SEPTEMBER 10, 2011
RABBI MITCHELL WOHLBERG
It seems hard to believe that it is now 10 years since 19 Islamic terrorists hijacked four airplanes, killed nearly 3000 people and destroyed the World Trade Center. Since that moment in time, the world that we once knew changed in ways we never could have imagined. 10 years ago when those airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, there were no cell phones with cameras. One can only imagine how intensely we may have reacted had live pictures been taken by victims before they were burned to death or jumped from windows been streaming into our homes. But our reaction was intense enough as is. The images are still vivid before our very eyes … each of us will always remember where we were when it all happened. For some the scars will never heal. On that day 3000 children lost a parent and to this day the remains of 1300 people have never been found. USA Today tells the story of Brian Lyons, whose brother, Michael, a firefighter, was killed at the Trade Center. Every day for nearly a year after that Brian would search for some sign of his brother’s remains. Finally, he had to satisfy his quest when he found a hand-made tool his brother used to use. For all America, everything changed; militarily, economically, psychologically, strategically, financially and politically. And so this weekend, as a collective America, we pause to remember, with the question being: How are we to remember and what are we to remember?
These are not easy questions. Right from the start it was difficult to answer. You might remember that shortly after 9/11 there was a great debate over what should be done at Ground Zero. Some argued that it should be left as it is, as a vivid reminder of the dastardly act that took place there. Others said, no … that’s not the American way! We Americans are an optimistic people; we must rebuild and show our strength and determination and pick up the pieces and build greater and greater and higher and higher.
So you tell me: which is the right answer? No one can know for sure but Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of Yeshiva University and one of the most respected and clear-minded thinkers in the Jewish world today, looked into this question when he addressed students at Yeshiva University on the first anniversary of 9/11. And what he had to say then is just as relevant today.
Rabbi Lamm made reference to the way we Jews commemorate the Churban – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; a moment in time that we bring to memory every day. There are two ways we remember … two things we remember … one is called “zecher l’churban in memory of the destruction.” The other is “zecher l’mikdash in memory of the Temple itself.” Zecher l’churban is very sad and pessimistic. It is breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony … even amidst joy, we pause for a moment of sorrow. Zecher l’mikdash as a remembrance of the Temple, reminds us of the beauty of the Temple, its sanctity and its holiness. At every Pesach Seder we make that sandwich of matzah and maror and say: “Zecher l’mikdash k’Hillel”– this is a remembrance of the Temple as Hillel did it. We take his opinion into consideration just as the Temple brought all people together. And so, points out Rabbi Lamm, remembrance requires both – the positive and the negative, the destruction and the rebuilding, the glory and the devastation.
How has America done in regard to these two areas? I would say that when it comes to zecher l’churban – remembering the destruction that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, America has fulfilled its responsibility … in a very simple but very costly way. We made our enemies pay for what they did; and we must never take that for granted. On March 11, 2004, three days before Spain’s general elections, a series of coordinated terrorist bombings took place in Madrid’s train system killing 191 people and wounding 1800. Three days later, in the general election, Jose Maria Aznar, the Prime Minister who had been leading in the opinion polls, lost the election. It is generally believed that he lost because of the train bombings, because the bombings were a terrorist response to Aznar’s government participating in the war against Iraq. So the Spanish people gave in to the terrorists! We didn’t! America stood strong and it stood united. This week’s Newsweek Magazine raises the question: Did Osama win? … in which Andrew Sullivan writes, “We need to understand that 9/11 worked … it worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction.” What a comment! “9/11 worked?” You think Osama bin Laden believes that? Ask him and ask Al-Qaida’s leaders who have been killed by drone missiles and raids by Special Forces. Support for Al-Qaida has not grown in the last 10 years … it has been diminished. Not extinguished, but certainly diminished. We have paid a price – no question about it! We were fighting an enemy the likes of which we never confronted before. We were fighting terrorism, which does not believe in the “rules of war.” For terrorists there are no rules! To them, we had to react in a different manner. And yet,10 years later we are still the freest country on earth, our rights are still protected, democratic principles still guide us. And one thing more: on this weekend of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is important to remind ourselves that there has not been an attack like that since then. We are not as vulnerable as people thought. We have done what we had to do in regard to zecher l’churban – to remember the destruction.
It is the second part – the zecher l’mikdash – remembering the glory of the Temple … that leaves much room for improvement. When we Jews remember the Temple we remember not simply the service there, we also remember the best it brought out in us. According to our sages, some of the miracles that took place in the Temple included the fact that people stood crowded but had ample space in which to prostate themselves; that no matter how many people came on pilgrimage to the Temple, no one ever said, “My lodging is too crowded for you.” The Temple brought people together as one. You might recall that the collapsing Twin Towers in New York did the same for the American people. At that time you heard no talk about Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives … we only talked about Americans. At that time, Wall Street and Main Street, bankers and firefighters, housewives and corporate executive, rich and poor, black and white … we all stood together as one. Little more than a month after 9/11 Congress passed the Patriot Act to combat terrorism. You know what the vote in the Senate on that Act was? 98 to 1! Now, we can’t even get Congress to agree on what night of the week the President should speak! For all too many of us, 9/11 has colored our perspective and polarized and radicalized us. From the right, you have those turning on their fellow Muslim Americans … there is a movement in several states to outlaw sharia – Muslim laws – in our country. That would be no different than outlawing Jewish religious courts – a Beit Din – in our country. And yet, the move to ban sharia law is led by an Orthodox Jew, as if Muslim Americans are a threat to our country. On the other hand, you have those on the left who claim that there really isn’t much of a threat to our country; and if it is, it is certainly not coming from Muslims. People like Janet Napolitano, who upon becoming Secretary of Homeland Security, refused to use the word “terrorism” referring instead to it as “man-caused disasters.”
These are just two examples of the extreme perspectives that have taken hold in our country in the last 10 years. It wasn’t like this after 9/11 – no one said at that time of George Bush what Rush Limbaugh has since said regarding Barack Obama: “I hope he fails.” What a terrible thing to say! We’re talking about the President of the United States! Believe me, as you know, I am not a card-carrying member of the Barack Obama fan club but I want him to succeed … he is my President! He is OUR President! If he fails, it means millions of Americans will remain jobless, our economy will continue to suffer, our standing in the world will continue to fall.
“I hope the President fails.” Wow, have we come a long way since 9/11. Its 10th anniversary should remind us of what we were like then and what we can be now. What can we be? This week a writer in the New York Times wrote of an experience he had while riding a bike on the streets of New York: “A few weeks back, I rode my bike to the Bronx. Somewhere south of City Island, along “official” bike lanes more aspirational than real, I took an impressive spill. A couple of Puerto Rican teenagers led me to their bodega to wash up. A Dominican dude handed me a few Band-Aids and advice (“Gotta keep your eye on the road, bro”). The Albanian guys at the pizza parlor let me sit bloodied and dazed. At the emergency room, I exchanged notes with a Hasidic man on our broken arms. That evening, as Evelyn steered our car up Ocean Parkway, that Olmsted beauty that stretches out toward Coney Island, I saw Pakistani mothers and Orthodox grandmothers, hipsters and Cambodian teenagers.”
That’s America at its best. We should not need an enemy to bring us together, and we most certainly should not allow an enemy to tear us apart. So, yes, on this 10th anniversary we must fulfill the zecher l’churban … we must remember that there are evil people in this world and, sorry to say, we must get them before they get us! But we can’t allow this to dominate our psyche for the future. We must also do what is necessary to fulfill the zecher l’mikdash. The World Trade Center was the target of the terrorists because it symbolized the best of America. It symbolized capitalism and democracy and America standing strong and tall and proud. That’s what our enemies sought to destroy. We must dedicate ourselves to strengthen all that is good in America … and there is so much that is good!
The greatest collective loss that took place 10 years ago on that day that will go down in infamy was felt by the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald which lost 658 employees at One World Trade Center. One fourth of the 2753 people killed that morning worked for the financial giant Cantor Fitzgerald. The head of the company, Howard Lutnick, happened to have been late for work because he took his son to school. He promised to rebuild … and he did; now having more than 5000 employees working for him. He says that for years after 9/11 he had recurring nightmares that spiders were spinning webs on his face, suffocating him. Sleepwalking, he would drag his wife into the closet. He no longer has those nightmares but he still remembers the people he lost; taking care of their families, having a service in Central Park for them every year. And one thing more: when the memorial for those who died was built and all of their names were going to be placed randomly, Lutnick argued that his employees should be listed together, and that the others who had died should also not be listed randomly, but listed next to someone they worked with or were friends with. I read that and I thought of the Biblical verse: “Ha-nehavim b’chayehem uv’misosom lo nifradu – they were beloved in life and in death are not separated.” For us, the proper zecher l’churban and zecher l‘mikdash is to remember those united in death by all of us as Americans being united in life. May their memories be for a blessing and may God bless America.