Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Today is the yahrzeit (the one-year anniversary of death) for those murdered on September 11. Traditionally, a Jewish child who loses a parent (and, by extension, after the loss of any other immediate relative) says kaddish for the parent at a minyan (a prayer quorum of ten) three times a day for a year. The end of the year is the end of mourning.
Having a structure to mourning has a purpose. At the moment of greatest shock, the mourner is immobilized, and the structure supports this mental position. The mourner tears his clothes, does not bathe, and sits on the floor and is waited on by others. This lasts one week from the funeral. After a week, mourning lessens, but is still acute for thirty days. And after thirty days, it lessens further, but continues for eleven months. The last month of mourning, no kaddish is said, until the yahrzeit, which marks the end of the period of mourning. The formality of the process supports the mourner, letting his grief flow into channels and so allow life to continue, and to integrate the loss into life's routines. It doesn't always work, of course, but that's the idea.
There's been a lot of talk about whether our feelings on the yahrzeit should be of anger or of grief. Obviously, we should and do feel both. But the kaddish expresses a different feeling. The kaddish is a doxology; it expresses extravagant praise of G-d. Why are we to speak G-d's praises at such a time? Because there is great merit in praising G-d, the source of all, at a time of trial, and that merit accrues to those whom we have lost, who raised us to show such merit, and who abide with Him now.
G-d is a righteous judge. What does that mean? Does it mean that he only kills those who deserve to die? Then we must all deserve to die. Does it mean that he gives us all the death we deserve? Then are we to believe that a two year old girl, flying to Disneyland, deserved to be incinerated when her plane was crashed into the World Trade Center?
When his trials became too great for him to bear, Job cried out - not at the injustice of G-d, but that he could not understand G-d's justice. And G-d replied to him out of the whirlwind with a song of praise of Behemoth and Leviathan. What does this mean? To reduce an argument that I shall return to in the future (for a preview, you could read Ahad Ha'am's 1898 essay on Nietzsche's transvaluation of values), what this means is that G-d created us not merely to be good but to be great. Behemoth and Leviathan are perfections of their kinds, beings of terror and might. And we have within us the potential for the perfection of our kind, a being created in the image and form of the divine, with the divine capacity for goodness and for greatness. I have to believe that this is the sense in which G-d is just, and more than just, for none of us deserve this divine gift, and to grasp it for one instant is to redeem a world.
I attach below my first coherent thoughts after September 11, 2001. It took me a few days, I admit, to begin to become coherent; I spent the first couple of days after the towers fell wandering about in a daze, shepherded by friends with less vivid imaginations or stouter mental constitutions. And I apologize for the sense, which stings me a year later but which I didn't notice at the time, that my words sound a bit like a campaign pitch. In any event, here they are:
Dear Family and Friends:
I want to reassure everyone that Carolyn and I are fine, and that furthermore all our friends and loved ones whom we have tried to contact are alive and well. Amazingly, no one in our apartment building, no one from our colleagues, no one from our synagogue or from our circle of friends was lost in the attack on September 11th. It feels selfish to be grateful, when so many have lost so much, but we are grateful, profoundly so, for having been spared the suffering that we have seen.
As the Days of Awe approach, I find my mouth stopped from prayer, or at least the kind of prayer called for on this season. On Rosh Hashanah, we begin a season of introspection, searching our souls for our misdeeds, and asking forgiveness of G-d and our fellows, as appropriate, for the offenses done them. We contemplate with awe the approach of the Day of Judgment, and seek to purify ourselves. But all my thoughts fly outward, not inward. We are enjoined not to comfort the bereaved with their dead lying before them. Our dead are before us – they will remain so, literally, for weeks and months as the wreckage is removed, girder by girder. So how shall we turn, as are told to on Yom Kippur, to mourning for ourselves?
Well, why are we supposed to mourn ourselves, at this season? Why are we supposed to afflict our souls? It is not, as might be the case in some philosophies, for the perfection of our souls in isolation. We turn inward during the Days of Awe, yes, but not for the sake of inwardness itself, for the sake of our selves. We turn inward in order to do teshuvah, to return to G-d. And returning to G-d, it seems to me, means doing G-d’s work in this world, not in another. The prayer and fasting that we will engage in are spiritual exercises designed not to remove us from the world but to prepare us for action in it. It seems to me that those are the kinds of exercises we very much need at this time, more than ever.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac. G-d asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, his beloved, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah to raise him up as a burnt offering on a mountain that G-d would designate. Abraham duly goes, Isaac walking beside, and they climb the mountain, and on the way Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice. And Abraham answers: G-d will provide the lamb. And they ascend to the top, and Isaac is bound; and Abraham has already raised his knife to cut his throat when an angel intervenes to stop the slaughter. And indeed, G-d provides a lamb to substitute for Isaac, and Abraham is blessed.
Like most people, I have long found the story to be terrible in the original sense of the word: inspiring terror. I have struggled to understand what possible meaning this abortive human sacrifice might have. But I began to understand it when I read a story in Senator John McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers.
John McCain, as probably the whole world knows by now, was imprisoned in North Vietnam for five and a half years, through the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, his father was an Admiral, and commanded the fleets of planes that were bombing North Vietnam. As everyone in the world probably also knows, John McCain refused an offer from his captors to be released early in his imprisonment. He did so because if captives were to be freed they should rightly be freed in the order they were captured, and if he were set free earlier because of his high-ranking connections it would have a devastating effect on American morale.
One year, on Christmas, Admiral McCain took a helicopter to the border with North Vietnam, to get as close to his son as he could. And he watched the bombers passing overhead toward the North, with their deadly payloads. And he knew that any one of them might land on the very prison where his son was being held. And that was how they spent Christmas together, that year.
I read this story and I thought: that’s the story of the binding of Isaac. Now I understand it. At times we are constrained – by necessity, by what is right and by what is true: that is to say, by the will of G-d – to put our lives and, more terribly, the lives of our beloveds in mortal danger. We do not do so laughingly, knowing that 70 virgins will wait upon our dead sons in the next world. We do so with no hope of reward of any kind, knowing only that we must, praying only that G-d, if He is merciful, will provide a lamb for sacrifice instead – that the worst will not come to pass, and those we love will return to us in safety.
We are not always granted that much. Over 300 firefighters in this city, and their loved ones, were not granted that much. Jeremy Glick and the other passengers of flight 93 – who died heroes, bringing down their plane in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow themselves to become a sacrifice to Moloch – were not granted that much. But had they not had the faith, the knowledge that they must do right even at the cost of their lives, we would not have their zechut – their merit – to rely on when we face our own trials to come.
Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us. Before we enter such a war, it is all the more incumbent upon us, to cleanse our hearts to serve G-d in truth, and to pray for G-d’s help in doing so.
G-d willing, few among us will be required to make the kind of sacrifice that Abraham did.
G-d willing, we will all be inscribed and sealed this year in the book of life.
For those who are interested, here is a Hebrew prayer composed for the yahrzeit of September 11.