Rosh Ha’shana, Day 2 Sermon: 9/11

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

I was just sitting down to drink my morning coffee back in California, trying to wake up at 6:00 am, when my sister called me from Israel—unusually early. “I wonder if she got the time difference wrong again?” I thought with a yawn. “Nu, ma koreh achoti?” What’s up sis? I asked jokingly as I picked up the phone. She was screaming in response, “MICHAL! ARE YOU WATCHING THIS? IMALEH HERE GOES ANOTHER ONE!”

While screaming she urged me to turn on the TV; and then, struck with a sense of paralyzing numbness my life, like everyone else’s in our country that morning, changed forever. My sister and the rest of the world were watching CNN, as they reported in real time, dire events unfolding in New York City. 

Each one of us, adults, who are present here this morning, has our own story to tell about where we were, and what we were doing when 9/11 took place. 

Our stories include details on how we found out, and what we did in the following days, weeks, and months as we each tried to make sense of one of the most painful memories in our personal and national history. 

Today marks the 17th anniversary of that day, which affected all Americans, without exception. 

This Rosh Ha’Shana morning we remember 9/11 and pay tribute to the thousands who lost their lives, and to those who remain behind; widows, orphans, and grieving parents. Today I will talk about the importance of remembering and teaching our children, and share our stories, and experiences, so they, and we, never forget the events that took place on September 11, 2001.

Most teens today aren’t old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001. They have little or no personal memory of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They didn’t spend hours in front of the TV like we, the adults in their lives; parents and older siblings, watching surreal images of burning buildings turned into crashing mountains of destruction. 

Our kids don’t remember the news reports of the passengers, who forced United flight 93 to crash in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow it to reach its intended destination—the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Our kids don’t remember, but we must insure they never forget. We must teach them about “free will” and that the choice, whether to walk in the path of doing good in our world, or to cause destruction, is theirs to make.  We must teach them about the depths of inhumanity to which terrorist fanatics are willing to sink into, in the name of their corrupt cause, as they seek to destroy the very principles of life, freedom and democracy on which our nation is founded.

Next week, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read an excerpt from Parshat Nitzavim, which begins:  Ahtem nitzavim ha’yom kul-chem l’fnai Adonai Ehlo’hai’chem…,” “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God….” 

In this excerpt that I just chanted, Moses stands before the Israelites as a beacon of light, to remind our ancestors to never forget our challenges and suffering, which lead to our covenant with God.

The Hebrew word ניצבmeans, “to stand upright.” It has the same root as the word matzevah, מציבה “monument,” or a headstone erected in memory of a loved one.            

And we, today, are the Nitzvaim. 

We, the adults who remember this unimaginable level of massacre, are present here to insure that future generations never forget. We are the ones who must visit Ground Zero and take our children to stand next to us, in front of that Matzevah, 9/11 Ground Zero memorial monument, and tell them what happened. 

We must teach future generations that a very thin line crosses between “good” and “evil,” and that as they grow older, they will be entrusted with God’s gift to humanity called “free will.” 

This past July, finally I was able to bring myself to Ground Zero in NY, a place I have been avoiding, simply because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tolerate actually seeing the place of all that destruction. But it was my niece Coral, whom some of you have met, my beautiful, sweet 22 years old intelligent niece who talked me into going to Ground Zero, because SHE wanted to see, know and witness first hand what happened. So Dave, Coral, and I went to Ground Zero, and as expected, I couldn’t talk while walking within that enormous tomb. I was speechless, I was sobbing, struck with memories and unbelievable agony, feeling the pain and frustration, in the face of that unimaginable loss of life.

Even as memories of the day become less painful, September 11, 2001, continues to have a major impact on us. Even those of us not old enough to remember the day must internalize these basic facts:

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two of those airplanes were flown intentionally into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, destroying both buildings. One was crashed into the Pentagon. The passengers on Flight 93, overpowered the hijackers and intentionally crashed into a vacant Pennsylvania field. In all, nearly 3,000 people died that day making it the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

When our nation, still in disbelief, desperately needed leadership, our President at the time, George W. Bush, concluded his speech with the following remarks:

This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time…None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Actually, the days, weeks and even months that followed 9/11 were pretty remarkable: all ideological differences that have been dividing our nation for decades were suddenly diminished. We were no longer strangers to one another. For a brief moment, we were all just Americans.  People waiting in line for the bus, or in the supermarket, talked to one another. 

There was a sense of camaraderie, a sense of kindness and gentle conversations. People were just friendlier with each other. And when we sang, “God Bless America,” we really meant it. We felt it. Many homes, balconies, private properties and condos erected the American flag, and kept it there for many months to come, to remind us of how united we, and our states were. There was something simply incredible in the air.

No doubt – traumatic events like 9/11 bring people together. Tragic ordeals bring people together because in a moment of disaster we remember how much we need and depend on each other. We find comfort and solace in sharing our pain with each other, as we tap into a deep, primal and human natural tendency — we go back to being a good old fashion tribe.

We, Jews, know this. We have lived as a tribe since the time we became a People in the Sinai Desert. And for us, as a matter of fact, the “do’s and don’ts of our religion” is secondary to a much deeper connection; the sense that we belong, that we are “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh, that all of us, Israel, are responsible for one another. 

This is the fundamental, basic, and simple message that stems from our Torah: we are to love one another as we love ourselves. And lovingly connecting with one another will ultimately lead us to connecting with The One, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. We share history, and we share stories and ways of living. For us, life is sacred. 

To murderers and terrorists, life is not.

The knowledge that life is sacred comes from somewhere deep inside our guts. It is part of what makes us human. It is an absolute truth that requires no further exploration or contemplation. Our sages explain it as a truth that emanates to our consciousness from the spark of divinity that lies within each of us. It is a truth that makes up part of the core of our Jewish being.

To murderers, psychopaths and terrorists, life is not sacred.

So why do we need to continue to commemorate 9/11, and tell our children, grandchildren, students, and future generations about the atrocities of that day?

Because we want to be able to tap into that source of connectedness with one another, when we feel disconnected. And we want to be able to draw solace when we are frightened, self-defensive, and hating “the other.” Tapping into that sense of connectedness with one another also helps bring us closer to connecting with God.

While the High Holidays ask us to turn inward to consider the nature of our lives, being here during 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah, which happens to be the 17th anniversary of 9/11, also encourages us to open the window of our hearts wider, to better respond to the world around us. 

Whenever a great disaster occurs, people naturally want to know where God was. Where was God during the Shoah, the Holocaust, or on 9/11? Many are angry with God, because of such unimaginable horrors. 

But for me, personally, I think that to wonder where God was, and to be angry with God, is to miss an important message:

As I mentioned in one of my earlier sermons, God offers us, humans, Free Will, and we get to choose what to do with it. God gives us hints and insights on how to create a just world, an unbiased righteous world. 

But creating that kind of a world – is the job of humankind. The price for our Free Will is God keeping out of our affairs. The question was never “where was God in the Holocaust or on 9/11, in Paris last year, within our own borders, or in Syria today.

The question was always where is the “humanity” in “humankind.”In all the millennia since the creation of humankind, why have we, humans, failed to create a world of tzedek, justice, for ourselves?!

No doubt that the 9/11 attacks forever changed America’s sense of security. Our world, where humanity was fashioned in God’s image for good, had spiraled downward to a level of hate and destruction. Satanic leaders and followers of al-Qaeda made a choice to kill civilians. Unfortunately, other haters of humanity are still engaged in doing so. 

Today we are reminded to follow basic laws we were given, to uplift the quality of our own life. As our contemporary world at times is still brought to its knees by extremists, we must remember that that brutal force will always be out there, pursuing destruction and annihilation of the ideals of liberty and freedom in our world. Because those dark forces, unfortunately, are also sides of “being human.” But, as I just mentioned, we get the option to choose.

We simply can’t abolish darkness by adding more darkness. We overcome darkness with light—doing good in our communities, teaching, and inspiring and encouraging our children to do the same. 

Because when we create a sense of spirituality, holiness, and connectedness, then the darkness vanishes on its own. As Jews we first and foremost believe in the power of goodness and kindness to combat the evil of the world, and for us, life is sacred. To murderers and terrorists, life is not sacred.

9/11 annual memorials and the Ground Zero Museum are there to remind all of us that freedom is not free, it requires continual reinforcement and vigilance to protect it—doing good must always be a priority in our lives. 

Architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained so eloquently why they chose to create the “Forever flowing water pool” they built at Ground Zero: 

“While the footprints remain empty…. the surrounding plaza’s design has evolved to include beautiful groves of trees; traditional affirmations of life and rebirth. These trees, like memory itself, demand the care and nurturing of those who visit and tend them. 

They remember life with living forms, and serve as living representations of the destruction and renewal of life in their own annual cycles. The result is a memorial that expresses both the              incalculable loss of life, and its consoling re-generation.”

Our responsibility as Jews, is to preserve the memory of the lives of those who were tragically killed that fateful morning. Let’s add it to our Yahrtzeit lists along with a reminder to “Never Forget.” 

You shall teach those words diligently to your children,” And speaking of children – while attending Ground Zero museum, I copied one of the poems that simply broke my heart. The explanation was that, in a New York classroom, one year after 9-11, students composed this poem. The teacher of that class, had perished in Tower One

List of ‘Don’t Forgets’ and ‘Remembers’

We were eight years old.

Before September 11th, we would wake up with a list of 

‘Don’t Forgets:’

Don’t forget to wash your face

Don’t forget to brush your teeth

Don’t forget to do your homework

Don’t forget to wear your jacket

Don’t forget to clean up your room

Don’t forget to take a bath

After September 11th, we wake up with a list of ‘Remembers:’

Remember to greet the sun each morning

Remember to enjoy every meal

Remember to thank your parents for their hard work

Remember to honor those who keep you safe

Remember to value each person you meet

Remember to respect other’s beliefs.

Now we are nine.”

May our worship today help us to recall that God has faith in our ability to be God’s agents. 

Then, with hope, determination, and our actions, this Shanah Chadasha, New Year, will be one of meaning and blessing for us, our families, and our country. 

Remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, our God of life.”

Remember, and never forget.   Le’shana Tovah

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

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