Rabbi Ruth Gais

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Ruth Gais


See how the city sits alone
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is now become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall. (Lamentations 1:1)*

In the beginning, on Tuesday, when we saw the TV video clip of the United Airlines jet piercing the skin and the heart of the North Tower, a sound bite often played along with the image. We could all hear the voice of someone far below on the streets of New York shouting something like, “Oh my God.” But as the days have gone by and that horrible moment has become almost iconic, we don’t hear that voice anymore.
The image is enough.
The cry to God has disappeared.

The workers digging through the rubble at ground zero, the enormous pit that was the Twin Towers, say that more than the exhausting and dangerous physical labor, more than the heat, the smell, the fear and the pain, more than anything else, the worst part of working in the pit is the silence. Every now and then someone will shout that they’ve heard something or a dog has sniffed something, but that will turn out to be a false hope. The workers, straining so hard to hear a human voice, a faint whimper, anything, hear only silence, eery quiet.

. O Lord, God of my deliverance,
When I cry out in the night before You,
let my prayer reach You;
incline Your ear to my cry.
For I am sated with misfortune;
I am at the brink of Sheol.
I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit;
I am a helpless man
abandoned among the dead,
like bodies lying in the grave
of whom You are mindful no more....
Why, O Lord, do You reject me,
do You hide your face from me? (Psalm 88: 1-6,15)

On Tuesday, moving north from the WTC, the people fled in silence, like refugees from Pompeii, covered in ash and dirt, a silent army of gray people moved uptown.
The streets of New York, this last Friday, were also silent. Where I was, between 14th Street and Canal, had just been re-opened to cars and there was some traffic, but far less than usual. But the real silence is felt on the streets. Stores are closed or almost empty. People are out but conversations are few, shy quiet interchanges. It’s rare to hear loud music or laughter. Dealings with shopkeepers are tender but subdued, almost brittle. People still seem embarrassed to talk about anything else and conversations tend to fade away with phrases like “It’s so unbelievable.” “Still so horrible.”

While at ease, I once thought: Nothing can shake my security.
Favor me and I am a mountain of strength.
Hide Your face, O Lord, and I am terrified. (Psalm 30: 7-8)

The farther you go from the pit, Ground Zero, the more noise there is. This is odd, really, because, everyone I spoke to who was close to the World Trade Center on Tuesday, talks about the huge loud noise first and then the smoke and fire. That first noise was like stone dropped in a quiet lake- a big splash and then concentric ripples retreating farther and farther away. Example: I was on a train going into the city when the conductor ran through the car telling us that a plane had crashed into one of the Towers. We looked out the window and could see a huge mushroom cloud of smoke but we heard nothing.
There was silence in the car for a moment and then everyone began talking or dialing cell phones. But when we got to Hoboken, just across the river from the WTC, it was silent again. We all just stood and stared at the burning buildings.

And Aaron, the high priest, was silent.(Leviticus 10:3)

Aaron said nothing after his two sons, Nadav and Avihu were killed.. The commentators ask, “What does his silence mean?”
There is difference, though, between telling and understanding. I was unable to concentrate or write anything for several days, I discovered when I tried to write this that I felt compelled first to write down in elaborate detail what I myself had witnessed, sort of like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. I think I understand now better than I ever have before why we are commanded to tell the story of Passover again and again every year.
We do it to remember, that part I understood before, to remember being slaves in Egypt. But we also do it to be able to forget the pain and suffering we endured, to go beyond that memory and transform such deep pain into something else.

This explains why the lucky survivors whom I tried to console at Beth Israel Hospital last Tuesday were desperately eager to tell their stories. There was Sonia, unhurt, but barefoot and shaking, her hair matted with a thick padding of gray dirt. She ran down from the 77th floor, guided by firefighters running up. When she reached the 9th floor, the building collapsed but somehow she made it out. She kept talking about the firemen swarming past her to their death, the dead bodies she ran past, the smoke, the darkness. A young man talked incessantly about the people jumping out the window. We’ve read and heard many stories like this. People need to talk, to tell, to try to erase.

Erase. The Hebrew curse, Yimach sh’mo- may his name be erased, is usually reserved for someone like Adolf Hitler. But I’ve been thinking about the terrorists and saying to myself, Yimach sh’mam-may their names be wiped out.

And let there be no hope at all for those who malign us. Let evil speedily disappear. Let all Your enemies soon be destroyed. May You quickly uproot and crush the arrogant; may You subdue and humble them in our time. Blessed are You, O Lord, who humbles the wicked. (11th Benediction of the Amidah)

I notice that in this prayer we do not pray to be the ones who defeat our enemy, but ask God to do so. This is not just because for so many centuries we Jews were powerless but because we know that we must leave vengeance to God. What we have in our hands is justice.

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
Rabbi Akiva declared that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important verse in the Torah.” No,” said his colleague, Ben Azzai, “These verses are: ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam; on the day when God created Adam he created him in the image of God, male and female he created them and He blessed them’”(Genesis 5:1-2)
Ben Azzai suggests that neither love alone, nor hatred alone, can be the basis of ethical behavior, only remembering that we are all created in God’s image, b’tselem elohim, can do that.

Roger Parrino, a Police Lieutenant in NYC, fled uptown after the North Tower went down. Finally he dove against a curb. “In the Marines, they trained us to put our bellies on the ground and point our feet toward an explosion.” There was a tremendous blast of wind. He pulled himself to one knee, spitting up dust. He remembers the utter blackness that followed the wind. He remembers meeting people who gave water and help. He could talk almost clinically, impersonally about the wind, almost as if it were a force of nature, which in some way it was.
When he spoke about acts of kindness, his voice had a different tone: these acts had a mysterious power. He could barely speak about the strangers who helped him. (From a report in The New York Times, Sept. 14, 2001)

O Lord, my God,
I cried out to You,
and You healed me.
O Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
preserved me from going down into the Pit. (Psalm 30: 3-4)

Thousands lived. Thousands died and are still buried in the pit of death.
I have no answer why some lived and some died.
I have no answer for why there is such hatred in the world.

Ani Ma’aminah be’emunah shlemah
I do believe with perfect faith

I do believe with perfect faith that God is good.
I do believe with perfect faith that God is the creator of good and evil.
I do believe that God has granted us free will to choose one or the other.
I do believe that God has not hidden His face from us .
I do believe that God reveals that face through every act of love and mercy and pity that we do.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face. (William Blake, “The Divine Image,” Songs of Innocence)

I do believe that the pit is not silent.
The pit is filled with lamentation and cries and tears.
It is filled with our weeping and with God’s tears.

And lo, God passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God;
but God was not in the wind.
After the wind- an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake- fire; but God was not in the fire.
And after the fire, a still small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

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