Eulogy for the World Trade Center
Rosh Hashanah 5762/2001
Rabbi Aaron M. Gaber
Congregation Beth Judah
This morning, I stand before you with many mixed emotions. Today is just seven days since Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just eight days ago, I was worried that I would not finish my sermons on time or finish all the details that I needed to get done before today. Just eight days ago, I celebrated with family a wedding of Sharon’s cousin in New York City. We enjoyed ourselves greatly. But we were anxious to return so I could sit back down in front of my computer and create an inspirational and profound sermon to share with you today.
Just seven days ago, our world changed greatly. Today seven days later, I am still reeling from an act that is, that was, incomprehensible. Who could conceive and then carry out such a horrific act? While I read Tom Clancy novels, I never conceived that they would come true.
But here I am before you . . . trying to understand what happened. I am filled with anger at the Terrorists those responsible for planning this act. I am filled with disbelief that something like this could happen here in the United States. I am filled with profound sadness at the extreme loss of life and at the great sorrow that so many people will have to endure because they lost a loved one. I am filled with a profound sense of foreboding because of what will the future bring to us. I am also now seven days later beginning to find acceptance that this event has occurred and I am powerless to change it. I am also anxious to do something
For seven days, we have mourned and we have been in shock. We have sat shivah and we have watched and listened. We have heard all the stories and watched all the pictures. For those of us not actually there, we have not yet grasped the enormity of the situation or the destruction. Years ago, the prophet Jeremiah tried to capture in words, the destruction of Jerusalem. His words strike close to home today:
Lamentations shares completely my feelings about the Attacks on our nation:
How lonely she is now the once crowded city! Widowed is she who was the mistress over nations. The princess among the provinces has been made a toiling slave. Bitterly she weeps at night tears upon her cheeks.... Sunk into the ground in silence sit the old men of daughter Zion, they strew dust on their heads and gird themselves in sackcloth, the maidens of Jerusalem bow their head to the ground.... Dead in the dust of the streets lie young and old. My maidens and young men have fallen by the sword. You have slaughtered on the day of your wrath, slain without pity. You have summoned as for a feast day terror against me from all sides. There was not for on the day of your wrath either fugitive or survivor. Those whom I have born and reared, my enemy has utterly destroyed.
This blow to us has made us vulnerable. This is the first attack on the continental United States in more than 150 years. Even Pearl Harbor was confined to a few islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was not at the heart of our country. This was at the very heart.
Today as we get up from shivah, we have before us choices to make. On Rosh Hashanah, two books are opened in the heavenly court: The Book of Life and the Book of Death. Every moment of existence we are choosing one or the other: awareness or numbness. Clarity or doubt. Reality or illusion. Each moment can be lived to the fullest — or wasted into nothingness. Imagine what you could accomplish if you were clearly focused on the goal. The reality is beyond our imagination.
Today is the end of shivah and today is the beginning of the rest of our lives. We have the power. Don't underestimate yourself. Stop looking at who you are. Instead look at who you can be. You can solve humanity's problems, instead of just suffering with them. You can build the entire world. The time to begin is now. Rosh Hashana is upon us, the day of judgment, when we're asked to justify our own existence. To articulate why we should be granted another year of life.
The prophet says: Kiru livav'chem, v'al big'deichem -- "Tear your hearts and not your clothes" (Yoel 2:13). Let us not wait until the next horrific event, let us begin to decide now what direction our lives will take.
I have read so many accounts over the last few days of people who escaped and those who did not. I would like to share one with you that is particularly moving, if I shared more, I would be devastated all over again.
This is just one story of many: His name is Usman Farman and he graduated from Bentley with a Finance degree last May. He is 21 years old and is from Pakistan and he is Muslim. He had just begun to work at Building #7. By amazing quirks of fate, he arrived in his building at #7 just as the first plane struck the first tower. By a quirk of fate, he had gone up to his office as everyone was evacuating the building. He tells the story of his acquaintances who made it out of the towers, only because 1000 people formed a human chain to find their way out of the smoke. Everyone was a hero that day. He says that he learned that day, as will become clear in a moment that day he learned that regardless of who we are, all we have is each other.
He remembers staring up as the first tower began to collapse and the next there he remembers is a dark cloud of glass and debris about 50 stories high came tumbling towards them. He turned around and ran as fast as possible. When he told this story he didn't realize until Thursday that the reason he still felt so sore was that he fell down trying to get away. He shares his story because of what comes next and I share the rest of it with you in his words:
I was on my back, facing this massive cloud that was approaching, it must have been 600 feet off, everything was already dark. I normally wear a pendant around my neck, inscribed with an Arabic prayer for safety; similar to the cross. A Hasidic Jewish man came up to me and held the pendant in his hand, and looked at it. He read the Arabic out loud for a second. What he said next, I will never forget. With a deep Brooklyn accent he said "Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, lets get the hell out of here". He helped me stand up, and we ran for what seemed like forever without looking back. He was the last person I would ever have thought, who would help me. If it weren't for him, I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.
I finally stopped about 20 blocks away, and looked in horror as tower #2 came crashing down. Fear came over me as I realized that some people were evacuated to the streets below the towers. Like I said before, no one could have thought those buildings could collapse. We turned around and in shock and disbelief and began the trek to midtown. It took me 3 hours to get to my
sisters office at 3 avenue and 47th street. Some streets were completely deserted, completely quiet, no cars, no nothing. just the distant wail of sirens. I managed to call home and say I was okay, and get in touch with co workers and friends whom I feared were lost.
We managed to get a ride to new jersey. Looking back as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, I could not see the towers. It had really happened. As the world continues to reel from this tragedy, people in the streets are lashing out. Not far from my home, a Pakistani woman was run over on purpose as she was crossing the parking lot to put groceries in her car. Her only fault? That she had her head covered and was wearing the traditional clothing of my homeland. I am afraid for my family's well being within our community. My older sister is too scared to take the subway into work now. My 8 year old sister's school is under lockdown and armed watch by police.
Violence only begets violence, and by lashing out at each other in fear and hatred, we will become no better than the faceless cowards who committed this atrocity. If it weren't for that man who helped me get up, I would most likely be in the hospital right now, if not dead. Help came from the least expected place, and goes only to show, that we are all in this together . regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Those are principles that this country was founded on.
Please take a moment to look at the people sitting around you. Friends or strangers, In a time of crisis, you would want the nearest person to help you if you needed it. My help came from a man who I would never have thought would normally even speak to me. Ask yourselves now how you can help those people in New York and Washington. You can donate blood, you can send clothing, food, and money. Funds have been setup in the New York area to help the families of fallen firefighters, policemen, and emergency personnel. The one thing that won't help, is if we fight amongst ourselves, because it is then that we are doing exactly what they want us to do, and I know that nobody here wants to do that.
My name is Usman Farman and I graduated from Bentley with a Finance degree last May. I am 21 years old, turning 22 in October; I am Pakistani, and I am Muslim, and I too have been victimized by this awful tragedy. The next time you feel angry about this, and perhaps want to retaliate in your own way, please remember these words: "Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, lets get the hell out of here."
As we begin to account for ourselves let us begin to account for them as well.
Many hundreds of people have turned out to take bucket by small bucket of debris away to find out if there are any survivors. It didn’t and doesn’t matter who they are just that they need help. We have watched as hundreds of people have turned out to give blood, make donations of material goods and cash to help. The media has noted the increased recruitment for the military and for retired law enforcement people who decide they want to come back and help. This tragic horrific event has begun to galvanize our community and country, bringing them together. The need is for people to come together. Think about it for a moment, did you not want to reach out and touch your family and be with your family?
A 19th Century Hasidic Rabbi, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, once said “human beings are God’s language.” That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people. I would paraphrase that sentence to say that human beings, reaching out to others in need, doing good things when they don’t have to, are as close as we will ever come to seeing God’s face. And we have been fortunate to see the face of God many times this week in the face of those who have given every ounce of their strength to save lives. To those who have given of their own to feed, comfort and help those working so diligently. We are, hopefully, through all these wonderful acts seeing God making a difference in our lives.
As a spiritual leader, I always wonder what will move people in such a way that will help them to think a little bit differently about the place Judaism has in their lives. What stories will help them to come closer to their community and closer to their image of God.
For some it will be a prayer, a sermon, a reading, or a comment in these services that will move them. For others they will walk into Shul and feel stained with their bad habits and walk out at the end cleansed and ready to change. They may not recognize it but that was an encounter with God. For it is God who gives us the power to change when have tried to do it alone and couldn’t. And it happens a hundred different ways every single day. Any time, we call for a blessing, we are asserting that God is present. You will notice that we say, Praised are “YOU,” Lord our God, because we are establishing that God is present in the moment. God is motivating us. God is teaching us to create a moment of holiness. In a sense, we can say that we are observing the reality of God and the reality of togetherness.
In a profound way, we have heard and seen that over and over again. With the crush of technology, many people have cell phones. It is a way to be gotten hold of in an instant. As we saw on Tuesday so many people reached out to their loved ones, to say, I love you. They reached out to be together them in what were perhaps the most terrifying moments once could experience. It is this sense of oneness and this sense of community that is the moment of uplift for me a week later. To know that so many people were able to reach out and say I love you before they were killed. To know that so many people have volunteered that New York needs to turn them away or that the American Red Cross which is constantly struggling to meet the need for blood has to turn people away. Or it is the appearance of flags overnight all around our neighbor hoods and cities? But this country has been galvanized and we have come together in a way that we have not in many years.
I hope that as the days pass -- that the fervor of helping one another or reaching out to do an act of kindness or watching for God in the faces of the people who are helping will not wane and we won’t return to our lives as they once were because the change that we have experienced will go by the wayside and the terrorists will have gotten what they wanted and we will be left with only the memories of loved ones and a terrible tragedy.
Lamentations had hoped for a change. I hope for a change that will help keep us together as a community. I hope for a change that will help us to look beyond the color of our skin and the nature of our faith. I hope that we will become a community and a nation that is based upon the values of mutual respect, peace, and the ethic to stand by side to root out the hatred felt by so any here and abroad.
Today, we blow the shofar as a call to us to wake up and be ready for a change. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon attacks were heinous and terrible and if we allow the meaning of those attacks to be overlooked then we will not have listened and changed.
Let us hope that our prayer at the end of Lamentations will be heard: Hasheveynu Adonai aylecha v’nashuvah. Renew our days as before.
A story is told about a king who possessed a beautiful ruby that was perfect in every way. One day he was admiring it and in a moment of carelessness scratched the surface of
the precious jewel in a way that defied smoothing it over and still maintaining its beauty. He called his craftsmen together and asked if they could restore the perfection that was once there . And all the kings horse and the kingsmen couldn't put the gem together again. And then one craftsman came forward and looked at the scratch and instead of trying to eliminate it, he gathered it into the perspective as a whole and proceeded to use the scratch as the basis for a stem upon which he carved a lovely rose into the gem. Its beauty was not only restored but it also became more valuable. People from all around would travel merely to se the restored glory of this perfect gem. With God's help and the strength of the community together, we will pass through this trial. We will be restored to greater appreciation of our blessings in this beautiful country and nation.
May God bless the friends we lost, their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. May God bring strength to those who mourn and to those who wait to know. May God bring healing to those who are hurt and the ability for us to rebuild out of the ashes. May God continue to bless America, help her to protect us all, and may she continue to shine as a beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world.