Remarks by David Sapperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at a Community Memorial Service for the Victims of the September 11th Tragedy.
Adas Israel Congregation
September 13, 2001
The heart of our nation was seared this week. In a few terrible moments of mangled steel and shattered lives, our nation became a community, an intimate neighborhood, bound together by common grief, common prayers, and common hopes.
Later in that day, I had another difficult task, shared by millions of Americans across this nation, including many of you here in this sanctuary. In the mid-afternoon, I drove to the school of my children to pick them up and explain to them what had happened. As we walked and talked in the field behind the school, I tried to help them to make sense of this tragedy. We had traveled this year, my wife and I as scholars in residence, along with our two children, with a high school group that went to Budapest and Prague, to Krakow and Auschwitz. Then as a family we went to Israel. They understood the meaning of Auschwitz. They knew that people had been killed by terrorists in the streets and stores they frequented on our trips to Jerusalem. They knew that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy had been martyred. Knowing all that, my eleven-year-old turned to me, and said, "I didn't know it can happen here, and now."
Every child in America now knows: It did happen here, and now.
My other boy said to me, "Daddy, what of the children of the people who were killed?" Think of the children of those who died who went to school or child care that morning. Think of the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters who didn't have the chance to say goodbye all these never to see their loved ones again. We hear the staggering numbers of fatalities, whether they took American Airlines 77 or the other flights traveling wherever might have been their destination or went to work at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon - every one of them a child of G-d. The heart-wrenching stories have come pouring out now of trapped victims using their last moments on cell phones to tell their families and friends of their abiding love. Every one a face and a story lost to us now, forever. It is not only a national tragedy, but in the very deepest way a personal tragedy for so many.
How do we explain to our children, to our nation? What will we as Jews think during these Days of Awe, when we read the words of one of the central and most powerful prayers of our High Holy Day liturgy: "Unetanah tokef k'dushat hayom ki hu norah vayom Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, it is awesome and full of dread
. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed; how many will pass on, how many shall come to be? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall live to see ripe age and who shall perish? Who by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? " The prayer culminates U'teshuvah, u'tefilah u'tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'ah ha-g'zeirah; as it is often translated: But repentance, prayer and charity avert judgment's severe decree.
We know that's not the case. These people did nothing to deserve their fates yet the severe decree was not averted. The targeted planes and buildings were filled with innocent people. My brother, Marc, a distinguished Jewish scholar and teacher whom many of you know, wrote an article a few years ago discussing those verses in the Unetanah Tokef prayer. He points out that where the Midrash says mivatelim, "annul" or "cancel"; the liturgy says ma'avirin, to cause to pass. And where the Midrash says ha-g'zeirah, the decree; the liturgy says ro'ah ha-g'zeirah, the evil of the decree.1 In other words, even when we cannot change the tragedy of death and injury, we can play a vital role to make the evil consequences of disaster pass. For such tragedy can poison, embitter, and fill us with self-pity; it can paralyze and lead us to denial; it can result in blind righteous indignation that leads us to lash out indiscriminately or unwisely.
Such evil consequences of even the most terrible evil decree are not inevitable. If penitence and prayer and charity can not avert the external decree, if they can not change or reverse what has happened, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring.
T'shuvah, Penitence: the civilized nations of the world must engage in penitence for having failed to act more to avert such catastrophes. There is so much that the world could have done to stand up to terrorism earlier; more that we could have done as a nation. Let the world take stock of what happened and act now to ensure that it will not ever happen again.
Senator Lieberman was deeply pained that the emergency session of the Senate prevented him from being with us. Let me read from the words he would have said today:
"In this fight against this evil, we must not work and fight alone. This is not just our war. It is a war against democracy itself. In defending against those attacks, the world's other democratic nations must join together with us. I am grateful for the decision of the North Atlantic Council today to find these acts of terrorism essentially acts under Article 5, acts of war against us which are acts of war against all of them. If we are truly involved in a war against terrorism, then our allies in Europe and elsewhere must come to our side as we have come to theirs, and not tolerate and deal with and maintain normal relations of commerce or diplomacy with nations that harbor terrorists. We must convince them that either they will be our allies in this fight, or allies of allies or they will be the allies of our enemies.
"History rarely offers respite to victors. We won a magnificent triumph in the Cold War. After World War II, we were once again at the pinnacle of power. But, once again, we face a new form of tyranny. I am confident that we can and will rise to defeat this new challenge just as we defeated the Communism that rose to face us after World War II. Our love of liberty has not diminished, nor has our common sense of purpose in protecting it.
Succeed we can, and succeed we must. The lives of our people, the security of our society, and the strength of our democracy depend on it."
My friends, this will not be an easy battle. It will not happen overnight. It will involve strong military actions -- but we know that military actions alone cannot defeat ideological terrorists. Political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural strategies must be part of this effort as well. And the battle will be painful. As Israel's plight has dramatized for the world, even the most determined and consistent battles against terrorism will result in retaliations against acts that we take. But we must stand strong. We must do so as an international community for this is an attack not on America, but on everything that democracies everywhere stand for.
It is an attack on freedom and liberty, on justice and tolerance and compassion. We have gathered here not only to memorialize those who have died but to affirm that our undying commitment to those values and to insist that we will not see the perpetrators of this infamy succeed.
It is also a time of tefilah, prayer. Our prayers go out from our hearts and the hearts of all Americans, first and foremost, to the victims of these despicable acts and to their families and friends. We hold them in the embrace of our hearts and pray that God will comfort them in their time of suffering and grief, and bring a r'fuah sh'leima to those injured. We offer our thanks and prayers to the thousands of firefighters, police, paramedics and others who risked their own lives to save the victims of this tragedy and, too often, as it turned out, sacrificed their own lives so that others might live. Out of duty, out of kindness, they and many others selflessly gave of themselves.
We pray as well for God's wisdom to guide the leaders of our nation. This is a time for coming together as a country, to support the President and our government as they seek to offer comfort to the bereaved, repair the damage, and find those responsible and hold the accountable. The intentional and indiscriminate killing of innocent human beings is an act of unmitigated evil, a profound offense against God and humanity for which there can be no rationale or justification. We support the efforts of our government to prevent such attacks from succeeding in the future. We offer our support in all forms, including the wisest counsel we can offer our elected officials as to how they can shape the most effective response of our nation to the perpetrators of these acts and the governments that harbor them.
And, yes, we have seen great tsedakah, charity, emerge as well out of our national nightmare. On Tuesday morning, evil won; inhumanity succeeded. But since those terrible moments, we have witnessed a remarkable outpouring of human kindness, as if instinctively, Americans have sought to insist that evil's victory be limited; that we would not permit inhumanity to prevail. We believe, deeply and stubbornly, that goodness and kindness are more powerful than cruelty. We call on all Americans in their interpersonal dealings, especially in dealing with those rendered vulnerable by these events, to be fully American; to act with kindness, to seek to express, as Lincoln put it, "the better angels of our nature."
We have donated blood, comforted the frightened, driven more courteously, waited more patiently, offered thanks or commiseration more emphatically, striven for a higher level of menschlichkeit. And perhaps such efforts will register and make a difference not only in the grand balance sheet on high, but also in the here and now.
We heard the moving words of Israel's ambassador a few moments ago, and there are vital lessons that Israel can offer America. Israelis are, of course, only too familiar with living life under a constant shadow and heightened state of awareness due to the threat of terror. They have been at the frontlines of the battle against terrorism for decades, often going it alone. As with the innocent people targeted in our cities last week, they have seen their fathers, mothers and all too often their children targeted for death. Schools, school buses and malls; beaches, discos and pizza parlors have been the main targets-- the very places where their children congregate.
Tragically, all Americans understand more keenly today just what Israel has suffered over these many years. The image of Palestinian supporters of terrorism against both the U.S. and Israel dancing in the streets in the West Bank and Gaza during America's darkest hour will be etched in the collective memory of all Americans.
As Americans must now do, each individual Israeli citizen has learned too painfully the terrible need of being ever vigilant. At the same time, as any visitor to Israel knows, life goes on - and it does so with a remarkable vibrancy and vitality. Indeed, terrorists seek above all to destabilize and demoralize the civic life, the democratic freedoms, and the will of the nations targeted. Through decades of such terrorist efforts aimed at its people and its soul, one of Israel's most effective tactics has been its undiminished, defiant determination to preserve its civic will, its cultural norms, its vibrant democracy, and its ability to fight terrorism forcefully while maintaining a relatively high degree of civil liberties and societal normalcy. Indeed, this has been Israel's finest victory against the efforts of those who have sought its destruction. And it is a powerful model for us in America today; a hope and an inspiration that we can and will prevail.
That is why we should be deeply troubled by two things that are happening here in the United States which challenge our values. The first is that we are getting reports from college campuses around the country and from some communities; we see it seeping into the rhetoric of even the mainstream media, that somehow Israel is to blame. My friends, standing up for a democratic nation, a nation of freedom and tolerance and hope is never justification for the evil that has been wreaked upon us.
Furthermore, it is simply not what is at stake here. This attack was not about Israel. (Indeed, it was planned long before the Intifada began.) Osama bin Laden has never indicated that he is consumed about Middle East politics around the cause of the Palestinians. He has been focused on his extraordinarily extremist Islamist view of the world in which anything connected with western civilization, and particularly America, is evil. To blame it on Israel is a canard and a deception, a distraction from what this struggle is really all about. Israel is an issue to bin Laden primarily because it is an outpost of Western values, of democracy and freedom that has no place in his world view. That is, of course, one piece of what this was about but it is not the main story and we will not allow anyone in this nation or this world to make it so.
At the same time, we must be outraged about reports that Americans have been scapegoating Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. I spoke this morning with Muslim friends who live in Los Angeles, who explained how their children didn't understand why there were armed guards standing outside their schools. They didn't understand the epithets that had been called at them. We must be outraged at reports of attacks on mosques, on Muslim-owned businesses, against individual Arabs and Muslims. Such scapegoating, such attacks, are deeply un-American, and they also violate what is perhaps a preeminent lesson of Jewish history: We, who are the quintessential victims of group hatred in western civilization, must never stand by when it is aimed at others, must never give in to imputing to a group the actions of the individuals.
This much we know: What was done is evidence of the corrosive power of hatred; that there are those whose souls have been poisoned, whose minds have been corrupted by the evil and the hatred taught to them. It was this spirit that destroyed six million Jews in Germany. It was this spirit that saw the butchering of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Rwanda just a few years ago while the world stood on and watched. It was this spirit that bombed the church in Birmingham and took the lives of four innocent children. It was this spirit that saw Martin Luther King and John Kennedy assassinated. It was this spirit that took the lives of nearly six thousand of our brothers and sisters on Sept. 11th. It is time to say enough to dedicate ourselves to stand against those extremists who believe, in their hatred and fanaticism, that their cause provides sufficient moral sanction to kill innocent people. To do less is to have failed to learn the lessons of our history. To do less means that those who perished will have done so in vain. We refuse to allow that to happen.
On the day that John Kennedy was killed my father gave a riveting sermon in which he talked of a moving book by Lillian Smith called Killers of the Dream. My friends, he said, you can kill men, you can kill women; yes, you can butcher and murder children; but you cannot kill their dream, or our dream. Those who have died this week are martyrs for the American dream as truly as were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy. They gave their lives for our country as truly as anyone who fell on the field of battle.
We remember them in the words of the poet:2
If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep.
For my sake, turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort other hearts than thine.
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.
To those who have died, we say: We will complete your tasks and we will carry your memories in our hearts you will walk with us:
Just as Moses walks with us though he never set foot in the Promised Land so long as our faith endures;
Just as Lincoln walks with us though he died before he could see the fruits of victory so long as our nation is united;
Just as Herzl walks with us though he died with his task unfulfilled so long as the State of Israel remains the fruition of his dream;
So too those who died this week will ever walk with us - if we will but carry on to make the American dream ever more real. That is our task. It is our determination. It will be our success and triumph. 3
Truly may their memories ever be for a blessing
And may we, through the work of our hands, ensure that the evil of this decree will pass away from our nation, and in doing so, forever bless their memory and bless this world.
1 Dr. Marc Saperstein, "Inscribed for Life or Death?" Journal of Reform Judaism, Volume 28. 1983. Pages 18-26
See also Dr. Marc Saperstein, Your Voice Like a Ram's Horn.Cincinnati, OH; 1996. Pages 37-44.
2 Various attributed to Thomas Gray, Mary Lee Hall, and A. Prize Hughes
3 Rabbi Harold I. Saperstein, "Martyr for the American," Witness from the Pulpit. Lanham, MD; Lexington Books, 2000. Page 229.
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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1700 Reform rabbis.