Re-reading this talk, given to end precisely as the minute's silence in NY commemorated the fallen, I'm struck by its heat and some of the turns of phrase I no longer stand by. But I'm also how my own sense of un-ease around 9/11 has changed little this past decade.
May the memory of those killed be a blessing.
I’m a Rabbinical Student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. I’m also a Chaplain (both of these studies have been and continue to be generously supported by the UJIA), so when I found myself in New York on September 11th 2001 I volunteered with the Red Cross, offering support to rescue workers and later families who lost loved ones.
I was there, on the morning of September the 11th, in Manhattan, on the morning when it felt like the world was coming to an end.
I was there, on the evening of September the 11th, standing at Ground Zero smelling the acrid smells and, treading in the white ash of two hundred stories of crumpled and crumbled masonry. I stood there and listened to the pain of the firefighters who lost perhaps half their company in the attack.
I was there in the weeks and months after the attack, at the family assistance centre, where family members of those who had lost loved ones wandered aimlessly around a vast sprawl of stalls offering food stamps, death certificates, shiatsu massage and a place to sit and talk and feel like you were not alone in the horror of survival.
And now I feel queasy.
I feel queasy about my own hunger to be near the pain, why did I feel the need to go down there, to volunteer, to spend hours upon hours listening to the pain of those who had suffered?
Why in NY does it sometimes feel like a competition - who was closest to the horror, who saw the towers fall from their window, who knew someone who was killed, who, were it not for the intervention of some mysterious fate, would have been in a meeting on the 98th floor at just that time?
I feel queasy looking at the TV footage and reading the papers. Why the need for ‘new, never before seen photographs’ why the need for ‘footage from inside the towers’ shot by a camera crew who may, or may not have been filming at the expense of assisting with the rescue.
Even Yahoo!, the internet search engine has been transmogrified into a tomb for the day, the usual bright colours replaced by a swathe of grey.
But none of this moves me. It all seems vaguely fatuous.
There is an urge to get close to this tragedy, and I fell for it, as hard as anyone.
It is as if the attack of September 11th represents something ‘authentic,’ something real in our fabricated and insulated lives. As if the sight and the memory of people jumping from the upper floors of the Towers will in some way help us be more real. As if their death will give our lives more meaning.
Ernest Becker in his master-work - Denial of Death suggests that we are so scared of our own demise that we seek to hero-ise lives, our lives and the lives of others as a way of escaping our fear of our own fragility. The problem being that we forget that our lives are indeed fragile and our posturing counts for little.
We are now in the ten days of teshuva, a time for feeling and acknowledging our fragility, in the words of the Rosh Hashanah Machzor -
we are dust and our end is dust. Like a clay vessel easily broken, like withering grass, a passing shadow, a fleeting breeze, a vanishing dream.
But these days seem to be passing with the war cry of the seemingly immanent invasion of Iraq. Here come the cavalry, we are off to seek our own immortality, heroes one and all.
Sadly our pursuit of the heroic may be even worse than merely futile. This comes from the preface to Denial of Death,
‘Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst. We want to clean up the world, make it perfect, keep it safe for democracy or communism, purify it of the enemies of god, eliminate evil, establish an alabaster city undimmed by human tears, or a thousand year Reich.’
We transfer our own fear of death, our own fear of futility onto others, any others, niggers, homos, A-Rabs and of course the yid.
We transfer our dark side onto them and then we strike against them. Maybe it is our desire to pursue our own heroic agenda that causes, what Becker calls, a surplus of evil in the world.
So what is the purpose of standing here remembering September 11th 2001, I’m not sure we can rely on the vacuous notion of remembering in order not to let the errors of the past re-occur. In the last year I have seen precious few attempts to build bridges between different worlds and different world views.
Rightly or wrongly, the Arab world seems as angry with the West today as it was a year ago, if not more angry.
Who among us thinks there are less young men and women willing to give up their lives in a suicide attack this September 11th than there were last year?
We have responded to Sept 11th not with a introspective systemic attempt to understand and heal.
We have responded with fake bravado and name calling. I remember, perhaps worst of all, standing as one of 100,000 Jews outside the White House hearing Bibi Netanyahu plead for the world not to adopt a stance of ‘moral equivalence’ in comparing the actions of the Israeli government to that of the suicide bombers. And then in the next sentence he compared Yasser Arafat to ‘Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Ayatollahs and Osama Ben Laden.’ And the crowd cheered wildly.
We have responded to our fear of death by bolstering our own sense of righteous indignation. Frankly we are being foolish, we are learning the wrong lessons.
So what are the right lessons?
I want to offer three texts and three commentaries for our battered time,
kol yisrael aravim ze le ze - all Israel acts as a surety for one another- Sadly this text is not enough, not even close to being enough. In this global village we can no longer afford parochialism, even if our parish is as large as our entire people.
Each of us serves as a surety for the entire world whether we like it or not. My life is intricately wrapped up with that of a cocoa farmer in Ghana, a Buddhist monk in Daramasala and, much as I hate to admit it, a suicide bomber in the Gaza Strip.
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof - Justice, justice shall you pursue.
We must reject the possibly of reading this verse from Vayikra as calling for the pursuit of justice by any means necessary.
Rather, as Martin Buber demands in Ten Rungs, we must understand the seemingly redundant repetition of the word tzedek to insist that Justice must be pursued by Just means only. The unjust means, employed to what we might dearly hope to be a just end, is and must be an anathema. If we act immorally or unfairly in our pursuit of what we perceive to be justice we give the lie to our actions. We give the lie to our proud and haughty claims to be the true guardians of peace and justice in the world. We become fundamentalists, blind to anything other than our goal.
Worse still, it is surely inevitable that our unjust means will cripple the vision of the just end we pursue. Acting unjustly will cause us to misunderstand and, even if we succeed in imposing our ends on the world, they will be surely be flawed and unjust, just like everyone else.
We must take seriously the notion of the fragility of the world and act, act honestly and humbly, but act anyway. In Hilchot Teshuva 3:8 Rambam states the following
Every person must see themselves as half worthy and half guilty.
And so too all the world, as if it were half worthy and half guilty.
A person sins one sin, behold they tip themselves, and tip the whole world, onto the scale of guilt.
A person performs one good deed, behold they tip themselves, and tip the whole world, onto the scale of merit.
Our actions, our futile, fragile actions, are capable of tipping the entire world to the scale of merit. While we cannot complete the work of redemption, we are not free to desist from trying.
One: kol yisrael aravim ze le ze is not enough.
Two: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof means we must pursue justice justly.
Three: Our actions are capable of tipping the entire world, either for merit or for guilt.
We are shortly to stand in silence, after which I will offer a prayer for peace. It seems almost foolish to offer such a blessing in this time, almost a brahca l’vatalah – a futile blessing, but I refuse to believe that peace is not possible. This is a statement of faith, ani ma’amin even though there has been delay – I believe that those things that bring us together will triumph over those things that tear us apart. I believe in the perfect possibility of humanity – we are all created in the image of God. And I believe, to lift a liturgical note from the Passover Seder, that in the end the Holy Blessed One will triumph over the angel of death.
But for the next few minutes we shall stand in solidarity with those who lost their lives, those who mourn, those who are yet to lose their lives, and those who are yet to know the pain of that mourning.