Rabbi Donald A. Weber
Temple Rodeph Torah of Western Monmouth
Rosh HaShanah Day I, 5762
“The Double Yellow Line”
Route 79, Route 520, Route 537, Ryan Road, Pond Road, Union Hill Road, Tennent Road, Route 522. These roads all have something in common: On each road there is a double yellow line down the middle, which separates the traffic going one way from the traffic going the other. I don’t know if you’ve ever given it much thought, but that double yellow line does not protect us from anything. It’s not made of concrete; it does not keep cars on the right side of the road; it doesn’t even have a rumble strip to let people know when they’re crossing it. Why is it, then, that we drive down those roads at 30, 40 or 50 miles a hour, unconcerned about anything except where we’re headed? We do because we know that the people whizzing by us just feet away in the other direction — also doing 30, 40 or 50 miles an hour — want to live. And since they do, they are going to stay on their side of that double yellow line and we are going to stay on ours. That’s all that does it, you know.
Most of our traffic laws are not based on getting arrested or getting a ticket. Most of our traffic laws are things that we do because we want to live, and we know that if we break them, sooner or later, we are going to get hurt or we are going to die. So we drive down the road: they stay there and we stay here. Occasionally you’ll see somebody whose attention wanders and they slip across the road and then you see them immediately jerk back to their side, and we know that they did it because they want to live.
So what do we do when there are people who don’t want to live? What do we do when there are people who want to die, and who have decided that it will be their glory to take as many other people with them as possible when they go? What do we do? Can we protect ourselves? No, we cannot. Can we erect concrete barriers down the center of every single road we travel on, to make sure that we’ll be safe and protected from them? Of course not. It is not physically possible. And yet, knowing this, you and I still go about our business. What would we do if we thought all the time about someone who wanted to cross that line and kill us? We’d be paralyzed.
But why would somebody want to cross that line and kill us? Well, when we figure that one out, we will know how to respond to what happened one week ago today. So today I am not going to try to tell you why it happened, or who is to blame, or what the United States should do to respond. There will be time for those discussions, but the time is not now. Today, I want to share with you three ideas which may help us to get through this, and which may even help us to make this New Year a better one than the one just past. I warn you I am not a prophet, nor even a sage, so I don’t pretend to give you the ultimate answers to these things. All I can offer is a way that we might find ourselves able to cope in the days and weeks and even the years ahead.
The first idea is painfully clear: Life is terribly, terribly fragile. It isn’t so often that we see, firsthand, how quickly life can end. When the planes hit the towers, and when the towers collapsed, we knew without a doubt that we were watching many, many people die. But it happens all the time. Car accidents, industrial accidents, heart-attacks and completely random events where a person was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and death finds them. Fortunately for us, most of these events are unseen, unwitnessed, or witnessed by only a very few — and it is blessedly rare that we are forced to watch the same event over and over again, like some insane compulsive who can’t stop hurting himself. If you have never been touched by a sudden, unforeseen death, then consider yourself very, very lucky. But also, I hope that you will learn what many of us know all too well — that life is fragile, and delicate, and not at all guaranteed. I don’t say this to scare you; as we all saw this week, life is scary enough without anyone making it worse. I say it to remind you — to remind all of us — that we have no guarantees. So if there is something we know we need to do, something we would not want to die without doing, then we had better do it now — today. Today is the day to say “ I love you” to the ones we love, even if they already know it. Today is the day to spend time with the ones we love — to sit with them, play with them, laugh with them, talk with them — to do everything we want to be sure that we’ve done whenever it is that we arrive at the end of our lives.
A long time ago, I saw a “Family Circus” cartoon which I liked so much, that I got permission from the publisher to publish it in our temple Newsletter. It said, “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not come, but today is a gift — that’s why it’s called The Present.” If it serves no other purpose, I pray that we will understand last week’s horror to be a reminder of what we cannot know and cannot plan for and that we will see every single new day as a gift, as a present.
But what of the horror itself? Where was God, last Tuesday? For many of us, the pictures on TV were pictures of hell itself — and some of us here in this room witnessed that hell firsthand, live and in person. How can we possibly believe in God, when such evil — such raw, unmitigated evil — can unfold before our eyes? For me, there is only one way. For me, the acts of humanity — of menschlichkeit — are the only things that give me the hope to go on, hope to believe that God exists in this terrifying world. We know that people can do evil, and that God cannot stop them; that is the price of free will. If we want to be in charge of our lives and in charge of our destinies, then we must accept the terrible conclusion that God will not stop in and save us when someone else chooses to expend their lives in such a way. But in the middle of hell — literally, in the middle of the fires — we saw hundreds, thousands of individual acts of holiness. We’ve all heard the breathtaking stories of the police and the firefighters who risked and gave their own lives to rush to others’ aid. You saw those pictures. Can you imagine what it took for them to go toward those buildings? I don’t care what your job is; think of what it took to rush toward those buildings. There is no pay in the world that makes that worthwhile. It was only their love of human beings — of humanity — that made them do that. We’ve heard whispers of individuals, some whom we know and some who are nameless, who chose to care about others at a time when no one could have faulted them for caring only about themselves. Many of them gave their lives in caring for others, but they did it.
We know that there are too many blood donors now; those of you who have been involved with our blood donation program here over the years know that we’ve never heard that before, not ever. There is now a call for doctors and nurses to help, because more people want to give blood than there are trained people to take it. People are willing to give their own blood to help.
We see signs painted on plywood, leaned against telephone polls all around town: “New York City collection here.” The signs don’t even need to list what they are collecting; we all know. I think the crudeness of the signs is what makes them so beautiful; they are simple, basic outpourings of humanity.
We hear of doctors who drove from Georgia to volunteer, and first aiders and firemen and police who have taken leaves of absence from their jobs all over the country and driven here to go into that mess to try to help. And we now know that the plane which went down in Pennsylvania, did so because the passengers learned of what the hijackers had planned, and said, “We will not allow this to happen, even at the cost of our own lives.” It did cost them their lives, but how many did they save? We will never know, and they will never know, but knowing full well what they were doing, they said “No” to the terror.
Where was God in all that horror? God was giving people the courage, the decency, the humanity to heal instead of to hurt. And for me, it is only that humanity — that menschlichkeit — which allows me to want to wake up tomorrow morning in this world. Without these acts of decency, of holiness, none of us would be able to go on; and so, in a very real way, those decent, holy people have given us our lives, too.
The third idea I want to leave with you is one I learned in March of 1976, when I was living in Jerusalem. That year, Jerusalem suffered five terrorist bombings. The fifth one happened one day before Erev Purim. Now, Purim in Jerusalem is something incredible. They close down the whole middle part of the city: no cars, no trucks, nothing. The entire city turns into a block party. They have bands playing on street corners and up on trucks so people can hear. They have balloons hanging all over the place, people walking around and singing and laughing, street vendors selling food, and these great little plastic hammers — when you bop somebody on the head with one, they go “beep.” Everybody gets them. You walk around town, you go up to people and go “beep.” Soldiers, police, it doesn’t matter; you just bop them on the head with your little plastic hammer.
But one day before Erev Purim, a bomb went off right in the middle of Jerusalem, at an intersection. One woman was killed, a dozen were injured, all the stores on those four corners had their windows blown out and there was smoke damage, and a lot of things in the stores were wrecked. I was thinking about whether to go down there for Purim the next day, and I figured, why not? So, on Erev Purim I took the bus as far as it would go and then joined the crowd of people walking in. I wondered whether they would have that street closed off, to keep people away from the blast site. But no, there were people all around. I pushed my way through, and found that on each of the four corners they had taken four pieces of plywood, 8’ x 12’, and stood them up around each corner, blocking off the blown-out buildings behind them. And all the night before, artists who lived in Jerusalem had come out and painted fantastic artwork all over those plywood boards. The brightest colors you’ve ever seen: birds flying, sunrises, magnificent landscapes — each artist took a different board, 16 boards on four corners. And on the board right in the middle, right where the bomb had been, I will never forget what I saw: painted in huge, beautiful letters was, “Teguvateinu lapitzutz” — “This is our response to the bomb.”
This needs to be our response, also. What the Israelis taught me is that the only way to defeat terrorism is not to let it destroy us. We will never “win” the war on terrorism. I’m sorry, but it is true. Such things will happen — there, here, wherever — and we cannot let them defeat us. We have to go out and live our lives; not just survive them, but live them as beautifully, as colorfully, as extravagantly as those artists who painted those boards in downtown Jerusalem. Folks, a lot of soldiers are getting ready for war right now. But you and I are soldiers in this war, also, because the goal of terrorism is not to kill people; it is to make people afraid to live. If we are afraid to live, the terrorists have won. There are people who are scared to death to go back into New York City, and I don’t blame you. There are people who are scared to get on an airplane, and I don’t blame you. There are people who are suddenly just scared about living, and I don’t blame you. But do you know what? Soldiers going into battle are scared to death, also. If you tell me that soldiers can know they’re going into a battle and not be afraid, then you do not understand what it means to be a soldier. And folks, this one is up to us. In spite of being scared, we have to go back to living. In spite of being afraid, we have to do the things we used to do. Knowing full well that something could happen, but probably won’t. You and I will determine whether the terrorists win, this time and next time and the time after that.
I saw it in Israel: after every single time, we went and comforted those who were mourning, we cleaned up the glass, we cleaned up the pieces, we rebuilt and we went on. There is something going around on the Internet which you may have seen: a first suggestion for how to rebuild the World Trade Center. It suggests a new design of five towers which, together, create an exceptionally obscene gesture. I’m not sure that that design is going to fly, but the idea is right. We need to say, “The hell with you, we are going on anyway.” Sometimes it will be scary as hell, but we need to do it anyway. This is the war on terrorism, and now it is our war, too.
I told you I have no great wisdom for you today; only these three simple ideas to keep in mind as we drive beside that double yellow line:
Life is a fragile gift.
Our own little acts of humanity are all that make it worthwhile to live.
And even this must not keep us from living it to its fullest.
May we be blessed — all of us — with a year of peace.
© 2001, Rabbi Donald A. Weber