Rabbi Jonah Layman
Shaare Tefila Congregation - Silver Spring, Maryland
Rosh Hashana 2001/5762 – Day 1
This past week has been a nightmare. The images of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon look as if they are straight out of an Arnold Schwarzeneger movie. Planes being hijacked, skyscrapers crumbling, people running through the streets – who could ever imagine that we would see those things with our own eyes? Yet, it is tragically not a nightmare. This is our life. It has encompassed every waking moment. It has frightened us. It has rallied us around our president. It has increased our feelings of patriotism. It has steeled our resolve to pursue justice to the ends of the earth.
The tragedy has also been brought home to us as a Shaare Tefila community. One of our own is still missing in the Pentagon. Darin Pontell – husband of Devora Wolk, son-in-law of Betsy and Herb Wolk – is a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy. He works for Naval Intelligence in an office that had just moved into that newly renovated section of the Pentagon.
So much has happened this past week that it is difficult to articulate my feelings. I feel angry that such a cowardly and despicable act could have been carried out. I feel despair over ever hearing good news about Darin. I feel overwhelmingly patriotic as our country pulls together to pursue justice and stand up for our values. I feel intense grief for the thousands of lives lost in New York and the scores of lives lost in the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I feel elated when I hear news of survivors. And I feel tremendously grateful for the hundreds of rescue workers who are working around the clock. They are owed a tremendous debt of gratitude. And I have also felt that my belief in God has been severely tested.
With all of these thoughts constantly passing through my mind I have found it very difficult to respond to last week’s events in a cogent, clear way. I want to try to start to make sense of last Tuesday – try to regain my equilibrium - but I’m finding it very hard. How can I make sense of it when I officiated at Darin and Devora’s wedding exactly six months ago? How can I make sense of terrorists using human beings as weapons? How can I make sense of two 110 story buildings collapsing with thousands of people inside?
So, I thought I would write a letter. Letters are more informal and allow for a stream of consciousness. They come from the heart and reflect the sincerest of thoughts and intentions. Letters allow for catharsis and help us begin to understand how to at least begin to wrestle with a problem. I thought that by writing a letter to Darin I could begin to know how to cope.
Six months ago I was standing on this bima addressing you and Devora as you became husband and wife. You were such a handsome, beautiful couple. The deep love and affection you had for each other was felt by everyone that day – and in fact your love is a blessing for all those who know you. And now you are missing.
I want you to know how much of an impact you have had on your family and friends these past few days. I want you to know some of the things I have seen as I have spent the past few days with Devora and the family. Maybe by telling you these things not only will you feel comforted and proud, but I’ll begin to make some sense from this ordeal.
First, Darin, you should know what an incredible woman your wife is. Not only has she been strong enough to talk to all the Navy and FBI officials and provide all the necessary information, but she has done everything humanly possible to find you. She has been working the phone talking to as many people as possible to ensure that every lead has been followed and that nothing has been missed. Her perseverance has been heroic and she has been an inspiration.
Your family also has been incredibly supportive. Your mother in law has not left Devora’s side. Your father-in-law has been to the Pentagon every day talking to people and trying to find you. Your parents and brother have been with her every day. A crisis like this could tear families apart. Yours is the furthest from that. Everyone has been so comforting to each other – hugging each other and crying on each other’s shoulders. The love and friendship that is evident has been overwhelming. It has been a lesson to me of the power of family. When there is love and support, one can survive the most horrendous of tragedies. Surely, the fact that you are missing has been horrendous. It has strained their emotions and energies. Yet deep down they know they are not going through it alone. Yes this is the second time your parents are going through this. Yes, your young bride can’t comprehend that this is happening. Yes, this is enough to make anyone go over the edge. But, they haven’t. Your family has made sure that everyone can talk honestly and openly with each other. Your family has made sure that everyone feels loved and cared for. Your family has made sure that everyone will get through this intact. It has been a privilege for me to witness your family’s compassion and it has been helpful for me too.
Not only have I witnessed the blessing of family, I’ve observed the power of community. The outpouring of support from your friends and from your in-laws’ friends from the Shaare Tefila community has been incredible. Non-Jewish friends of Devora’s from work came by the other day. They brought kosher food with them because they knew you keep a kosher home. Herb and Betsy’s friends have cooked meals, have called, have expressed their concern. They’ve all shown your family how blessed it is to be part of a community. Judaism teaches al tiphrosh min hatzibur – don’t separate yourself from the community. We need to affiliate, we need to take an active role in the community and make friends. Your family has fortunately seen the benefit of community.
I’ve seen the power of family and community and I have been overwhelmed with a sense of pride in my country. Your Navy has provided an incredible support network for Devora. Apparently the Navy has a group of counseling officers that in times like these are assigned to individual families. Their responsibility is to the family – to find answers as they look for you, to answer any legal questions, to help with paperwork, and to show Devora and your family that the Navy cares for its own. The officer assigned to Devora has not left her side. He has been her lifeline. His compassion and concern have been a source of strength to her.
That officer is also only a couple of years older than you and is also a graduate of the Naval academy. He has told stories of his days in Annapolis that allowed Devora and her family to laugh. His stories also served to keep you alive. By hearing his stories it is as if you were in the room. It has been a tremendous help to Devora.
And, as I said I have been proud to be an American. I never served in the military. Only one classmate of mine from rabbinical school decided to enter the reserve chaplaincy corps. The only connection I have to our armed forces is my selective service number. I’ve taken our soldiers, sailors, and pilots for granted. Many of them are younger than I. They’ve entered the military with a great sense of patriotism. They want to serve their country and we are in their debt. It is times like these, when the military is called into service and you and your colleagues are missing, that we begin to realize the great honor you so richly deserve. Your superior officer told Devora how you were hand selected for your position because of the talent and skills you exhibited. He said you have great potential in the intelligence office. It is clear that our country has been served well by your efforts. Thank you.
Darin, even though I’ve learned a lot about family, community, and the Navy this week, I’d trade that in a second to have you come home. We want to be able to turn back the clock and tell you to get out of the Pentagon. We want to turn back the clock so that you and Devora can live a long and happy life together. We want to turn back the clock so that our country can remain innocent. However, we know we can’t turn back the clock. We’ve lost our innocence. A generation that never knew war – my generation – is growing up fast. I’ve seen movies of WWII. I’ve heard countless stories from Holocaust survivors. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have lived through that time. I’ve wondered whether I would have had the strength or the determination to survive. I wonder if I would have had the courage to fight. I wonder if I could have maintained my faith in God.
These are trying times we are living in now. The search for you has brought out the best in our country. We have learned to be thankful to those who serve our country. We have learned what it really means to be patriotic. We have only started to learn what it means to sacrifice.
The hardest thing for me as your rabbi though has been to remain unshaken in my faith. I’ve seen a lot as rabbi of Shaare Tefila. There have been a variety of tragedies in the congregation in my 7 years here. Yet through it all my theology has remained intact and I have been able to celebrate Judaism.
This year it is more difficult. It was hard to put on this white robe and celebrate a new year. It is hard to hear the shofar blasts knowing that you’re not here to hear them. It is hard to recite the prayers about today being the day of judgment – the day that God has the book of life before him. Did the 5,000 people in the World Trade Center deserve to be written in the book of death? Did you Darin deserve to be in the Pentagon at 9:30 last Tuesday morning?
These are the questions that are the hardest for your family and many others to answer. We’ve been brought up on that picture of God on the throne with a huge book on the desk in front of him. That picture has survived all these years but this year it is tested. Because you are missing, your family and many others can’t accept that picture.
I’ve tried to tell them that I don’t believe in that picture anymore. It doesn’t mean I’m not Jewish. It doesn’t mean I have a different form of Judaism. It only means that I’ve had to reinterpret that very traditional image. The book of life and death to me is our own individual lives. Our lives are like a book of life and death. We never know when we will die. We never know how much blessing and health we will have. Life is beyond our control. Yet if we find meaning in our lives – if we are able to grow from the tragedies we experience then it is as if we are written in the book of life. If we are able to appreciate the support systems we have, if we are able to appreciate the wondrous beauty of nature, if we are able to find meaning in the most meaningless and senseless tragedy, then that is the book of life.
If however we live our lives always expecting the worse, if we imagine a black cloud hovering above us, if we can’t experience even a moment of joy, then it is as if we are in the book of death. If we can find God and we can find meaning in life, then we are in the book of life. If we don’t believe in God and wander through life aimlessly then we are in the book of death.
Darin, I looked at your wedding pictures the other day. I saw the wonderful smile on your face. I saw how you and Devora were looking at each and how wonderfully lost in each other you were. I still remember meeting with you and Devora in my office and watching you hold hands and smile at each other. It was beautiful to behold. It is that zest for life that enables me to celebrate Rosh Hashana today. It is your love for Devora that enables me to continue to find meaning in life. It is your loving family and friends that enables me to continue to live life every day.
Our prayers are with you Darin. We can’t imagine life without you. We have learned a lot from you already in your 26 years and from your family. We only hope and pray that you and your family can continue to experience the joy of life together and continue to teach us such positive lessons. As we begin a new year together today, may it be one filled with love of family and love of country. May that love allow this year to be tova umetooka – good and sweet.
With warmth and affection,
At times like this life stinks. No matter how good our lives have been, no matter how healthy we are, no matter how happy we are, something bad will happen. We have no control over when that “bad” will happen. We can’t plan our lives in such a way that we could say, “I think I can fit in some grief next Friday.” We can’t line up the support system and strengthen our emotional health to get ready for it. The bad just strikes at any moment, as we saw in the extreme last week. How could that family of 4 on their way to Australia for a semester plan for the plane crash? How did my wife Lenore’s best friend’s sister know to have a doctor’s appointment last Tuesday morning instead of getting to work at the World Trade Center at her usual time? How did that man know to drop off his child at kindergarten instead of be in the office with his 700 employees who are still missing? How did Darin have the luck to be hand selected for his position in the Pentagon?
Bad, tragic things happen and we have no control. If we focus only on the bad then life not only would be chaotic, it would not be worth living. If we lived our lives expecting the worst at any moment, it would be impossible to live. In fact, there would be no point to living. But, since we exist, since we are alive, then our purpose must be to make our lives as good as possible.
Fortunately, our religion provides us with the structure and values necessary to make this life meaningful. Our goal as Jews is letaken olam – to repair or perfect the world. Every mitzvah we perform as Jews serves the purpose of repairing the world. Lighting candles for Shabbat and holidays sanctifies the day and brings the family together. Keeping kosher helps us understand our relationship to nature and puts perspective on our instinct to eat. Gathering here today on Rosh Hashana helps us see the power of community, helps us reflect upon ourselves, and helps us communicate with God. The structure of Judaism provides us with the strength to overcome the evil in the world. The structure of Judaism helps bring order out of the chaos around us. The structure of Judaism adds meaning to our lives.
As we mourn the devastation of last week let us not give in to the evil. Let us not let the evil overwhelm us and control our lives. Let us instead turn to our faith, turn to our family and friends, turn to our country and resolve to participate in tikun olam – perfecting the world. Then we will inscribe ourselves in the book of life for a good new year. Amen.