Avinu, Malkeinu: Response to Terror

Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Day, 5762, September 18, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Last Tuesday morning, the world as we knew it came to an end. Today, we welcome the new year with trepidation in place of celebration. “What will the new year bring?,” our prayer book asks. “What will the new year bring?,” we ask ourselves. What, indeed, will the new year bring?

We live in this world, where people hijack planes, filled with hundreds of innocent people, and slam them into office towers, teeming with thousands of men and women at work. We live in this world, where some people in some places dance in the streets, handing out the sweet candy of rejoicing, to mark the mass murder of men and women who had done no wrong.

Our nation has been cast into deep mourning. Even when not watching it on television, we can see, in our mind’s eye, that second airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. If it were a motion picture, it would be a remarkable special effect, but it was no movie. Real people boarded a real airplane in Boston, believing that they were headed to Los Angeles. Instead, they had a rendezvous with death, their very bodies brutally used as missiles, cruelly hurled at their fellow Americans in an office building. And what of those brave fire fighters, risking their own lives? What choice did they have? The call of duty put them in harm’s way. First, one tower disintegrated, and then another, this time looking like the most extravagant planned demolition the mind has ever imagined. But this was no orderly collapse, as hundreds of rescue workers and those they had pledged to save were buried together, their grave a mass of rubble.

Tragedy exists on every level. My sister lives with her family, just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center, in Battery Park City. Her twenty-two month old son was with her, when they both saw the second plane hit the building. “Plane no come out,” he said. What effect will this event have on his young mind?

Today, we seek God’s embrace. We pray, Avinu. God is our merciful parental Protector. Like a loving parent, God wants to take us and hold us, and tell us that everything will be all right. Where was God last Tuesday? God was present in each moment of suffering; God was in every act of salvation. Where was God last Tuesday? God was in the stairwell with the firefighter, desperately striving to save life. Where was God last Tuesday? God was in the airplane, holding fast to the flight attendant, not letting go. Where was God last Tuesday? God was sitting with the clerk at the Pentagon; as her life was taken from her, God embraced her, forever. Where was God last Tuesday? God was camped out on the lawn of the Blood and Tissue Center, right here in San Antonio, Texas, with the throngs who gathered, not for tickets to a rock concert, but to give blood, to do the one little thing they could do to help their fellow Americans in need. Where is God today? Avinu is here with us, and with every person of every faith, throughout America and around the world, shedding a tear, grieving at our side.

Today, we also pray, Malkeinu. God, You are our heavenly Ruler. You are in charge. You make the rules. You are the One to punish the wicked, to reward the good. Where was God last Tuesday? Where, indeed? How will God punish the terrorists who so brazenly abandoned God’s laws? At the moment, justice would seem to be up to us.

Our President promises swift and strong action, and we know he is sincere. A Senator calls September 11 a “second Pearl Harbor,” but, oh, how different from the last time. December 7,1941 does live in infamy, but its legacy has other meanings, too. On that day, America began to prove its mettle in the twentieth century, to gain victory over known, well-identified tyrants. The American people instantly knew who flew those planes, and where to strike back. Some today despair of the strength of the present generation, and would claim that we lack the moral fiber to protect our nation, to liberate the world. Let us respond: We do still believe in America. Let us respond: We do not doubt our nation’s resolve. Let us respond: We do not despair of the wisdom of our leaders. Let us respond: We do not question the commitment of our Armed Forces.

At the same time, we wonder about the knowledge and the technology to do what must be done in what some have called a “grave new world.” We are concerned about whether there are tried and true means of defeating the kind of enemy we face today. We ask: When will the violence will stop? We despair of the true execution of justice.

Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We are taught that all the world is judged this day. Usually, on Rosh Hashanah, we invite God to judge us. Today, as on every other Rosh Hashanah of our lives, each of us has good reason to fear God’s judgment. Even in the last week, we may have been tempted to treat every Arab, even every person of the Moslem faith, as a criminal. Few of us are blessed, as I am, to touch the hands and listen to the hearts of Moslem-Americans and Arab-Americans in our midst. They are as shattered and bewildered as every other American. For actions and thoughts against our Arab and Moslem neighbors, we seek forgiveness today.

And yet, what we really want from this Yom Hadin, our Day of Judgment this year, is harsh justice for those who have harmed us. We seek revenge upon those who have attacked our nation. Last Tuesday night, I was invited to serve on a panel of clergy, aired live on KMOL-TV. I felt entirely outclassed, sitting as I was between our friends, Dr. Buckner Fanning and Father David Garcia. The reporter, Jeff Coyle, pointed out that Scripture calls for “an eye for an eye.” He asked how we would counsel our congregants and parishioners to respond to the desire for revenge. I responded that the best revenge is to retain our faith in God and in the goodness of life; the best victory is to strengthen our loyalty to America and the principles of freedom and goodness for which it stands. Buckner Fanning’s response was somewhat more pointed. He counseled prayer and love, but he also said that we know who is responsible, that the government of Afghanistan should be given five days to hand over Osama bin Laden, and if they don’t, the United States should bring the full force of our military power to bear upon Afghanistan.

Later, I asked Toni what she thought; she said: “Go Buckner!” Fortunately, Buckner is about to retire, so Toni has agreed to continue to worship at Temple Beth-El, instead of Trinity Baptist Church.

There was irony in the difference between Buckner Fanning’s response and my own. The kind and gentle “Turn the other cheek” is in his Scripture, not mine. “Eye for an eye,” which sounds so much harsher, is in our Bible, which most Christians believe to have been superseded by the teachings of Jesus. The truth, though, is that Judaism and Christianity are not so far apart on this point. Our ancient Rabbis softened the meaning of “an eye for an eye,” and outlawed direct physical retribution for bodily harm. We pray, not only to Malkeinu, the just ruler Who may seek revenge, but also to Avinu, the loving and merciful God who desires peace for the entire human family. We are commanded to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, as well as rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace. The Torah is full of commandments about utterly destroying the idolatrous forces that seek our own destruction. The Bible is also replete with references to former enemies who become our friends.

My own thought, last Tuesday night, was that the American people were already prepared for a swift and strong response, as we should be. Our hearts do cry out for revenge, to inflict upon the guilty the suffering that they have wrought. At the same time, we reject killing for its own sake. Mere revenge might make us feel better, but the effect would be to spark more killing. Military action must be aimed at protecting America and our friends. If bombs and guns are required to bring an end to the murders, then we invite the retaliation; we loyally back our warriors; we expect success. We are ready to stand behind our President, as he confronts the murderers of our people. We are eager to support our military men and women, as they face new and unknown challenges and dangers. Like the generation that survived America’s last Day of Infamy, we are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect our nation and its people. Make no mistake: The Jewish people of the United States are loyal and devoted Americans, primed do our part in whatever struggle may follow.

At the same time, I felt that the reporter had asked us a very important question last Tuesday night: What would I want to say to you, the members of Temple Beth-El, and to others among the faithful in San Antonio? Let not any enemy destroy what is great and good about America. Let not any terrorist take away our love of freedom and justice and mercy. Let not any murderer kill our commitment to democracy. We must entrust our leaders and our armed services with the military response. The rest of us have a solemn obligation to keep America strong from within.

Let not terrorists lure us into their furnace of hatred.

A well-known idol of the ancient world was Moloch. Moloch was a fiery and hungry god. He demanded constant sacrifice, the blood and bones of children, to satisfy his hunger. In the twentieth century, the Jewish people and the world faced a modern Moloch. Worshiped as an idol, Hitler stoked the flames of crematoria and hungered for the flesh and sinews of our people. The European worshipers of this modern Moloch brought him bloody meals abundant. Ultimately, though, God triumphed over Moloch, in the twentieth century as in millennia past.

Today, we face a new Moloch, a faceless Moloch. This new idol is hatred itself. In the Middle East, in Ireland, in Southeastern Europe, in Rwanda, in places too numerous to list, and now right here, in the United States of America, idolatrous hatred burns with fire and its hunger is insatiable. The servants of hate are loyal and are willing to die to appease the gods.

In the face of this new Moloch, we call upon Avinu, Malkeinu. Like a loving parent, God is at our side. Like a powerful ruler, God’s justice will prevail. Let us not serve Moloch. Let us not turn to hate, but let us serve the God who is both loving and just.

Today, we may feel that we are sitting shiva for the countless thousands who lost their lives last week. Jewish tradition, though, teaches us that we must suspend shiva, temporarily ceasing all mourning, on a holiday like today. Even the death of a loved one is not supposed to detract from our celebration of the New Year. Even a national tragedy is not permitted to drown out our calls of L’shanah tovah! Surely, then, the idol of hate can not defeat the love of Avinu; the hunger of a new Moloch can not consume the justice of Malkeinu.

And so, we pray: May God bless the Jewish people on this Rosh Hashanah. May God bless the United States of America on this Yom Hadin, this Day of Judgment. May God bless the human family on this birthday of the world.

Amen.