Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Yom Kippur Yizkor
September 15, 2021
I begin today with an actual question. Call out the answers here or at home!
What is the first word that comes to mind when you think about Judaism?
For me, Judaism is about the miracle of survival, about overcoming odds, about the miracle of our existence as a people. Yet continuity for continuity’s sake is not enough. Instead, we have a purpose--to fulfill our quest, to observe the mitzvot, to continue sharing the blessing that is our faith. For me Judaism always returns to God, Torah and Israel.
Amidst the extreme challenges of this moment, I feel so incredibly blessed that we are here at all. A single moment in our history might have stopped any one of us, might have stopped our entire community, could have stopped the Jewish people.
On a daily basis we make choices. Will we leave our houses? Where will we go? How do we get there? Do we wear a seatbelt? Do we drink and drive? Do we wear a helmet? We have not only our own choices, but those of all the people around us!
I think back to leaving Egypt. What if the sea had not split? What if we had not accepted the Torah? What if we had not made it into the Promised Land? On Pesach, I am moved by the song Dayenu, it would have been enough, but truly, it would NOT have been enough. We needed ALL the steps in that song! In the Tanakh, in our sacred scriptures we were exiled not once, but twice. Our Temple was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. Yet we retained a connection to God, Torah and to Israel.
Wherever we have been for the last two thousand years, we have cried out for Jerusalem,אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלָ֗͏ִם. We have declared that we are one people--עם ישראל חי-even with 15-18 million different opinions. Through the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoah, any of our ancestors could have been killed. Millions of them were. If not for the Shoah, there might be 32 million Jews on this earth today, rather than the 15-18 depending on how we count. A single moment, a choice of resistance or acquiescence, a successful or unsuccessful escape attempt, pure luck, changed whether someone lived or died. We lost parents and children, siblings and relatives.
Twenty years ago, the lives of innumerable people were changed forever. Nearly three thousand people lost their lives on 9/11. Thousands more were injured. Nearly 1500 first responders have died since, many from cancer or other injuries related to the attack. Thousands of additional cancer cases have appeared in those living near the wreckage. The circles expand and expand and expand. There are those who were killed or injured, their families, their friends, those who were changed forever from a single moment in a single day.
I recently read a powerful article in the Atlantic Magazine (online) entitled “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind”. The author chronicles the survivors, Bobby’s parents, his almost fiance, his brother. It speaks of the trauma they went through in hearing of his loss, in the wallet and journals he left behind, in the frustration that he did not work at the World Trade Center, but had a meeting at the Windows of the World restaurant that day.
Another heartbreaking article was about Glenn Vogt. He was the general manager of Windows of the World. He had a 9AM meeting scheduled with his assistant, Christine Olender, which normally would mean he would have been in his office fifteen minutes earlier.
That morning, however, Taylor—having stayed up the night before, talking with his dad—was late for school. As Glenn walked out the door of their home in Westchester County, Taylor, a sixth grader, yelled for him to wait. He needed a ride. It was that unplanned 15-minute detour that placed Glenn on the West Side Highway at 8:46 a.m., when the North Tower was hit, rather than inside his office on the 106th floor.
If his son had not run late, he would have been the 80th employee of Windows of the World that would have been killed that day.
I think of my own family connections, of a relative who worked on a high floor for a Japanese company. After the first tower was hit, her bosses sent everyone home for the day. That decision saved her life--although her company folded in the US as the Japanese managers all stayed. A moment’s decision changed her life, her family’s life and allowed her sons to be born.
Standing before you today is a blessing. As we remember those that came before us, we must be appreciative of the choices they made that brought us to this day. We might be tempted to dismiss them, but they gave us a gift that cannot be repaid.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav had a terribly challenging life. He married at 13 and began his rabbinic career. With his wife Sashia, he had eight children, four of whom died before even turning two. Before dying of tuberculosis at 38, his wife passed and his home burned down. He likely suffered from severe depression, yet his teachings are filled with a desire for joy. He encourages us to find the blessings of life, to search high and low, even to “fake it until you make it.”
An analogy: Sometimes, when people are happy and dance, they grab someone standing outside the circle who is depressed and gloomy. Against that person's will they bring them into the circle of dancers; against their will, they force them to be happy along with them.
Reb Nachman’s image sounds like a wedding or Simchat Torah, when we sing and dance. There are always those who might prefer to watch. Yet, if they get pulled into the circle some will remain stoic, while others will let the tension release and find themselves overjoyed at that blissful moment.
It is the same with happiness. When a person is happy, gloom and suffering stand aside.
Yet greater still is to gather courage to actually pursue gloom, and to introduce it into the joy, such that the gloom itself turns into joy. A person should transform gloom and all suffering into joy. It is like a person who comes to a celebration. The abundant joy and happiness then transforms all their worries, depression and gloom into joy. We find that they have grabbed the gloom and introduced it, against its will, into the joy, as in the aforementioned analogy.
Reb Nachman says that the greatest joy follows Psalm 30, transforming our mourning into joy. When discussing that idea, Rebecca said it made her think of how shiva pauses for Shabbat and is concluded early for most festivals. The Kotzker Rebbe, another great Hasidic teacher, taught that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart, that through our own loss and pain we can find God, find space to help one another, find reserves of love and compassion.
There is no love without loss. There is no loss without pain. Our worlds are so much greater because we open ourselves up to that vulnerability. Our Holy Torah teaches us to open our hearts to one another, to God, to kol Yisrael.
We have a choice each day on how to live our lives. Do we live closed and isolated or open and united? Are we here [tap heart] for one another? Do we use the memory of those we love to build or to destroy?
There are times when the world feels capricious, when a single wrong move can obliterate all we worked for. Yet that same challenge creates alternate possibilities. In every moment of pain and loss, there is the possibility of rebuilding and hope. In our darkest moments, there have been others to lend a helping hand. How can we lend our hands? We can be there to HELP one another. We can be the change we wish to see. We can fast and feed the hungry. We can gather together (safely) and share a spirit of joy with one another.
In Tractate Bava Kamma of the Babylonian Talmud, Rava says “If you lift the load with me I will lift it, and if you will not lift it with me I won’t lift it?” Together we can lift any load. Together we can remember and support one another.
Today, we come together to remember. We sit and we stand to call out to God. We acknowledge our failings and ask for help to do better. We remember those who came before us and ask to continue the good that they did in this world.
Our holy traditions have assisted us throughout our history. It is not only we SHALL overcome, but we HAVE overcome. We will continue to do so. In every fiber of my being, I know that being here with you positively changes, positively impacts the fabric of the universe. In the year to come, how will you honor those who came before, how will you build for the future, how will you find the joy that is central to Judaism? YOU are a miracle. Live like one.
Sermon can be found at link below, at the 2:31:31 mark: https://youtu.be/099XtAxiK4k?t=9091