The ritual could not have been more familiar, but Rabbi Howard Shapiro found it almost impossible to say the usual prayers for the infant.
It was only a few days after Sept. 11th. Suddenly, it was hard to talk about blessings, peace, goodness, faith and hope.
“I remember what I said to the family that day,” said Shapiro, the leader of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I said that we must force ourselves to say these words. We must say these words, because if we do not say them, then we will never believe them. And if we never believe them, then we will never act on them.”
Now rabbis across from coast to coast are facing the High Holy Days, with the first anniversary of 9/11 falling in the middle of the season this year on the ancient Jewish calendar. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown Friday (Sept. 6) and the season ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
There will be many pages of familiar prayers to say and none of them will sound the same. Rabbis who have prepared scores of services and sermons for the High Holy Days all know that, this year, their words will carry a special weight.
What should be said? What should be left unsaid?
In his Rosh Hashanah sermon text, Shapiro listed the familiar questions: “When people reflect back they ask: What did we do? Why did this happen? What do they have against us?”
In the public square, he noted, many are trying to blame Islam, insisting that it “does not honor life as Judaism and Christianity do.” Others are blaming God, insisting that Sept. 11th proved that “religion is the root of all evil.” Some blame Israel. Some people, as always, blame the Jews.
“Some blame our very way of life — from McDonalds to Hollywood to Wall Street to Washington,” wrote Shapiro. “This much I know. It is none of the above and all of the above. It is all about the way we see the future and ourselves. It is all about whether we are going to enter this new century as free, independent people or we are going to walk back into the Middle Ages.”
After the sermon, the choir will sing Psalm 61: “Hear my cry, O God. From the end of the earth I cry unto Thee. My heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You are a Shelter; You are a Strong Tower.”
Many will flinch when hearing the words “Strong Tower.” It also will be hard to pray for the day when, “Violence shall rage no more, and evil shall vanish like smoke; the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth, and You alone shall reign over all Your works.” It will be hard to praise God, saying, “Your power is in the help that comes to the falling, … in the faith You keep with those who sleep in the dust.”
At Temple Israel, here in heavily Jewish South Florida, the faithful said they did not need a special Sept. 11 service. The High Holy Days rites will be enough.
A rabbi does not need to make many additions to a rite that already states: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water. …”
The events of Sept. 11 were shocking, horrifying and unique for believers in this generation. But the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been recited for centuries. They have been prayed just as often in times of terror and tragedy as in times of peace and security.
These prayers unite worshippers today with those through the ages. These prayers transcend time.
“To say these prayers is to know that we are not the first generation to deal with the precariousness of life,” said Shapiro. “That is what a religious tradition offers to us. It helps us deal with the fact that life is often scary.”