God did not decide beforehand who would live and who would die in the World Trade Center last week, Jews were told during Rosh Hashana services Monday evening in Temple Beth Zion.
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld told 2,500 listeners that he wished to take exception to the Jewish tradition that "on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die" during the coming year.
Especially after the events that claimed more than 5,000 lives but spared thousands more, Rosenfeld said, he cannot blame God for who lives and who dies.
"I can't live with a god like that," he said. "What kind of god could plan a year ahead to take lives in such a horrible way? Only humanity is capable of such callous disregard for the sanctity of life."
God is nowhere to be found in those scenarios, he said, but is to be found in the spontaneous gesture of an Israeli soldier who gave up his seat on a crowded bus to an Arab woman bowed under two heavy packages.
"That is what Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all about," the rabbi said. "The true values, the caring, the accepting of responsibility -- and not placing it on those who are innocent. Reaching out and touching another's soul -- even to one who is different."
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," predicted shortly after last week's terrorist attacks that rabbis across America would be rewriting their sermons for the High Holy Days.
As they prepared Monday for Rosh Hashana, which began at sundown, Buffalo-area rabbis acknowledged that Kushner's prediction was, indeed, accurate.
"My topics have changed drastically," admitted Rabbi A. Charles Shalman of Temple Shaarey Zedek in Amherst. "Last week, stem cells seemed to be the most important thing on everyone's mind. Now the agenda has changed."
"The overall theme is that of courage. The Jewish tradition teaches that life has to be lived with courage," said Rabbi Ronie R. Herstik of Temple Beth Am, also in Amherst.
Courage implies an obligation to protect the weakest elements of society, including minorities who may be victimized and singled out "because they are from Arab nations," he said.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, marks the start of the High Holy Days, a 10-day religious observance for Jews around the world. It ends Sept. 27 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, regarded as the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.
The High Holy Days are a time of introspection for Jews, a time to take stock of their lives, to repent for past sins and to resolve to do better in the coming year.
The terrorism that claimed so many lives at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a desolate plane crash site in Shanksville, Pa., rabbis say, brings into sharp focus the idea that nothing is certain beyond today.
"One of the major messages of the High Holy Days is that life is fragile and we need to live each day with integrity and commitment as if it might be our last day," said Shalman. "The tragic events of the past week have made us all realize just how fragile life can be. We all need to deal with this new reality."
Herstik said he will deal in some of his sermons with a previous experience with terrorism.
Formerly the rabbi of Temple Solael in West Hills, Calif., Herstik said a member of that congregation, Benjamin Kadish, was one of the young boys critically wounded in August 1999, when white supremacist Buford Furrow shot up the North Valley Jewish Community Center in nearby Granada Hills.
"I spent a lot of time with his parents, Eleanor and Chuck Kadish. As the result of being around his family, I learned what courage really means in the face of overwhelming helplessness, he said.
Herstik said he will attempt to convey to his congregation the lesson of "courage and determination" imparted by the Kadish family as well as their will "to go beyond anger to a place of strength and resolve."
Herstik also will address the troubling relationship of American Jews to Israel.
"I think American Jewry has had some qualms about supporting Israel because of the Palestinian situation," said Herstik. "If not qualms, we have been having a tough time reconciling what we see as having to be fair about the situation with the reality of Israel facing terrorism.
"Unfortunately -- and I say this with a broken heart -- we have had a taste on a grand scale of what Israelis are facing every day," he said.
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