Hearing a city gasp in disbelief as people fall from the sky defies explanation.
Watching the tower collapse in on itself, destroying in a moment the hope of thousands of spouses, children and parents, defies explanation.
Walking from City hall to the GW Bridge, with hundreds of people, many without shoes and covered in a shroud of gray dust, defies explanation.
Under normal circumstances, we see things and our minds immediately begin making up stories to explain what we see. There is always a voice in our head, narrating reality, telling us how everything that happens affects us. We witness something and our mind invents a meaning that fits what we witness. Someone doesn’t call and we know that means they are forgetful, or it means that they are angry, or it means we were supposed to call them. There’s traffic on the bridge, so it means it is Rush Hour, or it means I’ll be late. We are always ready to impose meaning on our world.
But that day, there was no rationalizing anything for me. There was no internal voice explaining anything to me. The city, especially the people from the downtown area, were on autopilot that day. We all shared an experience that left no room for internal commentaries.
Last year I spoke about how the blowing of the Shofar calls us all back to Sinai, to the moment of revelation. And how we all stand at Mt. Sinai and to hear the revelation of Torah for the first time, again and again. The greatest of spiritual good. A time when an entire people turn as one to God and God as One turns to His people.
Whenever I hear someone speak of 9/11, or watch video of the towers, I hear a different Shofar. A blast that calls me back to that day, where I stand at the corner of Chambers and Church street to witness the instant infliction of pain, suffering, death, and mourning on a terrible scale. A time when an entire nation – a nation of martyrs – was murdered in God’s name.
In the rabbi’s message to the community after 9/11, she talked of a new and fuller understanding of the need to eradicate all sources of hatred and evil in our world; and a new understanding of the preciousness of each an every life; a new appreciation of every night we’re able to kiss our loved ones. The reality is, of course, that after a short amount of time passes, we tend to ignore the infinite value each moment of life possesses and concentrate on just getting through the next moment, just waiting for the work day to end or for the kids to go to sleep.
And so what does this all mean? What have me learned? All of us here today were able to walk away from 9/11. How have our lives changed since that day? There has to be meaning in so many deaths. Something other than shock over the immense waste of life, or anger with people who would do such a terrible thing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all those people who died and how the whole story of 9/11 has been laid out in great detail for us, like some great Midrash, leaving us to find some truth buried in the those terrible events.
So here is my midrash. On Yom Kippur we give up life affirming actions – procreation, showering, eating and drinking. It is a day when we cannot pretend that we are immortal. That death is someone else’s problem. Today we come together as a community and we all rehearse our deaths. And while we are not martyrs, but only a group of people pretending that we can prepare for death, that is no small thing. It is no small thing to stand as witnesses for each other. It is no small thing to come together as one people and acknowledge the innate value and fragility of life. It is no small thing to acknowledge that our own lives are fleeting, grass in the wind, and at the same time, infinitely precious.
We know that he who saves one life it is as if he saved a universe. And we know that we are but ashes and dust.
For me both 9/11 and Yom Kippur are reminders of all this. They are a shofar blast that ingrains this paradox in my bones and blood.