Saturday, September 10, 2011

What could a rabbi have said on September 11th?

[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.


  1. I think reb shmuel berenabaum would have suggested saying the two regular psalms (130 and 143)after mincha and if one wanted to do something extra he would have said to learn more Gemara. and if there was anyone in particular need he would have said to go and help them. that is it. he would not have made a speech nor would he have made a theological issue out of it. that is the last thing in world he would have done. He realized his limitations in terms of theology.
    he would have refused to make a comment in anything like theology. At the very most he might have noticed some contradiction in the rambam in hilchot teshuva and gone about answering it. and this seems to me to be right. i have never heard any rav speak about theology that had the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Rabbis talkking about thelogy never have read and understood the major works of Jewish theology like the Guide. Because to understand the Guide you need to understand Aristotle and i have never heard a rav that could explain simply what Aristotle says and therefore they have no idea of what the rambam is talking about and so when they talk about theology they are pretending expertise in an area they have no expertise. That is arrogance. Real sages like reb shmuel talked about subjects they had expertise in. and in other subjects they said they don't know.

  2. From R' A Lichtenstein (imvho he rest is commentary)
    God’s goodness and grace are pillars of our faith. How, then, can we account for evil? It is certainly true that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth”; our Sages have told us that man’s evil impulse renews itself every day (Kiddushin 30b). God has endowed man with free will, which sometimes goes unbridled and has catastrophic results. I have been strongly influence by the teachings of my revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, who refrained, categorically, from providing answers as to why given events took place. I do not know the extent to which this was specifically because of the Holocaust; I presume that on principle he would have advocated standing humbly before the Almighty in any case. This attitude was deeply ingrained in the Rav’s personality and thinking. This humility dictates the conclusion that we are incapable of understanding Divine providence. But, at the same time, we are capable of responding to catastrophe – and thus also obligated to do so.
    As such, faced with tragedy, it is our duty to respond. To whatever extent possible, we must draw the appropriate conclusions and continue on our way, determined as before. Our goal must be not to hobble along as wounded survivors, but to press forward with renewed rigor. The ideal response is a combination of humility and struggle. On the one hand, we accept God’s judgment. But on the other hand, we respond with readiness and determination – to rise up and overcome.
    We know not why these events happen. But when evil manifests itself, we must confront it. At one level, we must confront its perpetrators directly – a realm beyond my purview. Leaving aside direct confrontation at the practical, political or social plane, this manifestation of evil demands that we sharpen our awareness of the evil that lurks within us, and stand guard with greater vigilance against it. When I say “within us,” I refer to the world at large, to the intimate society that surrounds us, and to the depths of the individual soul.

    Joel Rich