Opening Words from Rabbi Bob Orkand, Temple Israel:
As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the
Stairs of the burning building,
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope,
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers
Fought their way into the inferno,
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees
In prayer for strength,
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted
Words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss,
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride of
The sacrifice of heroes,
We became one people.
We are: One color; One class; One generation; One gender; One faith; One language; One body; One family; One soul; One people;
We are the power of one.
We are united.
Sermon: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero
This past Wednesday, September 11, 2002, we stopped to remember the victims and heroes and September 11, 2001. In Jewish tradition it’s called the yahrtseit, the anniversary of a death.
A yahrtseit candle is lit and kept burning from sundown.
Carlyn, who is now in the 6th grade at Bedford Middle School, had a social studies assignment. She was told to ask at least three people if they think 9/11 should be made a national holiday, and say why they thought it should or should not.
We were having a candle light dinner, since we had no electricity that night, on 9/11the wind that day knocked down trees, breaking power linesand Carlyn’s question got us talking about 9/11 in a different way than we’d talked about it before.
Carlyn asked if we thought they would build tall buildings on the site we’ve called Ground Zero…and how tall do we think they will be…and what kind of monument or memorial do we think will be built, and so forth.
I wasn’t thinking of it at the moment, but I realized, later, that our thoughtful discussion in the candle lit kitchen moved Ground Zero from Manhattan to our home, and from our home into our individual minds.
Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the time in the Jewish calendar with the largest gathering of the yearmore people in the Jewish community assemble than at any other time.
It is a time to turn inwardto take a good, hard look at yourself, to ask the tough questions: what kind of person am I? What have I done this year to deserve being entered into the Book of Life? How do I need to change?
This has been an extraordinary year for us, in America. We mark the beginning of the year with September 11, and we look back, now, and ask ourselves how we’ve responded, how we’ve handled the great tragedy.
Just as there are seasons in a year, so are there seasons or stages to grief which some identify in a clinical way as: denial, guilt, anger, bargaining and acceptance.
Rather than referring to them as stages I prefer to call them parts of the grief process, along with other things more difficult to name or label.
This has been a year of mourning and deep reflection with all the big questions rolling onto the shores of our minds like the big waves that wash onto the beach during and after a storm.
Who are we, as a people? What does it mean to be a religious people, and what’s the difference between religion and spirituality?
In 1925, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
A few years later the stock market crashed and some responded by leaping out of the windows. Suddenly the chief business of the American people shifted, and for several years through what we called The Great Depression the chief business of the American people was the feeding, housing and educating of millions of Americans who stood in line for food, or stood on the street selling apples, and so forth.
Since September 11, 2001, the chief business of the American people has shifted its focus. Most Americans have turned inward to repair the devastating damage done to the spirit, the sense of security we took for granted.
Most Americans have been reading and listening to the story of Islam to understand the third sister in the family of the people of the book.
In the past couple of weeks there’s been an avalanche of words in the print media, and an explosion of special television programs, both reviewing the year and digging deeper into the psyche of the American people.
One of those programs was on Frontline called “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” which was mostly a series of interviews with a variety of thoughtful religious leaders and scholars who responded to questions like, “Where was God on September 11? What is the nature of evil? How has this tragic event effected your religious life?”
One of the powerful responses came from a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, who said, “From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield said something similarhe was was looking with the same eyesthe eyes of a clergypersonthe eyes that look carefully and are willing to speak the truth even when it hurts. He said, “Religion drove those planes into those buildings.” Then he continued this painful process of looking inward and he said, “It’s amazing how good religion is at mobilizing people to do awful, murderous things. There is a dark side to it, and anyone who loves religious experience, including me, better begin to [admit] that there is a serious shadow side to this thing.”
Last year at this service I carried a newspaper article into the pulpita report about Jerry Falwell’s response to the tragedy of 9/11 in which he blamed the ACLU, the homosexuals, the feminists and other liberals, saying that it was God’s way of responding.
I compared that kind of repugnant insult to the response Job got from his friends who insisted that Job must have done something wrong, must have deserved the punishment God was giving to him, since God is a just God, they said.
This year, as I reflect on the mythology of Job, I see a comparison between Job and America.
Job was a good and upright man, you will remember, and God bragged about him to the evil one, to Satan.
In effect, God says, “Hey, you, Satan, take a look at Job, take a look at a good person, take a look at himhe tells me how much he loves mehe’s an upright man!”
So Satan says, in effect, “Sure, sure, what’s the big deal. You have given the guy everything, he’s living the good life–that’s why he’s a good guy, that’s why he loves you. But take it away, send some tragedy, send a fire or a flood, take some of it away and see how he is.”
You know the storyJob is patient, to a point. He says, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But then, when his health is taken and he’s sitting on a pile of ashes, he curses his life, which, I think, is a metaphor for cursing God, the giver of life.
America is a religious nation, in large measure, I would say, because we built a fire-wall between the state and religion.
Because we have freedom of religion, we’re religiously diverse. Most of our real religious diversity is the result of immigration as people from around the world have come to America and settled here, bringing their Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith with them, bringing their Shinto, Jain and Zoroastrian faith with them.
So, when asked, “Where was God on September 11,” we get a wide variety of answers, and the responses that Frontline got were deep and thoughtful. Not one pat answer. Not one answer from the old catechism.
The Rev. Joseph Griesedieck, an Episcopal priest who volunteered at Ground Zero, said, “The face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn’t be counted on in the way that I thought God could be counted on. … God seemed absent. … I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn’t so sure. … The face of God after Sept. 11 is much more of a mystery than it ever was. … A face that often eludes us, and frustrates me.”
Some people, even those who lost loved ones in the attacks, say the tragedy only affirms their belief in a higher power. “At this stage, I have not questioned Him,” says Bernie Heeran, a retired firefighter whose son Charlie was killed on Sept. 11. “He had nothing to do with this. There were a lot more people who could have been killed. He was fighting evil that day like He does every day.”
Others are neither so certain nor forgiving. “I can’t bring myself to speak to Him anymore because I feel so abandoned,” says Marian Fontana, whose husband, David, was one of the 343 firefighters killed that day. “I guess deep down inside I know that He stills exists, and that I have to forgive and move on. But I’m not ready to do that yet.”
The attacks have reopened the investigation of evil — a word that had seemingly fallen out of fashion. What is it we talk about when we talk about evil? And have we learned something new about evil since Sept. 11?
Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University who has written extensively on the subject of evil and our American ideas about evil, said. “I have felt for some time that American culture has lost touch with the reality of evil.” Delbanco defines himself as an agnostic, and he told FRONTLINE. “We really did experience evil on Sept. 11, and we need to think about it and understand it in order to be able to cope with it, both in others and ourselves.”
Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a thoughtful, well-educated, moderate Muslim who teaches Islamic law at UCLA, said “I am fighting for the soul and identity of Islam itself. There is no question that the extremists … want to be the only representatives of Islam. … The most dangerous type of thinking would allow a person to think they speak authoritatively and decisively for God. And that type of thinking is more widespread in contemporary Islam than Osama bin Laden.”
The FRONTLINE piece gives the last words to Monsignor Albacete, who was responding to the picture of a man and a woman holding hands and leaping out a window together. He says, “This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It’s a choice. It’s the choice of Sept. 11.”
The question is put to us, not by FRONTLINE, and not by our religious heritage, and not by those promoting piety, but the question is put to us by life itself. The big questions are wrapped in packages we got when we arrived on this scenethe existential questions, if you will: ‘a time to be born and a time to die,’ and the big in between time in which we are livinggaining and losing, embracing and refraining from embracing, holding on and letting go, being quiet and speaking up, speaking out.
The religious answers we carry are temporary because they are a function of our experience, and since we keep experiencingas long as we live and are awarethen our faith will keep changing. Hopefully our faith will become stronger because it is more mature.
The answers we have at any moment emerge from the ashes of our experience of pain and struggle, of loss; the answers have a lot to do with lovethe ways we’ve been loved and the ways we love.
Love and loving provides what Monsignor Albecete calls “…an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself?”
Ground Zero was a stark reminder of evilthe result of religious fanaticism combined with deep psychological issues.
But Ground Zero provided insight into the depth of our human capacity to care about one anotherin the hours and first days there were thousands digging into the rubble hoping to save lives, then hoping to recover the remains of the victims.
During the months following September 11 we focused on Ground Zero as the work continued day and night. Though it pushed believers into an appropriate place of doubt, it was a living demonstration of the love which is at the heart of every religion because it is at the heart of every person.
Ground Zero took on a sacred quality. At Ground Zero we saw clearly that we are one peoplewe human beingsone color; one class; one gender, one faith; one body, one family. We speak one common language, but that language is beyond and beneath all the words. We share one common soul, which may be the best way to describe Godthe God beyond all the gods.
May we find ways in the weeks and years ahead to work together to build a faith with a strong foundation, a faith that lets us live with doubt, but a faith that encourages us to ‘dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.’