[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]
I was 29 years old on September 11, 2001, several weeks into my rabbinate in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was sitting in the office that Tuesday morning, working on something or other for Rosh HaShanah, when someone called and told me to turn on the radio. I listened, then called my parents, who were working in Manhattan.
I don't remember much else of that day. I remember talking to people in the shul office about how it couldn't possibly be Hamas, because they wouldn't dare to take on America. I remember trying to convince my parents not to go back into Manhattan for work the next day. I remember that Martin Tower in Bethlehem, the next town over, was closed out of fear that it might be attacked. I remember the self-righteous indignation of, "How can they tell Israel to absorb dozens of attacks like this, when Americans react with such furor to just one?"
That night we held a Tehillim session after minchah at shul and I spoke briefly there, and then I spoke about the attack again on Shabbos. I spoke at a municipal memorial program (theme: remembering the candles of heroes). I spoke about it again each day of Rosh HaShanah (1st day: Valuing life, and the mitzvos which are said to earn long life; 2nd day: Dealing with crisis and challenge).
It wasn't enough, at least for some. I was confused when someone said to me during Succos, "Rabbi, we need you to speak more about this." What had I not said?
I thought he was talking about other aspects of September 11th, so for Shmini Atzeres I spoke about the question of giving tzedakah to help 9/11 victims vs. giving tzedakah to help victims of terror in Israel. On Shabbos Bereishis I spoke about the crisis of faith involved, the "Where was Gd" question.
As I've aged, though, I've come to think that he was still looking for something different. Beyond the speeches and tehillim, beyond the one-shot activism of a blood drive or a community unity event, I think he wanted us to be engaged in some kind of on-going action and conversation that would reflect the sea change that had taken place in his life, and in the lives of many people in the community. He wanted, perhaps needed, his own life to become different, to reflect the change in the world around him.
I didn't really understand that at the time. It's hard for a 29-year old, even one who thinks of himself as worldly from his four years in the shul rabbinate, to understand what it means for a 69-year old to experience a paradigm shift. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Here's what I said at the tehillim program on the evening of September 11, 2001:
The thoughts that cross my mind seem so trite, so ineffectual after seeing those horrific images today on the various websites. What can we say, what can we do, in the face of this staggering level of destruction? New York has this image of brassy invulnerability, Washington is the seat of government of the world’s only superpower, and both have been bloodily violated, what is there for us to say?
Some of us have lost friends. I don’t know yet, but perhaps some of us have lost close family today. I know I spent the morning afraid of the phone because my parents work in midtown Manhattan.
Part of me wants to say, “I told you so.” Part of me wants to turn to all those people who said Israel should absorb terrorism and not fight back, and ask what they think now. Part of me wants to make sure they all saw CNN’s footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets, celebrating today’s attacks. But there will be time for recriminations later; we need a different sort of action now.
The Jew takes action – we donate blood, we offer whatever assistance we can provide, of course. But there is another kind of action we take, and that is prayer – we recite Tehillim, Psalms.
What good is prayer? Will prayer bring back the dead? Will my prayer help the thousands of people who are hospitalized? Can we roll back the last 20 hours?!
No, we can’t. But prayer is a crucial cog of communication in our relationship with Gd, and that relationship must persevere, that relationship must grow, because yes, that relationship defies death and destruction, and even keeps us alive.
We must be able to talk to Gd, directly, to express our hurt, to express our anger, to have a conversation, and prayer is the foundation of that conversation.
It’s hard to pray at a time like this; King David knew this. King David was a warrior, he fought Goliath, he fought the Philistines, he fled for his life and he fought for his life. And yet what is King David most known for, what is his legacy? The book of Tehillim, the book of Psalms. David knew the ineffectual feeling that comes from facing disaster, from facing death, and he knew that prayer would keep his relationship with Gd alive, that communication would help him survive. We read his words, we read what he wrote when struggling against powerful enemies, we read his letters to Gd and make them our own.
Judaism teaches that it is never too late to pray; so long as there is breath in our lungs, so long as our hearts beat, we are alive and we can recover. This is not a funeral; America yet lives, and we yet live. We are here to build, to grow, to recover, to re-visit that Divine relationship which is damaged every time we suffer a loss. We are here to use the words of King David, who was a great general but who knew “Gd is the One who saves me from my enemies.”
Let’s use the words of Tehillim, of Psalms, to connect with Gd, and to pray on behalf of both the victims and survivors of today’s attacks.