Rabbi David G. Lerner
North Suburban Synagogue Beth El - Highland Park, Illinois
Attack on America 9-11-01 Shabbat Ki Tavo 5762
The day after, as it happened, I had a meeting at the University of Chicago. Heading south during rush hour to brave the traffic on the Edens, I could see in the distance, a lone tall building, a symbol of power, economic prosperity, success, freedom, hope and unity glistening in the distance some 20 miles away. There stands the Sears Tower, as beautiful as ever, the tallest building in this country. Its two slightly shorter, but larger siblings, the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, no longer exist beyond a pile of rubble. There is a gaping hole in the New York skyline where this symbol of life, liberty and prosperity used to stand. The physical skyline of Manhattan has been altered in a dramatic way.
As a child, I grew up in the shadows of those skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. They seemed as permanent as permanent can be. The fact that vicious terrorists destroyed them and, with them, thousands of lives is simply an event that I cannot begin to comprehend.
But the buildings, even the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have only the appearance of permanence and their destruction is ultimately not what this is about. It is about the deaths of individuals and the death of the American self-perception of invulnerability. We all saw the images of people falling from the Towers, the couple holding hands. We have heard the tearful farewell phone calls made by people on the hijacked planes or trapped in the fiery infernos, captured by the marvels of technology before their deaths.
How many children have been orphaned? How many parents bereaved? The gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline is merely the macro; the micro is the tear in so many hearts. We see their dear ones holding pictures looking for survivors and we know that many will not be found at all and most will not be found alive. Think of the children left with babysitters or in day care, dropped off at the beginning of the school year who will not again know the security of their parent’s care. Think of the father who was heading to California for his daughter’s wedding.
We cannot fathom the numbers; we can identify only with individuals. What does it mean to say that the casualties exceed those at Pearl Harbor and on the Titanic combined. We know that eighteen thousand Jews a day were murdered in Treblinka alone when it was operating at capacity. So this is somewhere in between? Not really, for there is no scale on which we can weigh tragedy or pain.
Like you, I am left numb by this vicious attack. I am not sure how to respond, the emotions have been overwhelming. We are all dazed and shocked.
* * *
For me, last Tuesday was a replay of frequent events in Israel. I spent the day trying to get phone lines to call my family members and friends who live in New York to make certain that they were not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Almost every day in Israel the same kind of phone calls take place, as family members check in after the most recent suicide bomber to see if they are OK. Phone lines become overcrowded.
Similarly, my sister, Rahel, lives only a short distance away from the disaster site; I spent an anxious hour trying to get through. When I finally reached her, we cried. The last time we had a cry like that was five years ago when we lost our two good friends, Matt and Sara, may their memories be blessed, who were killed on the 18 bus in Jerusalem by a Palestinian suicide bomber.
* * *
On Tuesday, I felt blessed that my family and friends were safe. But others' family and friends were not. In a small country like Israel the degree of separation is not that great. Everyone knows someone who has been killed by terrorism. In a large country like the United States there is room for more separation; but this past Tuesday made our great land smaller. I know people who lost friends and family. One of Sharon's old USY acquaintances, Andrew Zucker, is missing and the presumption is clear. In my father's old synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue, on 14th Street and 1st Avenue, a congregant, Steve Jacobson, is missing.
At the Solomon Schechter Day School I attended in Bergen County, New Jersey, four parents are missing and presumed… Rabbi Kurtz and I spoke to many colleagues in the area; many lost congregants. The devastation is unreal.
We pray now that perhaps a few more will be found alive, that some miracle might yet occur, but we also know, with heavy hearts, that most are lost - thousands of lives cut short and thousands of families with raw wounds. For them, this is a permanent nightmare. We pray for those injured that they may be granted a refuah shlemah, a complete healing. And we pray that God grants all a measure of comfort. Adonai, our God, send comfort to those who mourn.
* * *
Beyond the enormity of the loss and devastation, we remain wondering how to cope. Just a few weeks ago I was speaking with my cousin, Alon, who lives in Jerusalem and is now a member of an elite Army Intelligence unit. During his teen years, he trained as a medic.
After the disasters in Israel of this past year, my cousin went to provide support. When he was not needed to provide medical assistance, Alon immediately went to the nearest blood bank to give blood. In the face of death, his response was to affirm life. Similarly, last Tuesday my sister went to Lenox Hill Hospital and waited seven hours to donate blood; we need to affirm life in the face of destruction and calamity.
As Americans around the country have united to help, I urge everyone here to participate, to affirm life: to donate blood, to donate funds, or look for other ways to help. We might call a friend or acquaintance with whom we have lost touch and reconnect - this is a time when we need to assert our love for each other. After Shabbat, take out your driver's license and sign the back before two witnesses to participate in organ donation. That way, if, God forbid, a tragedy strikes you, you may help others live. This is a critical act, a mitzvah, in which we can all participate. In the face of death, let us affirm life.
Let us also retell stories of hope, of the bravery and courage of those on the fourth plane who successfully fought with the terrorists to bring down the plane in a place where it would not take any more lives. Let us acclaim the heroic firefighters, the hundreds who gave their lives to help people escape the disaster. By standing and helping people to safety, they sacrificed so that others could live.
Now we are hearing the stories of the lucky ones. I called my friend Alan -- his father works at the Pentagon. Was he OK? Fortunately, he does not go into the office on Tuesday. Another friend was heading to his job that Tuesday morning in the World Trade Center and the explosion of the first plane going into the building shook him, sending such a terrible blast that it ripped the clothes off his body and his glasses off his face. He fell to the ground bewildered and confused and heard and then saw the debris falling to the ground. Luckily, a car was parked nearby. Instinctively, he crawled under the car as chunks of concrete, glass and metal came flying down. He made it to safety before the towers collapsed, unharmed physically, but emotionally shaken -- that parked car saved his life. Later will come the stories of the unlucky ones who were, by some fluke, where they normally are not.
In the midst of all the phone calls and stories and dealing with the tragedy, on Tuesday, I had a class on the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy. Of course, I wanted to continue that class and to teach. I searched through our traditional texts for something applicable to our current state of mind. The Yalkut, a compilation of rabbinic midrashim, related a story of an exchange between a non-Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Eleazar. The philosopher challenges Rabbi Eleazar, claiming that the Jewish people have no connection to God, that Adonai, our God, does not save them in times of need. The philosopher has a proof: God does not care for Israel because those who hurt Israel and their buildings still stand, while the Beit Hamikdash, our Holy Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. If those nations are unjust should God not tear their buildings down?! Rabbi Eleazar replies that they still stand because God does not intervene in the physical world to protect the just against calamity, but simply thwarts their evil plans.
That answer suffices for the philosopher and he stops his questioning. But, on Tuesday we saw that God does not thwart terrible plans. The most intricate, complicated plans of the terrorists were executed with a sickening degree of success. We have just seen that even the strongest buildings conceived by humanity, could be toppled by humans, and oh so quickly.
The real import of this rabbinic text relates not to engineering but to theology. Does God intervene to save us from disasters? Unfortunately, the answer is no - the Shoah / the Holocaust and this attack on America are among many instances that prove that.
So, how does God help us? Perhaps Rabbi Eleazar can be understood as discussing not plans, but thought. God inspires us to think and live our lives in certain ways. God affirms life – our tradition teaches us that human life is to be respected over all else. Our tradition instructs us not to kill and to save a life. As it states, “one who has saved a human life, it is as though he or she has saved the entire world.” God’s ways will win out in the end against the terrible approach of fundamentalism that sees life as without worth and thus, spawns suicide bombers at the innocent. That is the message that I see in this text. While the enemies of Israel and the United States have hurt us this week, goodness, morality and decency – all of the values in our Torah about human life – will overcome.
Our way, the Jewish way of life, is guided by halakhah, Jewish law, which champions life over almost everything and affirms this world’s existence as paramount. In the face of disaster we never celebrate, even over the deaths of our enemies; we come together to support each other, to give blood, to pray together. Suicide bombing and hijacking planes into buildings does not affirm life. We come out to cry out against the destructive forces of fundamentalism and the murderous rampage it leaves in its wake. As our Torah declares “Uvaharta b’hayim - choose life,” that is the way of our God and so all of us, wounded though we may be, innocence lost as it is, security damaged as it has never been before, we will stand up strong and in the words that Rabbi Kurtz affirmed last Tuesday night, when 300 of us gathered together, we will be “hazak v’amatz -- we will be strong and of good courage,” we will stand together. Those words of Psalm 27 are echoed at the beginning of this morning’s Torah reading. “Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei Adonai – You stand this day, all of you, before God.” All of us must stand and be strong before and for God.
This year now closing 5761, has been a most excruciating one for the Jewish people and Israel and now for America and its citizens. But, as we embark upon a New Year, we pray that it will bring blessing upon us, upon ourselves, our families, our friends, our Jewish community and the entire world.
This past Wednesday driving into Chicago, there was a huge American flag unfurled over the Kennedy Expressway just before the loop. I looked up at our flag and I thought of the hope that it represents - the hope that is our country. I also thought of our people, the Jewish people who have found hope and refuge in this great free land.
May God restore our freedom and security. Although our former innocence and sense of security may never be the same, we still have faith in humanity and this strong country with her valorous citizens. May God reestablish the symbols of the economic and military power of the United States that were destroyed. May God protect the Jewish people and the good citizens of this fine land. May we all affirm the value of human life and protect it.
In the words of the psalmist: “In you, O Eternal God, I take refuge. Incline your ear to me, and save me.Be my rock of refuge, a stronghold to give me safety.” (Psalm 71)
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the New Year 5762 it heralds, may God help us to cope, to come together and become even stronger than before.
And let us say: Amen.