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Challenged to Seek Lessons of Sept. 11

Values: During the Jewish high holy days, a time for reconciliation, rabbis emphasize messages of forgiveness and find hope in Israelis' resilience.


The Jewish high holy days, a 10-day period of introspection, reconciliation and forgiveness that began Friday night, fall this year when the unforgivable--the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of a year ago--remains fresh in the memory of the nation.

The conjunction of the first anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington and the holy days, which begin with Rosh Hashana--the Jewish New Year--and end Sept. 16 with Yom Kippur, has presented rabbis with a challenge: How do they integrate the holiday's imperatives of reconciliation and peacemaking with the searing memories of terrorist attacks in the United States and Israel?

The ability to apply timeless values to contemporary events has long been the mark of a good preacher. So, like all other good preachers, rabbis said they do not see the instances of terrorism as a distraction during the high holy days, but rather as a teachable moment.

"We have an extraordinary but challenging opportunity to reinforce [high holy day] themes of forgiveness and repentance," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple in West Los Angeles also is one who does not see Sept. 11 as a distraction.

"The core of Jewish tradition, as I see it, is to struggle to find ways of living in the world as we find it," he said. "So when we encounter destruction and despair and a strong measure of evil in it, we are asked to respond."

On the first anniversary of the attacks, Herscher thinks of the high holy days in part as a time for mourning. "I see the high holidays as a communal kaddish [prayer of mourning] for the innocents whose lives were stolen away in an instant. In a sense, we are saying kaddish for the dreadful year that has passed. The challenge of the high holidays is to look at the world as it is and not to give in to despair and not to succumb to fear and not to succumb to hatred and anger."

But some rabbis, such as Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, say they first had to make the connection again for themselves.

"I had a lot of anger to work through," he said in an interview. He said he was especially angry at what he saw as the failure of moderate Muslims, including those in Los Angeles, to speak out against the terror.

Fields said he thought about his feelings, spoke with others and spent time praying before remembering something he had learned long ago from the wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

"We know the answer now," he said in remarks prepared for delivery Friday night. "History is not a flimsy course of disconnected happenings. History bursts forth seeking repair for the absurdities caused by brutality and suicidal tendencies. Not to pursue what our sages called 'the climax of all blessings, peace' is to be unworthy of our history and our destiny."

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades called the remembrance of Sept. 11 during the high holy days a spiritual benefit. "The reality is, it was such a wake-up call for all of us about the things that matter most in our lives--and that really is the theme for me of what the high holiday season is all about. It's about remembering who we are, who we can be, and the best that's in us that we can be."

In the small acts of kindness, a simple kiss, an embrace, individual acts of heroism and giving, rabbis said, they saw hope for the world.

Diamond was among the rabbis who have recently visited Israel, which has suffered 550 attacks over the past eight months that have killed more than 600 Israelis, 30% of them women and children, according to Fields.

"I'm in awe of Israeli families, families of friends of mine, who sit down for breakfast in the morning and kiss their loved ones goodbye and, given all that's happening, don't know if they'll be reunited at dinnertime," Diamond said.

Herscher was another who had visited Israel. "I encountered people, despite everything that's going on, who are struggling to make the lives of other people better and to help people live decently. I sat in awe of them," Herscher said.

The awe they felt is appropriate for the season, which is referred to in Jewish tradition as the Days of Awe, the rabbis said.

In Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashana, God judges the world and inscribes the names of those who will live and those who will die, as well as those who will have good or bad lives. But, the tradition holds, human repentance, prayer and good deeds can change the divine decree before the book is sealed by God on Yom Kippur.

"There are so many forces over which we do not have control, but we do have control of our lives," Diamond said.

"We can help transform our own little world, if not the world at large."

In the end, Reuben said, all people can be responsible for is their own conduct. "For me, it's always a season to look within and try to identify how I could be a better me in the year ahead, and to think of people I have hurt and do my best to make amends to them.

"It all starts personally before it can go globally, and everything global is personal. Someone willing to get on a plane and kill other human beings--whatever is going on with them, it's personal."

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