Rabbi Debra R. Hachen
FOR THEIR SAKE (based on similar Jewish stories)
(Rosh Hashanah sermon, September 18, 2001 -- 1 Tishri, 5762)
God sat shocked on the throne in heaven. God couldn't believe what had just happened down on earth. It was September 11 and God saw it all as it unfolded. God couldn't find words to speak, and tears started to form in God's eyes. Then the accusing angel approached, the one who was always trying to get people into trouble with God. He was the same angel who suggested that God test Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. He was the same angel who told God that Job only did righteousness because God was good to him - and that if God took away Job's family and health, Job would lose his faith.
Well, Abraham and Job had both survived those tests of faith. But Satan was still on the lookout for ways to trip up humankind and get God to give up on mankind once and for all.
So, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into the countryside outside Pittsburgh - Satan thought he had found his moment. As God was sitting there stunned and shocked, Satan slipped up beside God.
"O Eternal One, Master of All, Judge of all Truth: here it is just a week before the holiest days of the year -- the days when you open the Book of Life and examine the deeds of each human being. And what will you find this year? Just when people should be starting to think about repentance, prayer and charity, you will find that almost twenty sinful people committed a terrible crime - and took the lives of 5,000 people in one day - in one morning! And, once again, O Master of All, they said they did it in Your name. Now is the time, said Satan, to get rid of humankind once and for all. It was a hopeless experiment, and it's not going to yield any good results."
God now started to weep in earnest. Oh, my children, my children, what have you done! Why do you use hatred and violence to solve your problems! Why don't you listen to my Torah, or the other holy teachings I sent to the religions of the world? Justice, peace, compassion -- these are the ways to serve me -- not death and destruction.
"O Eternal One," Satan spoke in a consoling whisper. "Just give me the word. I will take care of it all. We'll destroy this world and start over again. We angels will help you build a better version."
Now God sat up and started to pay attention. "Wait!" said the Eternal One. "You may be right. Perhaps there is no future for humanity. Perhaps it's time to give up. But I must be certain. I must send three of my loyal and faithful angels to check it out and see if there is any reason to save this world."
So God called three angels, the same three that had been sent so long ago to visit with Abraham in the desert, and gave them their instructions. "Each of you search high and low, and bring back to me any evidence that humankind is still worth saving and helping. Return by nightfall, and I will make my decision."
So the angels went down to earth and began to look through the rubble at each site. They saw the pain of those who were wounded, they knew that under the collapsed buildings there were thousands who had died. But they split up and began to search further for any evidence that man, in spite of all this evil, was worth saving.
The first angel came across two men covered in dust. They were embracing and shaking, so he stopped and overheard them talking to a firefighter. We were on the 68th floor, they said, when we realized we had to evacuate quickly or we would die. But there was a woman in our office who was in a wheelchair -- and the elevators weren't working. We found the emergency wheelchair and moved her over, so we could carry her down the stairs. It was hard work -- coming down all 68 floors. Others told us to leave her and run -- that the firemen would bring her later. But, we couldn't desert her. We passed the firemen on their way up to help others, and we kept going. We got her out, and an ambulance whisked her away immediately. Just as the ambulance pulled away, the building collapsed. We ducked under a van, and now we are just grateful to be alive. Another minute, and all three of us would have died in that building.
Ahhh...thought the angel. The courage of the firefighters who entered the dangerous building to save lives, the compassion these two ordinary men showed for a woman in need, and their gratitude for being alive, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly scraped some of the dust that had fallen from the buildings off of their faces, and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The second angel went to Pennsylvania, but all on the plane had perished. He could sense the spirits of those who died -- could almost feel how they were still linked to their loved ones back home. So, following the trail of connection, he found himself in a home where a wife stood trying to explain what happened to her neighbors. Tears were rolling down her face. He called me on the cell phone, she said. He told me how much he loved me, and then he said that he and four other passengers were going to rush the hijackers and try to stop them. After that, I never heard from him again. But now the authorities are telling me that the plane was headed for D.C. to crash and kill hundreds or thousands of people. I lost my husband today, but I know that he saved the lives of others by his actions.
Ahhh....thought the second angel. The love of this man for his wife, and the courage these men showed in the face of evil, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly, lifted one tear from her cheek and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The third angel went to D.C. He too saw fire and smoke and death and rescuers hard at work. Then he started searching through the city to see how the rest of the people were reacting. Most were in their cars or on the streets heading home. They were in shock and disbelief. But he watched as one woman, a Christian minister, drove past a mosque, made a U turn, and came back again. She parked and got out of her car and walked up to three Muslim women standing outside the mosque. "My friends, she said, what can I do to help?" - for there on the building were scrawled ugly words of hate, spray painted by those who blamed all Muslims for the attacks that morning. The women embraced and cried together, and the Muslim women thanked the stranger for her kindness and caring. She promised to return and bring others to stand with the women in solidarity against hatred and prejudice.
Ahhh...thought the third angel. The way this woman reached out to those who are scapegoated and wrongly accused, surely God will want to save the world for her sake. And so gently, almost invisibly, he captured the words "What can I do to help?" and flew up to heaven and presented the words to God.
Just then, Satan appeared before God to announce that he was ready to carry out the mission of wiping out humanity and that he had the plans already in hand to start over on another world. "All you have to do is give the command, said Satan, and I'll see it is obeyed immediately."
"Wait!" cried God. "You are right that humanity is capable of much evil. And you are right that from time to time it looks as if hatred has won out over love. But I have evidence that we cannot give up on the people down below us. My angels have brought me proof that there is hope for my creation: here is the dust to remind me how compassionate human beings can be - and how much they treasure life. For compassion's sake I will save the world. And here is a tear, a remembrance of the love shared between husband and wife, and a reminder of one who gave his life to protect others from harm. For the sake of selflessness and love, I will not destroy the world. And lastly, here is the voice of a woman who saw wrongdoing and did not turn away. She was willing to stand up for what was just and right, and to get involved. For the sake of justice and righteousness, I will not destroy the world, for they will in the end redeem this world."
Satan's face fell, and he knew he had lost again. "But God," he asked, "how many times will you give them another chance? Take a look at history -- how many wars and genocides will it take before you change your mind?"
"Oh, Satan," said God, rising up from the throne. "You don't understand. I also hate the suffering and pain. But as long as I can still see the goodness and mercy and love in the hearts of my children on earth, I must have hope that the pain will one day end."
And God sat back down on the throne to begin hearing the prayers of those who were calling out from earth, and to record again the deeds of humankind in the Book of Life for the year 5762.