)”

The Messiah as a leper is a powerful symbol: Just as a leper must live in quarantine, removed from his home and his family, so too, all of us are in exile in an unredeemed world. But why is the Messiah revealed at the moment of changing the bandages? Rabbi Judith Abrams suggests that anyone who has changed the dressing on a wound knows that this is a moment of suspense, hope, wonder and horror. You hope, irrationally, that the wound will be completely healed every time you take off the dressing; that this will be the last time that you will have to do it. Seeing human flesh regenerating itself makes you think of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley in which the dry bones came together, and put forth new sinew and new flesh. On the other hand, changing a surgical dressing can lead to a horrid disappointment upon seeing blood and smelling pus. It’s a moment of nakedness, of recognition, of truth telling, of assessment and vulnerability. No wonder this is when the Messiah comes: at the moment of our greatest vulnerability and of coming to terms with our blemishes.

At such times all of us are tempted to despair. One of the most profound and remarkable Hasidic rabbis was Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. As Rabbi Nachman lay dying, his disciples recorded his last words: “‘Do not despair! There is no such thing as despair at all!’ He drew forth these words slowly and deliberately and with such strength and wondrous depth that he taught everyone, for all generations, that no one should despair, no matter what he has to endure.” Rabbi Nachman’s teaching is the very foundation of faith, that for all the trials of the world, life can be made worthwhile if only we do not abandon the belief that life can be made worthwhile. We are the prophets of our own destinies; that which we believe will be meaningful will be meaningful. When we despair, we empty the world of meaning for our lives.

The past year has been filled with pain, sorrow, tragedy, and darkness. As we begin this new year, let us rededicate ourselves to working in partnership with God to restore peace and light in the world.

Le-Shanah Tovah Nikatev – May we all be inscribed for a sweet new year!