Rabbi Daniel Pressman

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman
Congregation Beth David
Saratoga, California

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5762/2001

Redeeming the Ashes

I was in the subway under the world trade center as or after the first plane hit. My stop is the next one, Rector Street, so I stayed on as our train was held. The doors opened and closed. I saw that people were not allowed to exit one of the exits so they were running toward the other one. They didn’t look scared, so I don’t think they knew what was going on. I got out at the next stop (which is about a block away) and saw that one of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. I was shocked by the sight. I was standing and looking at it, talking to some co-workers, when the second plane flew over our heads into the other building. I saw it hit and the awful gash it made. I ran away crying, trying to find shelter from any debris. I ran away, not knowing where I was going. Luckily, I caught up with some co-workers, one of whom, Henry, is a former cop and Emergency Medical Technician. We ran to Battery Park because we thought the terrorists wouldn’t bomb the park. It was not a good solution because the ash blew in our direction. I was with six other co-workers and many other people. We got down on the ground and covered our mouths because the ash was so bad.

When the tower collapsed it sounded like a bomb. Someone said, “The World Trade Center is gone.” At that point we thought we were going to be bombed so we got up. Also the ash was unbearable. We walked along South Street. We found another co-worker who was in shock and walking aimlessly. She was trampled in the subway station and didn’t even know what happened.

Kate suggested we cross the Brooklyn Bridge but I vetoed it because the bridge is a landmark. So we went to Chinatown to get the Manhattan Bridge. Finally we crossed the bridge to Brooklyn.

These words were written by our daughter Aliza, who, thank God is safe and with us here tonight. She woke us up Tuesday morning with a phone call telling us what she had just seen.

So I may be a little emotional tonight. But so are we all. I am sure that many of us here tonight have some personal connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And even without that kind of link, as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings, we are all shocked and pained by this incredible atrocity. I know that there are people here who want me to make sense of all this. But I can’t make sense of it, because people who could do such a thing are from an alien moral universe.

I know that there are people who are seeking comfort, and though I believe it will come, it takes time. Our Rabbis wisely taught, “Do not attempt to console your neighbor while his deceased still lies before him.” [1] How much more so when there are thousands missing, their deaths not yet finally confirmed. And this was no natural disaster, but a crime, a mass murder. We certainly can find no consolation when justice has not yet been done. I have tried to sift through my own reactions, my Jewish values, and the flood of information and speculation to draw a few conclusions. Tonight, I don’t want to do political analysis or discuss what strategy the United States should adopt. I just want us to reflect, to mourn, and be strengthened by one another and the wisdom of our tradition. First, let us acknowledge that we are a traumatized nation, a nation in mourning. Trauma shatters our norms and expectations. It undermines our faith in life itself, in our safety and security. It changes our world. One day we are the richest, mightiest nation on earth. The next, the symbols and centers of our wealth and power are in ruin. It takes time to process and heal, and we must give ourselves that time. Remember that tonight is only the one-week anniversary of the last time we went to bed feeling secure in our land.

A few years ago I shared with you a piece by Ellen Goodman called “The One-Minute Mourner,” about American impatience with the lengthy natural process of grief, about the search for instant healing and quick closure. But everything about this incident — the human costs, the economic recovery, and the political response — is going to demand that Americans give up our short attention spans and need for instant gratification. And the place where that starts is with each other. We need to acknowledge our grief, our anger, our moral outrage, our fear, and our sadness. And we need to be tender with one another. I’ve been impressed by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He’s been known for his short fuse, but he has been patient, calm, and sensitive. I think that is because he now has the clarity gained from knowing what is truly important: human life, human pain, human help, and human touch.

Even though we are three thousand miles away, we share in the nation’s trauma. There are people here among us who lost friends, long-time work colleagues, and perhaps family. There are many more who went through hours of terror until they heard that family or friends were safe. So let’s be gentle and patient with each other.

The second thing we must do is to know with certainty that this was a great evil: cold-blooded, methodical, and willfully indiscriminate. Yuri Yanover, who runs a Jewish Internet newsletter, witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. He wrote,

This is what a satanic act looks like: Bright, metallic, swinging with ease across the sky, turning with complete mastery of the laws of Physics, of the laws of Life and death, of the Laws of Pain and Fear. Evil makes a few calm course corrections, to insure full impact. Evil engulfs the innocent with a ball of fire and rises in a victorious after-dance. Evil removes thousands from among the living with one ideologically certain whoosh of flame. [2]

There is nothing that can justify such an act, and we must realize that those who do so, who tell us to “understand” the hatred that drives such deeds, are moral accomplices of the murderers.

Third, because we abhor such deeds and the hatred that spawns them, we must not ourselves succumb to rage and lash out indiscriminately. We read in the newspapers about attacks against Arab and Persian markets, and harassment of people who seem to be Arabs. We want justice to be done and the perpetrators and their sponsors and helpers to be punished. At the same time, Jewish law teaches us that justice is discerning, and must be pursued with just means. Justice is not rage and it is not vengeance; it is lawful retaliation and the deliberate righting of the balance of good and evil. So let justice be done.

Fourth, we must affirm our Jewish faith that evil will not get the last word, that hatred will not triumph. Evil may speak loudly, and unrestrained as it is by scruples, it can inflict suffering and death. But because it only knows how to destroy, the forces of justice, love, and compassion can overcome it.

The worst in people brings out the best in people. As the buildings burned and collapsed, countless rescuers risked and gave their lives, to help those in the towers to escape. Beyond the individual acts of heroic self-sacrifice, the structure of civilization, though disrupted, held tight, and untold numbers of private citizens helped one another. People rushed to give blood, helped strangers on the street, continue to volunteer to help in vast numbers, and donated so much food and clothing that the storehouses are full.

The Metro ran a story by author Mike Daisey, who walked out of Manhattan to Brooklyn. Standing on the Promenade looking across at the smoking ruins, he reflected:

What can be said? Just this: we will emphasize the horror and the evil, and that is all true. It is not the entire story. I saw an old man with breathing problems and two black kids in baggy pants and ghetto gear rubbing his back, talking to him. No one was rioting or looting. People helped each other in small and tremendous ways all day long: a family was giving away sandwiches at the Promenade. Everyone I talked to agreed to go give blood. If a draft had been held to train people to be firefighters there would have been fights to see who got to volunteer. No matter how wide and intricate this act of evil may be it pales in comparison to the quiet dignity and strength of regular people. I have never been more proud of my country.

My daughter, covered with ashes and dust, also ended up Brooklyn. People in the street greeted them and offered them water and food. “I know you already have water, but take another bottle. You’re going to need it.” The worst in people brought out the best in people.

And we are also participating. I’m sure that many of us have already donated blood and money. We are going to do our part as a congregation by adding to our Operation Isaiah campaign. When you come to services on Kol Nidre Eve, in addition to the barrels for food, there will be, in both locations, a large “pushke” (Tzedakah Box). Bring an envelope with your donation. If it is a check, make it out to “Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.” The money will in turn be donated to the New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund, the United Way September 11th Fund, and the United Way of Washington D.C. And finally, we can respond to this terrible event with a renewed sense of what is important in life. The World Trade Center was targeted because it is an icon of capitalism, a center of commerce. But I didn’t read about anyone running back into the flames to rescue a ledger, or a hard drive—only people.

Floyd Norris, business writer for The New York Times, wrote about those whose task it is to reconstruct the financial system, “Even as they did so, many no doubt had a feeling that their task was far less important than all the lives that were lost.” That is certainly true of Howard Lutnick, the CEO of the bond-trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald. He was late to work because he took his son for his first day of kindergarten. He stood in the lobby of Tower One, frantically asking those fleeing what floor they were from. None were from higher than the 91st. His firm was on the 101st. Seven hundred employees died, including his brother. Mr. Lutnick’s close call and great loss have given him a different view of work and life:

My view of business is different. I need to try to be successful in business so I can take care of…700 families who are dreaming to find someone…I have a different kind of drive. It’s not about my family. I can kiss my kids tonight. But other people can’t kiss their kids.

I have heard people say that this terrible incident has prompted them to think about how fragile life is, about what is really important. Tomorrow we will chant the Untaneh Tokef prayer, with its unsettling list of fates: “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water.” Why do we read that? I think that for most of us, most years, its function is to crack our complacency and remind us that life is short and uncertain, so that we will reflect on our priorities. This year we need no reminders. It is the nature of evil to destroy.

It is the nature of hatred that it lashes out in murderous fury. Our response must be to embrace life and each other. It is the sense of human connection that led those firemen to rush into the inferno, that moved those doomed passengers to attack the hijackers, that left CEO’s in tears, and that tugs at our hearts across the miles. As our member Bill Usim pointed out to me, the terrorists died in order to kill and destroy, but the safety workers, and those brave men on Flight 93, died to save lives. That is what we must affirm with everything we say and do. This past Shabbat we read that great passage of hope and affirmation, I’ve put life and death in front of you, blessing and curse. Uvacharta Bachayyim — And you shall choose life. That is how we Jews have triumphed over our bloodstained history.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes lovingly about her grandfather teaching her the Jewish toast, L’chayim. She once asked him, “Is it to a happy life, Grandpa?” “He had shaken his head no. “It is just ‘To life!’ Neshume-le,” he told me. ‘Is it like a prayer?” I asked uncertainly.

“Ah no, Neshume-le,” he told me. ‘We pray for the things we don’t have. We already have life.’ And he taught her that “L’chayim! meant that no matter what difficulty life brings, no matter how hard or painful or unfair life is, life is holy and worthy of celebration.” And she concludes, “It has always seemed remarkable to me that such a toast could be offered for generations by a people for whom life has not been easy. But perhaps it can only be said by such people, and only those who have lost and suffered can truly understand its power.”

In truth, all of the ideas I’ve presented tonight come from our people’s treasury of wisdom in dealing with hatred and hardship: To comfort one another in time of trouble; to know evil by its true name, and to defy it by acts of justice, goodness, caring and righteousness. And to choose life, which means to choose love and compassion. Because life is always with people.

Throughout these High Holy Days we will recite the three prayers which begin with Uv’chen, “and therefore.” All of them proclaim a vision of a better world, a redeemed world. The last of these gives us hope for a better world, a word of justice and peace that rises from the ashes of human hatred:

Therefore, the righteous will see and be glad, the honest rejoice, and the faithful break into song, for the mouth of evil will be shut and wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You sweep away the rule of arrogance from the earth.

May this vision sustain us in this dark moment with hope for a better world, and may it strengthen our resolve to make it so. Amen.


[1] Avot 4:18

[2] USAJEWISH.COM, Wednesday, September 12, 200 NYPost.com, Sept. 14, 2001, “CEO Lutnick’s Life Is Changed Forever,” By Joseph Gallivan From My Grandfather’s Blessings, quoted in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, Canfield, Hansen, and Elkins, eds.

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