Weekly Sermon



It was on Monday, September 10th, 2001, tat my son Joshua received a call asking him if he would interview with a prominent law firm for a job on Tuesday, the 11th, at the World Trade Center. Originally, they made the appointment to be 1st thing in the morning—it was later changed to 2:00pm. He never made it to his appointment, for by that time there was no World Trade Center. Thank Gd, thank Gd, thank Gd he was OK. It’s a prayer of thanks that every parent understands only too well. Watching the unfolding events that morning, he saw his roommate, Steven Westerman on tv, fleeing from the scene.

My brother-in-law Steve Herfield was around the corner at a business meeting when he heard and felt the blast from the 1st tower. He ran into the street only to see a plane hit the 2nd tower. Jack Hyman told me about his brother-in-law who missed his ferry from because of it's because his new dog wouldn't come in the house a cousin who, because of a problem with his dog missed the ferry from Staten Island and came late to work. He saw his office in the twin towers aflame from the next ferry. Dozens of religious Jews had gone to Slichot services earlier that morning as is customary the week before Rosh Hashanah and were, thank Gd, late for work. It’s miraculous that some 45,000 others who worked at the towers were able to walk away. But alas, almost 3,000 others were not as fortunate.  

For many of us, these memories of 9/11 are still very painful and traumatic. Some of us may have known victims or their families. It’s important that we remember the pain and the sorrow, the trauma and the shock…as well the response of the heroes—the police, firefighters, military service members, doctors, nurses, health care providers, and others who tried to and, in some cases, succeeded in saving lives—some who sacrificed their own lives in the effort. And most important is to remember how we came together as a nation and how we—for a moment at least—were united as one great family. 

It’s been 20 years, and yet, what happened on 9/11/2001 hits home personally for us all. Every one of us—over 40—remembers where we were and what we were doing when we 1st heard the news. I was in Piedmont Hospital visiting Francis Kohn after minyan. I looked up and saw on the tv above the bed an airplane hit the 2nd tower.

The scenes are forever engraved on our minds and hearts: planes crashing into buildings, the World Trade Center collapsing, human beings jumping in desperation from towers that no longer exist, a huge ball of smoke and ash pursing people running for their lives down the streets of lower Manhattan, the celebratory clapping, singing and dancing by the Palestinians and Arabs in the streets all over the Middle East. Our lives have never been the same. America is not the same.

There have been so many heartbreaking stories coming out of 9/11. Many of those on the hijacked airliners on the way to Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pa. and in the offices at the World Trade Center, knowing that they were about to die, spent their final moments on their cell phones with their loved ones.  In these moments before Yizkor let me share with you some of their words that truly inspire:

-       The words of 38-year-old Brian Sweeney, a passenger on Flight 5 that crashed into the south tower, who left a message for his wife Julie on their answering machine, “Hey, Jules. It’s Brian. I’m on a plane and it’s hijacked, and it doesn’t look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I hope to see you again. If I don’t, please have fun in life and live your life the best you can. Know that I love you and no matter what, I’ll see you again.”

-       The words of 28-year-old Veronica Bowers, whose mother recalled the conversation in these words, “She called me and said, ‘Mommy, the building is on fire. There’s smoke coming from the walls. I can’t breathe.’ The last thing she said was, ‘I love you, Mommy. Goodbye.’”-       And then there are the words of Jeremy Glick, one of the true heroes who helped bring down United Flight 93 in the fields of Pennsylvania. His wife described their last conversation in these words, “We said, ‘I love you,’ a thousand times, over and over and over again…Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy and I will respect any decisions that you make.” His wife added, “I think that gives me the most comfort.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, FDNY Chaplain, recalls a conversation with a young boy who had lost his father on 9/11. “Tell me about your dad,” he asked. 

         “He was the best—never too busy for me, took me to such great places. Bought me great toys. Rabbi—I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll give you back all of the toys, just give me back my dad!”

         “I wish I could bring him back,” he said, “but you can continue to give back all the love you have for him. You can say to him like that Harry Chapin song, “I want to be like you Dad, I want to be like you!” And you know what? 60 children of the 343 firefighters who died have become firefighters themselves!


My friends, during the past 18 months we have confronted the frail of life with the Coronavirus, the Champlain Condominium collapse just 3 months ago, and now the anniversary of 9/11. If reliving these harrowing days teach us anything, it’s that life’s just too short and that we must do everything we can to fix our relationships that are broken.

That’s the lesson Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges learned this year. Bridges and his wife Susan were exposed to Covid while he was getting chemo treatments for lymphoma. Susan was hospitalized for 5 days, while he was there for 5 weeks! Bridges said he had “moments of tremendous pain,” in which he would cry out “all through the night,” feeling he was, “getting’ close to the pearly gates.         He said: “This brush with mortality has brought me a real gift—life is short, but beautiful. Love is all around us, and available at all times. It’s a matter of opening ourselves to receive the gift.” And he got to walk his daughter, Hayley, down the aisle and dance at her wedding—something the doctors told him probably wouldn’t happen. Yes, he learned the hard way that life is just too short.

You know who else learned this lesson this year? Those who died and those who survived the collapse of the Champlain Towers Condo in Surfside Florida in June. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said, “The collapse looked a lot like the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11.” 97 died instantly, and another in the hospital. Most of the Jews in that building belonged to Temple Menorah, my son Rabbi Joshua Kunis’ shul. Let me tell you about a few of them:

- Arnold Notkin, 87 and his wife Maria, 81. Arnie was a phys-ed teacher and beloved by every student. I met him when visiting Joshua because he was regular at the minyan. He had coached most of the men there when they were in school. He was just an amazing, sweet, sweet man whose love lit up the world.

- Doctor Ruslan Manashirov 36 and Nicole Doran 43. Newlyweds, they were married for just a month and moved into the Towers to be their new home. They were so happy.

- Judith Spiegel, 65. Her children said: “Our Mom was the glue that kept our family together. All the family mementos, photos…and heirlooms our father and mother have collected over the past 65 years were lost in a matter of seconds.” Husband Kevin was on a business trip. Why did he survive, and she perish? It seems impossible to understand why who shall live and who shall die.

- Dr. Gary Cohen, 58, and Dr. Brad Cohen, 51. Gary, a psychiatrist from Alabama, came to Florida to visit his father. He was staying at his brother Brad’s condo in the Towers. Brad was a prominent surgeon. 2 young men, who brought healing to the world, had so much to live for- Antonio Lozano 83 his wife Gladys 79 were married 59 years —never apart. They would spar over who would die 1st—neither willing to live without the other. When they found them in the wreckage—you won’t believe this—they were still holding hands! Yes, life is short, but if you’re going to leave this world, this is the way.

- Jay Kleiman, 52. Jay came to Florida for a friend’s funeral, my son, Rabbi Joshua, officiated at. Jay was staying with his mother Nancy 76, on the same floor as the condo of his brother, Frank 55. Incidentally, the Kleimans were childhood friends of Israel and Lidia Peljovich. All 3 perished!

Yes, I know that you cannot turn back the clock, reverse the past or erase what’s happened. But you can let it go, put it aside and try to move on. Life is too short to hold on to the pain! Today on Yom Kippur—the day we forgive each other—let me suggest we improve the quality of our lives by forgiving in 3 crucial areas of our lives.

Last night at Kol Nidre, I spoke about forgiving Gd. Some of us sitting here this morning are angry with Gd—especially after disasters like 911, the Coronavirus and the Champlain Condo collapse. The Torah tells us Gd is just and compassionate, but how many of us see too little justice or compassion. And it’s not only when we witness a tragedy. It’s those of us who experience illness, business reverses, family problems, or the untimely death of a loved one… “Why Gd?” we ask. “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” 

 As your rabbi, I tell you: Don’t blame Gd. It’s not His fault. It’s not your fault. Forgive Gd for creating a world filled with Covid and cancer and drunk drivers and plane crashes and so much that is beyond our ability to comprehend. None of us are spared the challenges of life…or the fact that other people are born luckier, better looking and more talented. It isn’t fair and I suspect that Gd knows that. I suspect that Gd created the world so that—in facing the difficult challenges of life—our souls would have the opportunity to make the tikkun, the corrections they were brought here to rectify—i.e. the difficult challenges of our lives are opportunities for personal growth. So, forgive Gd. Even if WE don’t understand, trust that Gd knows what He’s doing. 

The 2nd area of our lives where we need the ability to forgive is in our relationships. People sometimes say and do stupid things, hurtful things. And then we get angry and resentful. How could they do this to me? And we carry this deep hurt and resentment in our hearts…hurting no one, but ourselves.

I know parents who cut themselves off from their own kids. I know parents that are speaking to their kids, but it’s a strained relationship. They feel that the kids don’t call or visit enough. And when it’s related to me it’s always followed by the words, “And after all I did for him…” Let me tell you, no one who demands love and loyalty and says, “after all I did for you,” can ever get enough love and loyalty to satisfy them. I say to these parents, do you want to be right, or do you want a relationship with your kids? Life is just too short! Forgive your children for not living up to your expectations.

I think it was Rabbi Sidney Greenberg who said: “If you want to make it in marriage, you need a good forgetery.” We need to learn how to let go and forget the insults, disagreements and differences of opinion we are bound to have at times in our marriages. I don’t mean you should be a dish rag for your partner. No, stand up for yourself. But after you’ve talked it out, forgive and let go. If you nurse every grudge, if you remember and wallow in every hurt, you’ll never have much of a relationship.

At Yizkor, we confront the frailty of life. In one moment—like in the Twin Towers or the Champlain Condos—the floor can fall out from under us, and life is over! The lesson—while we have life—is to strengthen the relationships we have, because that’s all that really matters that’s enduring. Yes, we may feel like we’ve been wronged here and there. Just about every relationship of meaning has times like that. But ultimately, we have to decide…do we want people in our lives, or do we want to live alone…do we want meaningful relationships or do we want to be right! Do yourself a favor, look past the slights and hurts and see the bigger picture.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Forgiveness has nothing to do with deserving. The cardinal rule of forgiveness is: No matter what someone else has done to you, the only person hurt by your anger and resentment is you. Holding on to resentment—as I’m fond of saying—is not good for the liver—in both senses of the word. Life is just too short, too precious to waste by simply giving it away to someone who hurt you. Forgive the ones you love!

And there’s one more person we must learn to forgive: ourselves. The fact of the matter is, oftentimes our greatest hurts and disappointments are self-inflicted. We don’t forgive ourselves for being vulnerable, weak or not smart enough. Much has been written about “survivor’s guilt.” Amidst the joy and exhilaration expressed by those who were fortunate enough to have survived the attacks on 9/11, survive the Covid ventilators, survive the Champlain Condo collapse because they were in another part of the building that didn’t collapse, there’s also a feeling of guilt. “Why did I survive? I didn’t deserve it.” These feelings are also common among survivors of many of the assaults life inevitably brings—whether it be the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, business reversals, or family conflicts.

I see a lot of people who, on the outside are strong and successful, but on the inside feel hollow and empty, never able to forgive themselves for not living up to their or others’ expectations of themselves—always looking back on their failures and flaws. All of us have dark moments that shame us. We should learn from them and correct them. But we must not let them haunt us! At some point, we must see that life is just too short and move on. Forgive yourself!

My friends, the major response as we remember this Yizkor 9/11, the victims of Covid and the Champlain Condo collapse, must be to put aside all the petty nonsense that separates us—in our personal lives and as a nation.

And one more thing. Let’s use this Yizkor to remember not only 9/11, but 9/12, 9/13 and 9/14 to reawaken those positive feelings of unity and togetherness, to recommit to practice civility and to feel and express profound appreciation for this country and those who serve it.

Our enduring image of 9/11 must not be people falling from buildings, but of a nation lifting itself up. We had our differences 20 years ago, but we found the will to put them aside—understanding that to maintain the strength of our nation demanded we focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us. Let’s do the same in the New Year, for life is just too short! Amen!


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