Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day, 5762, September 27, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Last Sunday, from the pulpit of Cornerstone Church, Pastor John Hagee is reported to have announced: “This may be our last service; I may be preaching my last sermon.” According to press accounts, Pastor Hagee prophesied that the brutal terrorism of September 11 might be a precursor to the end of the world.
I do not claim to comprehend Pastor Hagee’s theology. I am told that most Christians do not share his view that the end of days is imminent.
And yet, in the aftermath of September 11, we may feel that the end of the world is upon us. At the very least, the world as we knew it has come to an end. We have lost our American sense of security. We face an unprecedented capacity for evil among our fellow human beings. Many of us, myself included, have canceled trips or altered travel plans because of new concerns about air safety. We yet hope that the American economy will remain strong, but our confidence is shaken.
Even our return to normalcy feels false. We engage in polite conversation, but our hearts and minds are elsewhere, preoccupied by thoughts of terror and death. Our nights are sleepless and our days are a blur. When we see an airplane overhead, we fear for destruction. Now, we hear talk of biological warfare with crop dusters. When will the next shoe fall?
Our President is preparing our nation for war, and we have pledged our support to him and to our Armed Forces. At the same time, we wonder whether salvation is to be found in the force of arms. We question: Will redemption be found in this world?
We may discount Pastor Hagee’s pronouncements. We dismiss his presumption to know the will of God. What hubris to assert that our bad times are worse than the devastation known to human history. And yet, we still ask: How long can the world go on like this?
Two thousand years ago, our ancestors asked the same questions. They suffered mightily under Roman occupation. They feared their corrupt and brutal rulers. They were compelled to pay onerous taxes. Our people were impoverished to the point of starvation.
Some of our ancestors were overcome with pessimism, with sadness, with loss. They could no longer believe that salvation might be found in this world. They began to dream of the end of days. Some of their visions were peaceful. Based on the words of Isaiah, they imagined a time of perfect harmony, the lion would lie down with the lamb. Others, though, taught a more vengeful version of the apocalypse. Living in a violent world, they could only picture a wrathful end. The forces of good would war with the forces of evil. Yes, God would triumph, but the world as they knew it, this world, would be finished.
Our ancient Rabbis preached faith and hope instead. They reminded the people of past devastations, always followed by redemption and better days. They urged the Jewish people to study Torah. They led our ancestors in prayer. They preached hope in the future. They shared their faith in God.
Yes, we believe in a Messianic Era. This world is deserving of redemption. Many of us continue to pray that God will send a personal Messiah. We know that God wants tomorrow to be better. We do not imagine that the world will come to an end. For the Jewish people, ultimate redemption must be found in this world.
Today, this world is filled with violence. With God’s help, this world may be at peace.
On this Yom Kippur, our world is sick with hatred. With God’s help, our world may be healed with love.
At this season of terror, our world is plagued with death. With God’s help, our world may be overflowing with life.
We Jews have a prototype for redemption. I speak of the Exodus, the greatest story our people has ever told. Our people was enslaved. Our ancestors were debased and degraded. Our babies were murdered, cast into the Nile at birth. God intervened with inestimable redemptive power, but God did not act alone. God sent Moses, a human agent of salvation, to lead us to freedom. Moses was not divine. In fact, he was flawed, like all the rest of us. But Moses was the greatest human agent of godly redemption that the world has ever known. He led the people out of Egypt, and ultimately to the edge of the Promised Land. The people were free. Our ancestors possessed their own land. Their time of trouble and sadness, of slavery and death, had come to an end. The world as they knew it had changed dramatically for the better, but the world had not come to an end.
Similarly, today, we are enslaved. We are subject to the fear of terror. Death hangs over our heads. When we close our eyes, we see airplanes smashing into skyscrapers; we see buildings crashing down on our fellow Americans. We look upon our children, and despair of the world we are bequeating to them. We cry out to God: Hear our Prayer! Heal our hurt! Free us from enslavement to hatred and terror and death.
And who are our human agents of redemption?
President George W. Bush is called upon to be Moses today. Like Moses, he is not perfect. Without a direct line to God, President Bush is subject to our criticism. And yet, we must be careful. Let us not be like rebellious Israelites, building golden calves and crying out for our own comforts. Instead, let us pray that our President will lead us with justice and wisdom, with compassion and with faith, to a transformation of this world, not to its end.
And who are our human agents of redemption?
The men and women of the United States Armed Forces find themselves on the front line today. Here in San Antonio, we know them as more than officers and enlisted personnel. For us, they are not faceless masses in uniforms of green and blue. We know them as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, our closest of friends, our next door neighbors, members of our Temple family. May God protect them, as they combat evil. May we support them sacrificially, as they fight for freedom and right. May God bless them, as they risk their lives for ours.
And who are our human agents of redemption?
In the last two weeks, America’s religious leaders have been called upon to provide wisdom and comfort, to guide our people through treacherous times. People of every faith were inspired by Rev. Billy Graham, when he spoke at the National Cathedral. Perhaps for the first time, millions of Christians and Jews have been stirred by words of Moslem prayer. Jewish Americans were proud of the very visible participation of Rabbis at last Sunday’s Yankee Stadium observance.
Personally, I have encountered numerous new experiences. I have offered a prayer through the telephone, sitting in my living room, broadcasting live on the radio. I have prayed with Moslem and Christian religious leaders, asking God’s blessings upon our nation. I have also made perhaps the worst mistake of my ten years in the rabbinate.
On Friday, September 14, on the day declared by President Bush as a National Day of Prayer and Mourning, only three days after September 11, I delivered a Sabbath Sermon about stem cells and cloning. Yes, Rabbi Bergman and I also offered prayers about the events of the week. We mentioned the injured at the time of the Prayer for Healing and the dead at the time of the Kaddish. We sang “America the Beautiful.” And yet, in the midst of hundreds, who had come to worship, to seek the solace of their congregation at a time of need, I was so obtuse that I stuck with the previously announced, and now irrelevant, sermon about stem cells and cloning. I even criticized the President!
My actions that night were hurtful. People wanted comfort from their Rabbi. People wanted sensitivity from their Rabbi. What they got, instead, was a Rabbi who sought some kind of intellectual respite in a sermon that assaulted their sensibilities. On this Day of Atonement, I ask the congregation of Temple Beth-El for forgiveness. I was not the Rabbi you should expect me to be that night. I missed the mark. I hurt people. In the two weeks that have intervened since that day, I have reached out to as many congregants as I could, calling people who were there, especially if I knew they were hurt. If you were among those hurt, and I have not spoken to you, I ask that you tell me how you felt, that you give us the opportunity to heal together. I was wrong, and I ask forgiveness.
More importantly, I humbly pray that I may yet be a human agent of redemption at this terrible time. May my words on Rosh Hashanah bring you comfort. May my statements in the press bring you peace. May my words today offer you hope for the future. We do need our religious leaders to be strong at this hour. We require the faith that religious leaders can offer. Yes, your Rabbis are human, as are the other clergy in our midst, but we do have a particular responsibility. Like Moses before us, flawed though we be, may we rise to that need.
And who else are our human agents of redemption?
One member of our congregation stands out in my mind. Barbie Gorelick is a hero, deeply engaged in repairing our broken world. A couple of years ago, she was among the founders of San Antonio’s Tri-Faith Dialogue, a group that brings Moslems, Christians and Jews together for sharing and study. While others have worked diligently in this effort, Barbie is truly the driving force. Few knew about the Tri-Faith Dialogue before September 11. Now, our entire city has seen its faces and heard its prayers. Barbie has forged relationships with wonderful Moslem men and women, permitting all of us to get to know them at a time when these bonds are sorely needed. If the world as we know it is to become the world that God wants, then more of us will need to reach beyond our communities and outside our comfort zones, to get to know people who are very different from us. If the world as we know it is to become the world that God desires, then more of us will need to be human agents of redemption like my hero, Barbie Gorelick.
The truth is that every one of us is charged to stand in Moses’ place today. But what can we do? I am inspired by what I have already seen. Not only were cars lined up around the Blood Bank for days, but unprecedented millions of dollars have been tendered to assist in the relief effort. When a Persian restaurant in my own neighborhood was vandalized, simply because its owners come from the Middle East, the wait for a table that night was hours long. Even better, the restaurant has continued to be filled in the weeks that have followed. Let each of us meet a Moslem American, and work to build a friendship. Let each of us look at our fellow Americans, at all of the human family, as just that, our family. Let us break down walls. Let us say to the terrorists: We will not be lured into your den of hatred. Let us join hands to combat terror and evil. Perhaps the bombs will have to fall and our military will have to go to battle on the ground, but let the outcome be love and peace and harmony, for America and all the world.
Traditional Jews pray for the coming of the Messiah every day of the year. They ask God to reestablish sacrificial worship in the Temple. They ask for the end of the world that we know and the beginning of the world that God wills.
A century and a half ago, Reform Jews ceased offering those specific prayers. We believed that we had found our promised land, here in America.
Indeed, we do love America. We still are not eager to recommence animal sacrifices. And yet, we know that the world must change. Much work can be done by humans. Our President, our military, our religious leaders, indeed all of us have roles to play. Judaism teaches us not to wait for God to bring an end to the world. Instead, we must act on behalf of the future of the Earth.
But we are not alone. On this Yom Kippur, on this Day of Atonement, we ask God to forgive us for our misdeeds. Once again, we take up our prayers, beseeching God to help us toward a Messianic future. May God take mercy on our flawed human family. May God reach into the hearts of hate, and turn them to love. May God find a way into minds that plot violence, that those same geniuses may devise plans for humanity’s salvation. May God take hold of the hands that would kill, and direct them to healing.
May God forgive us all. May God save us all. Let the world not come to an end. Let the world live, with love and with peace, forever.