When Rosh Hashanah falls on 9/11
In 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors, killing 14 people. It was clearly an accident, so 17 years ago when I received a call at work that an airplane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers, I comforted myself with the knowledge that it was just that, an errant pilot off course. It became obvious very quickly that this wasn’t the case, as news reports began pouring in of a second plane, an attack on the Pentagon, and an airplane on its way to Chicago brought down by passengers overpowering the attacker.
Living in upper Fairfield County, Connecticut, I didn’t personally know anyone who died that day, but given what a small world it really is, Jewish or not, I do know many people who lost loved ones, coworkers and friends.
A loss is a loss, and the death of a loved one, no matter how it happens, is tragic. There’s a sense of bewilderment; “how could this have happened?” Why him/her/them? We succumb to the “if onlies…” If only he had gone to the hospital… if only she hadn’t gotten on the road… if only I was more careful…. And “why couldn’t it have been me instead?” especially if it was someone young.
We humans have been given the gift of thought and understanding; and for better or worse, we have the gift of feeling and emotion. People really can die of a broken heart, and living with one certainly isn’t easy.
In 2001, Rosh Hashanah began on the evening of September 17. Some families had been sitting shiva, others were yet to bury their loved ones, and still others were anxiously waiting for news of missing friends and family members, hoping against hope that by some miracle or the grace of God that they would emerge from the rubble. Then there were the first responders, the police, firefighters and emergency workers who rushed in to do what they could, endangering their own lives, and in many cases, sacrificing them to save others.
During the days following the attacks, the New York Times printed an article about the upcoming High Holidays, and it focused on the Unetane Tokef recitation which acknowledges God as Judge, opening with, “We give power to the holiness of this day, for it is tremendous and filled with awe, and on it your kingship will be exalted, your throne will be established in loving-kindness, and you will sit on that throne in truth.” And when Rabbi Schotz chants those words, we can feel the awesomeness of the concept. What really bothers us, however, comes two paragraphs later, when we sing B’rosh Hashanah yikateivu, u v’yom tzom kippur yeichateimu, mi yich’yet u mi yamut, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die,” and so on.
The Times article took the prayer to task, and interviewed people whose feelings about the High Holy days, and certainly about this piece of liturgy, had changed significantly. Some would stay home that year, and probably still do. Others railed against a reading so filled with theodicy, the idea that God had decreed last year that their loved one–who had engaged in acts of teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah, repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness, was destined to die a horrific death.
And then, there were those who lived because circumstances intervened; the head of one company survived because he took his son to kindergarten. Another had to stop and get donuts for the office. One woman spilled food on her clothes and had to change, and someone else’s child was dawdling and didn’t get ready as soon as he should have. The husband of someone who worked for David’s and my ad agency was on his way to the World Trade Center that morning for a meeting. While driving, he received a call that he didn’t need to be there after all, so he turned around. Was God’s favor shining more brightly on these people than the ones who perished?
If so, that’s a really hard pill to swallow, and I’m not suggesting we do. I don’t have an answer, and you’d be right to question if I said I did. What I do know is that despite this terrible tragedy and others before and since, we are sitting here today. Regardless of our how we feel about the idea of God as judge, or being written and sealed in a book for life or death, or for happiness or despair, or if we even believe in God to begin with, we come together year after year to acknowledge God, to hopefully renew our faith, to resolve to continue to improve ourselves, our lives and our world in the coming year, and to be part of a community where we are supported. Life, unfortunately, doesn’t come with guarantees, and the fact that we’re in this room celebrating the preciousness of life by welcoming a new year, is comforting to me, and I hope to you as well.
Perhaps it’s easier to be an atheist or non-theist, to believe that there is no God, because then there are no questions about where God was in times of personal and collective tragedy–Why God didn’t intervene? Does putting our faith in God set us up for being disappointed? I struggle with this too.
A year after the 9/11 attacks, the rabbi in my home synagogue read something that was attributed to the then president of the National Council of Jewish Women. I found the piece, but attributed to someone named Tess Haranda, and I’ll read parts of that now.
In response to the question, “Where was your God on 9/11?” she said, “My God was very busy!” My God was discouraging people from taking those four flights. Out of more than 1,000 possible seats, there were only 266 people in total aboard. On those flights, God gave the terrified passengers the ability to stay calm. And on one of the flights, God gave the passengers strength to overcome the hijackers.
God was also busy creating obstacles to prevent people who worked in the World Trade Center from getting to work on time. The work day had begun, more than 50,000 people worked in the two towers, yet only 20,000 were at their desks. On that beautiful morning, God created scores of unexpected traffic delays, subway delays, and commuter train delays. A PATH train packed with commuters was stopped at a signal just short of the WTC and was able to return to Jersey City. And far more meetings were scheduled elsewhere than was usual.
God held up each of the two mighty towers for a half-hour so that the people on the lower floors could get out. And after finally letting go, God caused the towers to fall inward rather than to topple over, which would have killed so many more people.
And when the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings went down, The Holy Blessed One picked up almost 3,500 of God’s children and carried them to their eternal home. Our Creator also sat down and cried that 19 of God’s children could have so much hate in their hearts.
And God isn’t finished. El maleh rachamin, the Lord full of compassion, continues to comfort those who lost loved ones and continues to encourage us to reach out to others.
Aristotle is credited with coining the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and it’s a good thing he’s not known for his math skills. From a human and psychological perspective, however, it makes perfect sense. Each of us here today is a part of the whole congregation, but with the collective effect of our being together, of praying and reading together, and of celebrating a holiday that so many all over the world are celebrating as well, the whole is so much more.
May the memories of those who perished 17 years ago continue to be for blessing and inspiration. May their families and friends continue to be comforted, and may we one day merit to live in a world where all recognize their own humanity and that of others, to create a future of peaceful coexistence.