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Terror forces new Rosh Hashanah sermons

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 (JTA) — Rabbi Yaakov Luban ended the Jewish year by crawling to safety amid the devastation caused by the terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.

Just days afterward, Luban, who was in a subway under the World Trade Center just before the towers collapsed on Sept. 11, was planning to give comfort and hope to his congregants during Rosh Hashanah.

“We have to listen and ask ourselves in what way can we change and be more sensitive to our fellow man,” he said. “The response to evil is to live our lives in a more moral fashion,” said Luban, the spiritual leader of Ohr Torah Congregation in Edison, N.J.

Until last week’s tragedy, many rabbis had planned to focus their sermons on the past year of violence in Israel.

But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — which came less than a week before Rosh Hashanah and the onset of the Days of Awe, the holiest days on the Jewish calendar — forced an abrupt shift in tack and created new, pressing questions: How do you comfort a nation in mourning and bring in the New Year in the shadow of the worst terror attack in United States history? How do you discuss God, forgiveness and repentance in the face of evil?

Luban and other rabbis are grappling with these questions and trying to bring a message of understanding to congregants who, like people around the world, are looking for answers to basic philosophical and spiritual quandaries.

Even as many people find that words do not suffice, rabbis must try to find words for congregants who are looking for a sense of community and of contact with each other — and with God.

For some rabbis, the tragedy — as awful as it was — provides an opportunity for heightened spiritual reflection.

“People are ripe, they are more open to spiritual and theological questions,” said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Congregation Beth Shalom in Homewood, Ill. “How can you not ponder the meaning of life now?”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are by far the most well-attended services of the year in North America — and the time, traditionally, when rabbis deliver their most important sermons.

Dreyfus planned to address the idea of human control — and lack of control — over life and death. The central part of the Rosh Hashanah service focuses on that idea as it proclaims the arrival of God’s judgment, as God reviews every creature and decrees individual destinies.

Last week’s tragedy makes people realize they don’t have control over death and that there is randomness and evil in the world, Dreyfus said.

The central prayer, the U’netaneh Tokef, says that “penitence, prayer and good deeds annul the severity of the decree,” but those acts are not to be seen as preventing death, Dreyfus said.

Instead, these acts “give control over the quality and values of life,” she explained. “They shape the quality of life.”

The inability to comprehend evil damages our faith, according to Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

Faith in God’s goodness allows people to reassemble what has been shattered in their lives, he added.

“Without God all we would have is despair and bitterness,” Nevins said. “With God we have the obligation to help and have hope.”

To demand faith at such a difficult time could be trying for some people. Some may come to services just for a sense of solace and community, and won’t believe that they can communicate with God.

People may wonder “How can I pray now?” but faith and turning to God is the only way to pick up the pieces, according to Rabbi Elazar Muskin, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City, Calif.

“God has given us a way to dialogue with him,” Muskin said. “You have to turn to him.”

Part of the problem during times of tragedy is the difficulty of accepting that not all in life is black or white, but that there are shades of gray.

The idea in Jewish tradition that each person has the capacity for good and the capacity for evil also is difficult for some people to accept.

And for some, the question of how God can allow both good and evil to occur can lead to a crisis of faith.

In the Bible, humans are said to be created in the image of God, and the God who places man and woman in the Garden of Eden is the same God who orders the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites and Canaanites.

“Complexity is at the core of religious experience,” said Irwin Kula, president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Kula, who will address the congregation of Aitz Hayim in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., over the holidays, said he will discuss the need to affirm life and to achieve internal security as well as external security.

While such spiritual and moral messages will be at the heart of most talks, some rabbis also will stay close to political questions.

For Kula, last week’s terror attack will present difficult questions for members of both sides of the political spectrum.

The left will have to consider its own naivete, its belief that every party must have a seat at the table and its conviction that there is no primal evil. The right must consider how actions and economic and social conditions have brought about the current situation, Kula said.

Nevins of suburban Detroit said he planned to ask congregants to write letters to the United Nations urging the organization not to give moral cover to “immoral” governments.

But not all rabbis planned to center their High Holiday sermons around last week’s tragic events. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., instead planned to discuss the conflict between faith and science and to depict them as different conceptions of truth.

On Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Schulweis said he would discuss the attacks on Western civilization and values and the need for ecumenical healing.

Schulweis also said he believes talking about terrorism on Rosh Hashanah would amount to giving in to the terrorists’ desire to destroy Americans’ way of life.

But Schulweis appeared to be in the minority, as most rabbis were preparing to focus their New Year sermons on the attacks.

Luban, the New Jersey rabbi, planned to focus on the section in the Rosh Hashanah service in which a “still, small voice is heard” after the shofar is sounded.

The voice is small, Luban explained, because as the words filter down to man it’s difficult to hear God and his message. But, he said, it can be heard.

Since Luban survived, he has heard many stories of miraculous escapes.

“In the tragedy, there was the hand of God,” Luban said.

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