Rabbi Michael Friedland
South Bend, Indiana
Rosh HaShanah - Day I
September 18, 2001
Her eyes, I think, will stay with me forever. Imploring, beseeching, full of so much sadness. I think the shock of where and how she was, was sinking in. I can't begin to describe all that was in those eyes.
Yesterday; Thursday, August 9th the 20th of Av, on my way to work, I found myself walking down Yaffo street. Hungry, I decided to stop and grab a quick bite... at Sbarro's Pizza.
Walking into Sbarro's there is a larger area for sitting in the front, but the back looked a bit cooler and quieter, so I decided to grab a seat in the back. That decision saved my life.
Waiting on line, when they brought me my baked Zitti, it was cold. So I asked the woman behind the counter if she'd mind warming it up. "Ein Ba'ayah", no problem, she said with a smile. I will always wonder if that was her last smile on earth...
A couple of moments later, a fellow from behind the counter came to the back with my baked Zitti. Then he started to speak to someone at one of the tables... That baked Zitti saved his life.
At about 2PM, I both felt & heard a tremendous explosion, and day turned into night.
And then the screaming began. An awful, heartrending sound; the sound of people coming to terms with a whole new reality, of people not wanting to comprehend that life has changed forever.
A woman was lying near the steps to the back. Her eyes were staring straight at me, following me. So full of pain and longing, sadness and despair. I dropped down beside her trying to elicit a response to see if she could speak. And then I watched the life just drain out of her. I tried to get a pulse, to no avail. She died there, on the steps in front of me. She was lying by the table I had decided not to sit at... I recall once, reading a story of a boy who was saved from a near-drowning by a stranger. As the fellow carried him ashore, the boy looked up and said "thanks for saving my life, mister". To which the man responded: "Just make sure it was worth saving...".
The description by Rabbi Binny Friedman of his experiences at the Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem captured the sense of serendipity, fate, bad luck or good fortune that swirls around catastrophic events. This past week our country, the mightiest nation in the world, suffered the worst terrorist attack in history. And the description of terror in the Sbarro Pizza attack was replayed a thousand times at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the planes that were used by the murderers as human bombs. Horrible suffering and serendipitous salvation. Tammie Brown told me of a friend of the family who worked on the 99th floor of the Tower. It was such a beautiful morning in New York that Tuesday that he decided to go to the park and davven. That act of prayer literally saved his life. And yet there are stories of tragic fate as well. Barbara Olson the solicitor general's wife, was supposed to take a flight on Monday but in order to celebrate a family birthday flew out Tuesday on flight 77 from Dulles, the plane that struck the Pentagon.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, describing the feeling in Israel, but what many must be feeling now in America, said, "There is such a sense of uncertainty that what time of day one chooses to get a haircut may determine whether one will live or die."
"B'rosh HaShanah yikatayvoon u'vYom Tzom Kippur yehatemun, kamah ya'avrun v'kamah yibareyun, mi yamut umi yehiyeh". On New Year's Day the Decree is inscribed and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who shall attain the measure of man's day and who shall not attain it who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast..." The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, a cornerstone of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, articulating a model of life in anxious balance has been at best for us an academic exercise, a guided imagery to get us in the mood for High Holidays. But in the aftermath of the tragic suicide bombings in Israel, still in shock from the terror attacks on American soil we recognize that in fact our fates can be decided in split second decisions we make deliberately or unknowingly.
The facade that we are in complete control of our destiny is carefully cultivated by the streams of information we absorb: if we eat right, if we exercise the right amount, we will be healthy, if we work hard, save money, diversify our investments, we will be wealthy. Just as the impenetrable twin towers of the World Trade Center have collapsed so to these illusions are shattered. At times like this we avow the reality of our dependence on God. God does give us the ability to take control of our lives but ultimately there are limitations. I think that is why we have seen this outpouring of prayer across America - it is acknowledgment that when the limits of our ability to control a situation have been reached we turn to a different power for strength.
The liturgy of the High Holiday period reflects this duality of acquiescence and mastery. One example of this liturgy is psalm 27 a psalm we say morning and evening throughout the High Holiday period. Psalm 27 begins with confidence, opening with rhetorical bravado. Hashem ori v'yishi, mimi ira? The Lord is my light and my salvation, from whom shall I fear? But as the psalm proceeds we get a better look at the psalmist's inner state. Al taster paneikha mimeni - don't turn your face away from me, al tazveni- don't abandon me, Al titneni benefesh tzarai - don't hand me over to my enemies. This is not boldness, this is fear and anxiety. This is the response "We will hunt down those terrorists and make them pay" while knowing deep within that a terrorist tragedy could occur tomorrow and the next day and there is very little an open democratic multicultural society can do about it.
Lulai heemanti b'tuv Hashem - states the psalmist. The New JPS translation notes the oddness of this statement: Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord....and then it trails off. The statement is left incomplete. We are left hanging. What if one does not have the assurance of God's goodness, then what? The impression is made that the psalmist is not as confident as he pretends to be. And neither are we. We also put on a brave front. Like the Dubner Maggid's explanation of the Avinu Malkeynu prayer: We call out Avinu Malkeynu- we want a good new year, Avinu Malkeynu -cancel all the bad decrees, Avinu Malkeynu-annul the evil designs of those who hate, Avinu Malkeynu-destroy our enemies, Avinu Malkeynu-remove all diseases from us, Avinu Malkeynu-bring us back in perfect repentance. and then we say quietly at the end, honenu va'aneynu ki ayn banu ma'asim - be kind to us by responding to our requests since we have no merits that make us deserving of all these things. In the aftermath of the bombings we hear bravado about America defeating terrorism yet deep down I think we all have to admit that the terrorists have achieved an initial success in terrifying us. Life will no longer be the same.
The difficult truth is that life has always been precarious. We suffer loss daily. The author of Psalm 27 states Ki avi v'imi azvuni vashem ya'asfeni - Though my father and my mother leave me, the Lord will gather me in. Our world is flimsy - our lives are fragile and the ties we have to others are frail. Even parental love is impermanent. Nothing is forever but God. The only difference after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is that we have now placed a magnifying glass over that reality.
But today is Rosh HaShanah. The author of the Tur, a medieval code states despite the image of judgment hanging over our heads we rejoice, we wear white, we have festive meals, we celebrate this day. We can celebrate in good conscience because our Judge recognizes our condition and our background. Atah yodea yitzram ki haym basar v'dam - for you know the nature of their creation. They are flesh and blood. Adam yesodo me'afar vsofo le'afar. B'nafsho yavie lachmo - Man's foundation is from dust of the earth and his end will be in that same dirt. He obtains bread by the peril of life. And therefore unlike the judges in Texas our judge is kashe likhos v'noach lirtzot. Slow to anger and ready to forgive. Today all Americans know what Israelis have known for a long time - the world is not a safe place but it can be a beautiful place. And our psalm offers us three responses as to how we can appreciate and navigate this world.
Ahat shealti me'et Hashem otah avakesh shivti bvait Hashem kol yemai hayai lahazot b'noam Hashem ulvaker behaeichalo. One thing do I request from God, to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of God and to frequent His Temple. The first response to our anxiety is to seek opportunities to behold God's presence. How is that possible? It is to recognize God's ways in the world. Where was God on that fateful Tuesday of death and terror? God was there in the firefighters who risked and gave their lives to save others. God was glimpsed in the lines of people who sought to give blood, so many people that in two days, the hospitals in New York had enough. God's presence was felt in the doctors and other volunteers who rushed to the scene of the attack and offered to assist the wounded and the rescuers. God was in that poignant moment when from his cell phone Jeremy Glick wished his wife a good life and to look after their baby and then with other passengers forced the terrorists to crash the plane in an empty field, thus saving the lives of untold hundreds.
This is lahazot b'noam Hashem - to glimpse the beauty of the Lord. The second response the psalmist offers to dispel the unquiet in our souls is Vezbecha v'ohalo zivhei truah ashira v'azamra lashem. I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord. In the midst of sadness and gloom we must not despair. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic Rebbe, concluded his final Shabbat lesson as he was dying with the words "Gevalt! Jews - don't despair! There is no such thing as despair at all". Rav Simha Bunim from Psyscha taught that in Parashat Ki Tavo we read of the terrible curses that will befall the Jewish people if we do not behave properly. The list of curses does not specify any particular sins that will cause these horrors but one - because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything (Deuteronomy 28:47). That is the greatest of sins. There is beauty in our world, there is goodness encircling our domain. We must be prepared to see it and to celebrate it. I suggested in the religious life committee's High Holiday booklets, Rituals and Reflections, that people make a list of all the good that they have done this past year. We need to recognize the good in this world and to rejoice. A hundred people came to evening minyan the night of the attacks and during it we sang "Hiney ma tov u ma naim - how good and how pleasant when brethren dwell together." It was uplifting to share moments of prayer, moments of transcendence with others. We don't know what tomorrow will bring us but at this moment we are alright and we owe it to God and ourselves to sing out and celebrate each moment of life that God gifts to us.
Finally the psalmist calls out to God Horeini Hashem Derakhecha Instruct me in Your way, O Lord. How shall we learn what that way is? Through commitment to Torah study. Whether you come to minyan or our adult education classes or purchase books at Barnes and Noble or through All Judaica.com. Our tradition is accessible to all. And what is the way of God that the Psalmist seeks? It is the goodness we glimpsed in God's presence. God has told you O man what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God" (Micha 6:8). There was a group of insurance company employees who were in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. They were on the 81st floor and the head of the office insisted that everyone begin to make the trek down the 81 flights of stairs. On the way down on the 64th floor they saw a woman in a wheel chair. She had no way to get down so two of them picked her up and carried her all the way down 64 flights of stairs in the dark and got her into an ambulance before the building collapsed. That is following God's way - not the perverse desecration of these murderers who presume to act for God's greatness. Each of us must act to do the good that each of us is capable of doing. May we never know the circumstances that led to the acts of heroism last week but each of us in our daily lives can act in ways that increase goodness in the world. Each of us is capable of random acts of kindness. Each of us can use our ability to speak to heal wounds and rifts and not create them. Each of us can stand with our neighbors and friends in times of need.
The psalmist living 3000 years ago knew well the world that we postmoderns live in. Like us he wanted to project an image of confidence - mimi ira from whom shall I fear. But truly inside he was anxious - al tazveni, don't leave me Lord, don't turn away. Still he had faith in God and that faith was sustaining - he concluded his psalm: Kaveh el Hashem, hazak v'ametz libekha kaveh el Hashem - Have faith in God, be strong and of good courage have faith in God! He had glimpsed the goodness of the world, he could rejoice in it and sought to learn how to act on that goodness. Our world is a frightening place. It is filled with dangers. But we are still alive. Our lives have been spared where others have not. May God grant each of us another year of life and may we make of our lives lives worthy of saving...