I write this message after the weekend of September 11, 2011. It has been an emotionally exhausting weekend. We had services of remembrance at Beth Hillel Synagogue this past Shabbat; many of us attended memorial programs in person or as involved spectators on TV on Sunday, the actual 9/11 day. We were all moved; we were all pulled back in the maelstrom of feelings that were first evoked ten years ago, which may have receded, but now have been brought to the forefront once again.
The words of the Torah portion, with their strong statements of the contrasts between life and death, and seeking God’s blessing, seem especially appropriate and moving at this time.
I was looking through a file of notes and articles I had accumulated back in 2001. Yes, I admit it… I have not transferred over completely to the Internet age! Some things I still prefer to save and hold in a physical sense! A colleague of mine (unfortunately, I can’t remember who) shared at that time his interpretation of a beautiful midrash, a rabbinic teaching, that speaks equally powerfully to me today:
“Why did God choose Abraham? What was so special about him? Abraham can be compared to a man traveling who sees a building on fire. The traveler calls out, ‘Is it possible that this building lacks an owner?’ The owner of the building looks out and says, ‘I am the owner of the building.’ Similarly, because Abraham said, ‘Is it conceivable that this world is without a creator?’ that God chose him to be the bearer of God’s covenant.
“That’s good as far as it goes. But it would have been enough to just ask, ‘Who is the owner of the building?…. Who is the creator of the world?’ The real question is: Why in the midrash does the building have to be on fire? Why was the owner of the building not responding to the situation of the building being aflame? Abraham’s words were not a philosophical or abstract question. They were cries of anguish and pain: ‘The world is aflame, O God. There is violence and bloodshed and WHERE ARE YOU?’ And because of Abraham’s bravery, his chutzpah in asking the question, God chose him to carry forth His covenant.”
In other words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would later teach, God wants partners, someone to share His pathos for humanity. And this vision of God is seen again and again through our Holy Scripture.
So where was God in the tragedy of the Twin Towers – or, for that matter, any other horrific accident or earthquake or tsunami? God is within each of us who is concerned/ who cares/ who helps/ who responds/ who cries out. God was at Ground Zero… with those helping the survivors. With those policemen and firefighters who gave their lives trying to save others. God in short was and is with all of us who perform deeds of kindness and love and refrain from malice and hatred.
The terrorists of 9/11 had it wrong. They thought our glory was in our tall buildings… and by destroying our buildings they would destroy our glory. But they were totally wrong. Our glory is inside us, as individual Americans, men and women whose courage and resoluteness and bravery and sacrifice were so well shown and remembered and honored today. We have been able to rebuild both a tower and a beautiful memorial…and they are wonderful accomplishments. But we did not need to rebuild our character, our strength as a people and a country. Despite all the partisan debates, these strengths have always been there. And I pray they always will be.
“May God bless the memory of those we lost, and may God bless the United States of America. ” Those were President Obama’s final words in an address to the nation the evening of 9/11. May each of us go beyond partisan feelings as we remember those who died and remember everything that is good and right about our society, our national ethos, and our country… as we enter the new and undoubtedly challenging year of 5772.
We have had our national Yizkor service of remembrance 28 days before Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Gary Atkins is spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield.