Shabbat Peseach Chol Hamoed Sermon March 30, 2002 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
I would like to focus on two major themes: Renewed terrorism in Israel and the terrible threatening events since September 11.
In Israel during this past week alone we have had dozens dead, as once again the Palestinians abandon negotiations and rain violence and death down upon Israel.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seem so long ago and yet still remain so fresh in our minds. We are saddled with images that we can’t bear to remember but cannot permit ourselves to forget. A man stands on a ledge, looks down from a height of ninety stories, pauses and then jumps. We are left to watch the long fall. Immediately we are struck by the utter inadequacy of our language to give expression to the horror that we see.
What has happened in the past six months is the shattering of the fundamental trust that underpins our daily life. We try of course, to restore our sense of continuity. Therapists advise us to go back to our daily routines. We reassure our children that everything will be all right. But from our long history, we Jews know a simple truth: The world is a threatening place where serenity is rare and violence is rampant. All Americans will now have to live with a greater measure of danger, insecurity and uncertainty. Still, in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, I was struck most of all by what has not changed. We saw once again, the kindness and caring of the American people. We saw the remarkable heroism of everyday men and women who met the call to serve. We saw Americans rising up instinctively, united to give what had to be given—contributions, blood donations, embraces, and prayers. And we saw, too, the deep spiritual energy of this country.
When tragedy struck, where did American Jews go? They went to their synagogues. Our rabbis overcame their own grief and anger to minister to the grief and anger of others. Watching the role that Jewish communities played in these difficult times made all of our frustrations worthwhile. We were reminded once again that the defining character of a synagogue is not its size or its budget, but whether it provides direction and meaning for those who feel helpless in the face of tragedy and death. We were reminded that our people thrive because they provide us with an anchor of stability—they take the abstract ideals of Torah and turn them into tangible relationships of community and Jewish fellowship.
We witnessed as well the revival of a long-dormant American patriotism. Religious people, Jews included, are wary of a blind devotion to country that can so easily become idolatry. But the resurgence of the public spirit that has emerged in recent months has been very different. It has flowed from a feeling of shared destiny and an ethic of service. It has been rooted in tolerance, with President Bush setting the example and leading the way. We Jews have been caught up in this patriotism, and rightly so. The flag has been America’s brilliant dream coat, a sign of favor and high ideals, providing comfort and inspiration for a hurting people. It is a meaningful symbolism, and Jewish tradition, rich in ritual, understands the value of symbols. I, like many of you, have flown the flag with great pride.
What I see now is a determined and resilient American people, and I know that we will cope with our new burdens. My fear is that precisely because we are a great nation, we will cope too well and move on too quickly, allowing those who brought this devastation upon us to escape. This would be a disastrous error. Let us make no mistake about the dangers we face. Islamic radicalism is the Nazism of our day. Like German Nazism, it rejects reason, worships death, and abhors freedom; it too, has a blazing belief in violence and is consumed by hatred of Jews and Judaism.
Islamic radicals and their allies are waging a battle against liberty, democracy, and humanity. This is America’s war, and Canada’s war, and the war of democratic countries everywhere. It is also the war of the Jewish people. It will not be won by appeasement, compromise, or social work. Hunting down and destroying those who seek to destroy us will win it. The fighting has gone well so far, but we should be under no illusions. The war against terror must continue beyond Afghanistan and beyond bin Laden, and it must be won. And winning will be costly. But the alternative is unthinkable. If the American government loses its nerve or the American people lose its patience, the message to the Arab and Islamic masses will be that the voices of fanaticism have triumphed. The forces of moderation everywhere will be disheartened. The Middle East will be destabilized, and our European allies will rush to make their own deals with the princes of terror. And further attacks on America will surely follow.
Our task, therefore, is to strengthen the hand of the President and to urge him to finish what he has begun. President Bush deserves our thanks and our support. He has represented American policy in moral terms, saying that any country that commits or shelters terror will be our enemy. He has warned that there is no quick fix. He has tried to insure that innocents are not harmed by our military actions. The President’s policies are a work in progress, and no President—even in wartime—gets a blank check. He has been right to say that in an emergency, some restrictions on freedom will be necessary. Not denying basic liberties but preventing their abuse. However some of the emergency orders he has issued may erode our rights without making us safer. So we say to the administration, "Let’s not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are our strength, not our weakness."
But on balance, I believe the President has acted responsibly and is representing the mood of the country. Therefore, our message to him is this, "Your campaign to eradicate the machinery of terror is of vital importance to the well being of America and the world. ‘Chazak ve-ematz…Lo tira v’lo teichat—be strong and of good courage…. Do not be afraid or discouraged (Deut.31:7,8).’ We are with you." And what impact will America’s war have on Israel?
This war is Israel’s war no less than it is ours. Fascist terror with a radical Islamic face wants to erase Israel from the map. If the champions of terror survive intact, the jihad that they promise will be a mortal threat to the Jewish State. Therefore, Israel needs to be a steadfast ally of the United States as it pursues this war. What Israelis want, in turn, is to be reassured that America’s fight against terror is determined and universal. That it will oppose terrorist murder not only when the victims are Americans in New York and Washington but also when they are Jews in Haifa and Jerusalem. Israelis want to know that when their civilians are murdered, they can defend themselves without being scolded about "restraint" or chastised for "overreaction."
It is hard to remember a more difficult time for Israel. Outrage follows outrage, atrocity follows atrocity. And in recent weeks we once again watched Palestinians dancing in the streets celebrating the murder of Jews. Surely there are Palestinians who are decent people and who yearn for peace but they have been abandoned by the terror chiefs who speak in their name and yet send out suicide bombers to target children for death. Are the Palestinians suffering? Yes, of course. But before we can respond to their suffering, we must prevent suffering and bereavement in our own homes. And when bombs are going off all around us, fear will always be stronger than compassion.
Let there be no misunderstanding. We refuse to lose hope in peace and we will never accept a terrorist state. We thank our government for its strong support of Israel and welcome an American role in the negotiations. Since September 11, many of us have said, "Americans finally know what it’s like to live in Israel." But that is not exactly true. As terrible as the attacks here have been, we still don’t live in a country with hostile neighbors who question our very legitimacy as a nation. We are not targeted daily by suicide bombers who murder innocent civilians in our restaurants and bus stations. We don’t have gunmen shooting across the border at residential neighborhoods in our nation’s capital. This is Israel’s reality, and because of this reality, Israel needs us now more than ever. It needs us to combat the falsehoods that so frequently appear in our local papers. It needs us to visit when we can. We hope that our congregational members will visit in large numbers. There are many Jewish organizations that are offering trips even in these times. In dangerous times Israelis do as we do. They look to Jewish tradition for answers and for comfort.
The key is this: We need to send a message of solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Israel. They need to know that the crisis we face here has not blinded us to the dangers they face there. They need to know that we stand with them in defeating the fanatics who endanger their very existence. They need to hear that our embrace of Israel is heartfelt and eternal because we are lovers of Zion in the old-fashioned way. "The Jewish heart is in the Holy Land," said Yehudah Halevy, meaning our hearts, as well. Of course, while we work to combat terror and support Israel, we shall not neglect the tasks that our communities face at home.
And for the next 3,000 years, we built our communities around schools, and as stated in the most famous of all prayers, we took the words that God had commanded us in order to "teach them diligently" unto our children. We know, of course, that Jewish education is not a matter for the classroom alone. It is predominantly an adult endeavor. The most effective education has always been children imitating what parents do. Education is also intertwined with every activity of our synagogue including prayer, outreach, and social action.
Despite the violence in the Middle East, I do not fear for the State of Israel. Because Israel is a modern miracle that has revived a land, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued Jews throughout the world. Israelis will always have the strength and conviction to defend themselves against war and to pursue a true peace. And despite the challenges that are ahead of us, I do not fear for the Jewish people. Because we are and have always been sweet survivors of history, bearers of an ancient covenant, and co-partners with God in healing a hurting world. And so as we look ahead, we know that it will be a good year if we make it so, and with the optimism that has always been the hallmark of our people, we will face the future with hope. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.