On September 11, 2002, I came home late, pulled off my shoes, and flopped down on the bed in my room. It had been a very difficult, powerful day. It was the first anniversary of the terror attacks, and I had chaired the Livingston, New Jersey town’s commemorative events, which had culminated that evening with an interfaith prayer service for several thousand people at the high school football stadium.
I flipped on the TV and up came my good friend David Letterman. Then I started thinking: who could David Letterman have on his show on the first anniversary of 9/11 without offending ... everyone. His only guest that night – former President Bill Clinton. They had a very substantive conversation, not at all what you would normally expect from David Letterman on Late Night. Then David asked the former president a powerful question.
It must be difficult, he said, to relinquish the presidency, and then to sit and watch events unfold over which you used to have some power or control. What’s your biggest regret or frustration now that you’re out of office?
Clinton replied, “The Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We were so close, and we couldn’t get it done. The deal we had at Taba in January 2001 is eventually going to be the deal. It’s the only deal. So the question is, how many more people are going to die before the two sides realize they have to make that deal?”
Twelve years later, it’s still the question. How many more people are going to die before this conflict ends? Since the second Palestinian uprising began in late 2000, nearly 1400 Israelis have been killed in terrorist activities and military operations, and in the same period more than 9,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict. In this summer’s war alone, more than 2100 Palestinians and over 70 Israelis were killed. Eighty percent of Palestinian deaths were young men between 18 and 35, all but five of the Israelis killed were soldiers of the same age.
Our tradition has taught through the centuries that a single human life is of ultimate, precious, infinite value. We all know the famous piece from the Mishna: “Whoever saves a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had saved and entire world. But whoever destroys a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had destroyed an entire world.”
How can we not grieve for the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, killed for the crime of being Jewish and needing a ride home from school? How can we not grieve for the terrible loss of Max Steinberg, who grew up in Los Angeles and decided to make Aliyah and join the IDF at 22 after participating in a Birthright trip. Despite having no family in Israel, more than 30,000 people came to pay their respects when he was killed in action July 20. How can we not grieve for four-year old Daniel Tragerman, killed while playing in his living room when a mortar hit his house in southern Israel. Each life lost, a world destroyed.
And how can we also not grieve for the tragic murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, killed for the crime of being Palestinian while standing on the street outside his house. How can we also not grieve for Mohammad Bakr, a nine year old boy who was killed in a missile attack while playing on the beach? Each life lost, a world destroyed.
That’s why the Torah portion we read this morning seems to make so little sense. Knowing that to destroy a single human life is to destroy an entire world, the Holy One asks Abraham to self-destruct. “Take your son,” asks the Holy One, “your only son, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I tell you." (Gen. 22:2) I never get over the sheer audacity of the test. How can God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? How could Abraham agree? What could be so valuable, so vital, so important, that we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves and our children?
I thought a lot about this question over the summer. In June, I visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC on the National Mall. Seventy-five years ago this month, on September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, igniting the long-simmering fuse that exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. If we include war-related disease and famine, 85 million people were killed in World War II including the Six Million of our people tortured and murdered in the precisely engineered Nazi death machine.
Initially America refused to fight. But after the heinous attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America could no longer sit idly by while our neighbors bled. Eventually more than 16,353,000 Americans served in the Second World War. 407,316 were killed; 671,846 were injured.
Looking out at the Lincoln memorial and the reflecting pool I stood facing the Wall of Freedom, where 4,048 gold stars commemorate 100 fallen soldiers each. In front of the wall, I stopped at the simple extraordinary message beneath: “Here lies the price of freedom.”
As hard as it is for us to imagine Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah, it is even harder to truly understand the journey of those who served. As I stood at the memorial in the middle of June, I thought about what had taken place exactly seventy years ago. The Allied invasion at Normandy, Operation Overlord, was the largest military operation in the history of the world. The landing involved over 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, and 175,000 men. Many of the first men to storm the beaches were not yet 20 years old. By the end of the day there were more than 10,000 casualties and 4,900 killed.
Eisenhower and his leadership team understood deeply what was at stake. In his famous address, Eisenhower said: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you...” Eisenhower spent the night of June 5, 1944 among the paratroopers loading the aircraft. When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby. She saw tears in his eyes. He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”
War is a horrible, awful, terrible thing. It wreaks havoc and destruction, and causes good people to experience profane and unholy phenomena beyond our comprehension. It causes people to endure and commit ghastly acts of violence. It imposes horrible suffering and hardship. People are wounded and maimed in both body and psyche, and people are killed in the prime of life. “Here lies the price of freedom…”
Isaac’s expedition to Mount Moriah was nothing compared to the journey of the men who would land on Omaha Beach. The English Channel churned from stormy weather with six foot waves washing over the Higgins boats for hours and hours. Every man was seasick, drenched, and exhausted. The men who landed on Omaha beach arrived only to find that despite the aerial bombardment, the guns of the Atlantic Wall were still intact. The horror they faced defies description. Entire platoons were massacred before they could hit the beach. Some men, weighed down by 80 pounds of gear, drowned before reaching shore. Others managed to make it to shore only to be shredded by German fire.
Private George Roach was an assistant flamethrower. He weighed 125 pounds and carried over 100 pounds of gear ashore. Somehow, he made it to the seawall and helped the medics tend to the wounded and dying. “Over the years,” he said in 1990, “I don’t think there has been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of those men who didn’t make it.”
As I stood at the wall, thinking of the extraordinary stories of valor and misery that accompanied the invasion at Normandy, I was overwhelmed with awe and grief and sadness. My visit to the World War II memorial came just days after I returned from Israel. Little more than a week before, while sitting around the Shabbat table with my dear friend Rabbi Nir Barkin, we learned of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. The Barkins are like most Israeli families. Their oldest daughter Amit was traveling in South America, having recently completed her years of army service. Their middle son, Omri, deliberately sought out an elite unit to serve, and was home for Shabbat. During our dinner, Omri excused himself, and went to pack his bags to return to base.
Standing at the memorial, staring at those 4,000 gold stars, I thought of Omri, whom I have watched grow from a sweet little boy into a powerfully built, strong young man. Omri left his parents that Shabbat evening June 12 and eventually was sent to fight in Gaza.
Sitting in his home weeks later on a Shabbat evening in July, Rabbi Barkin reflected on his worry and anguish:
“I choke when I hear the phrases ‘A war for our home’ and ‘An unavoidable war’ – not because I have the slightest doubt that these statements are true, but because this is the first war in which Anat and I are parents of a combat soldier at the front. ...
“We somehow get through the days… but the nights. The nightmares cross decades of [our own] traumas. They leave us with black circles under our eyes, with a perpetual feeling that it's difficult to breathe and with a terrible fear – a fear of an unexpected knock on the door, of a Red Code siren, of a telephone call notifying us that…
“We are so impatient to hear the phone ringing with the special ringtone we've set for Omri's calls. So impatient to hear his beloved voice in real time saying “Hi Abba….I'm okay”
Thankfully on August 6, Nir emailed me a picture Omri took of himself on the bus ride back to his base. His father wrote: “He’s finally out … We start breathing again.” But we know that for 64 other families, their nightmare is permanent.
The Jewish people are a little people. Of the more than seven billion people on planet earth, we are but 2/10 of one percent. The State of Israel comprises .01 percent of the land mass on earth. It is right, and it is just, that when an enemy shoots thousands of missiles and mortars at civilian populations we must do whatever is necessary to protect and defend ourselves. When an enemy builds a labyrinth of sophisticated tunnels under the border for the purpose of kidnapping and murder, it is right and it is just that those tunnels be destroyed.
But more than that. We believe in something, an idea that is precious and holy and good. We believe in building a world that is founded on justice and compassion, on freedom and understanding, a world in which women have equal rights and equal opportunities to live as they so choose, where the vulnerable and the weak are afforded collective care and protection, a world in which we love our neighbor as ourselves. We believe in a world where the rule of law is imposed by the consent of the governed, where the freedom of spoken or written or artistic expression is sacrosanct, where all people are free to express their religious beliefs as they choose. We believe in the idea that human life is of infinite and ultimate value, and that love is what gives life enduring meaning and holiness.
These are values worth defending. These are values worth fighting for. There are times when, much as we detest all that war is, we are obligated to fight. Not only must we fight to defend ourselves from aggression and attack, there are times when we must fight to defend the values and principles that make for a free and good society.
War is incredibly seductive, alluring, and addictive. Chris Hedges writes in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning that war can be an elixir, enticing, and intoxicating. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. It makes us feel tremendous power and it unleashes our need to avenge suffering and injustice. It can appear to give life meaning.
So while there are times when we have to fight, and when we have to ask our children to fight for us, we cannot in that fight sacrifice the values for which we’re fighting in the first place. We cannot rejoice in the suffering of our enemies, nor glory in their downfall. We cannot employ inhumane means to accomplish justified ends. And we must, no matter how angry or bitter or wounded we become, ever give up our pursuit for peace.
It’s amazing to think that seventy years since the United States led the world in vanquishing the Nazis and the Japanese, reducing Europe to rubble and incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we now can count the Germans and the Japanese among our closest allies. It is because in the aftermath of our victory, we chose to administer justice, and help our enemies rebuild their nations in keeping with the values for which we fought. It is because we fought the evil in our enemies, but never let go of the promise of peace.
On this Rosh HaShanah, I think of the young men and women I know in our congregation who chose to serve in our nation’s armed forces. I think of the men and women I know who answered the call to serve in our nation’s past efforts to lead the free world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Viet Nam, Korea, and World War II. I think of them and I honor their sacrifice, I mourn their losses, and give thanks for the gift they have given me and my children. If you are a veteran, having served in America, our Allies, or Israel’s armed forces and you are worshipping with us this morning, I ask you please, if you are able, to rise, so that we may salute you and your service.
And for us, as we give thanks that we spend this Rosh HaShanah in the peace and tranquility of this sacred congregation and privileged community, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves a simple question: Do I live my life in a manner that honors the sacrifice of those who fought for me? What am I giving to better my society so that I can repay the debt I owe to those who gave so much for me? Do I give enough of my time, my energy, or my resources to better the lives of others? Does what I say, what I write, what I forward on email, what I talk about with friends over dinner, contribute to building the kind of society those who went to war fought to protect? Am I teaching my children the importance of selfishness or the value of service?
The New Year 5775 begins with a sense that what is good and right in the world is collapsing. We pray that those whose hearts are hardened with hatred be softened to embrace compassion and love. We pray that those who see no answer but to slaughter and maim will have their swords turned to ploughshares and their spears to pruning hooks. We pray that soon and in our own day, we will see a world in which the vision of the prophets is true: a world where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither do they study war anymore.” May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, let peace descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world.