Remembrances from September 2001

by Rabbi Eric Woodward '03

The first sermon I ever gave was as a junior at Williams at the Jewish Religious Center, the week after September 11, 2001. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 2001, and we had just suffered the September 11 attacks. My mind was on Howard Kestenbaum '67, Brian Murphy '80 and Lindsay Morehouse '00, and on all those who were lost.

Here is the sermon I gave that day.

Today I am a rabbi at a synagogue in New Haven, CT, writing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons, and reflecting on that day.

Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 2001

I woke up at about 8:05 last Tuesday morning, to the beeping of an alarm clock that has been set to 8:05 a.m. almost every morning since freshman year. I lay in bed for about 40 minutes reading and sleeping—well, mostly sleeping—and then took a shower. And it happened after these things that I started typing a flyer for the High Holy Days, and when I got to—right now, actually—the morning of the second day, I checked my email. And there was an email from a friend of mine at NYU, with the subject line, "OH MY GOD!!!"

"Two passenger airplanes JUST crashed into the World Trade Celnter within 20 minutes of each other," he wrote. "The city is just bizarre right now. The World Trade Center is completely in flames. This is all just crazy." And that's how I heard about "it." I say "it" here because I really can't think of any other words to describe "it" disaster, tragedy, attack—they don't work for me. Often, I find myself inaccurately calling "it" a bombing, because that word flows most freely on my tongue. I guess I'm more used to talking about suicide bombings than talking about disasters, tragedies or attacks.

Anyway, the events of the rest of the day are crystal clear to me. Running to the JRC and Baxter looking for a TV; frantically trying to call my brother at Columbia and my parents in Los Angeles. You probably all have the same story, just with different details, so I won't go into them. You all know what happens, anyway.

So my city, et yechidha, which I love, New York, burned and turned in a matter of minutes into—well, something other than New York. Of course I'm from LA, so it's not really my city—but that's how I felt. The last week has been pretty tough for me. I've done almost no work, I've had restless dreams about the Taliban or explosions or airplane crashes. I've cried a lot in front of my computer, sometimes forcing tears on myself by reading article after article and victim after victim. I've spent a lot of time just staring into space.

Eventually, I decided that it would be a disservice to those killed not to live life productively—to do otherwise is to devalue the life they lived and the death they died. At the same time, I decided that it would be a disservice to those killed not to live life mournfully—to do otherwise is to devalue the life they lived and the death they died. But those things are easier said than done, and I can't honestly say I've had a normal day since last Tuesday. I've set my alarm to 8:05 again, and I've gone back to some of my daily routine, doing a little homework now and then—though altogether prayer is often difficult, and my days are interspersed with hollow moments of shock and sorrow.

And this is the state of my mind upon starting this d'var Torah. I looked at the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac that is traditionally read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Most of you probably know the story—God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham goes through with the binding, is about to sacrifice the boy when an angel stops him.

Jews for millennia have used the Akedah as a paradigm for our suffering, often modifying it in important ways. The Talmud describes a woman who, after more or less martyring her seven sons, instructs them, "Go and say to Abraham your Father, 'You have built one alter, and I have built seven. "' Some Jews, experiencing Crusader massacres, altered the Genesis text to have Isaac die and be resurrected. In their days, no angel of God ever cried out to save Jews' lives, as in the Akedah story—the text seemed to mock reality with its clean resolution.

Following in this trend, I looked at last Tuesday—"it"—in terms of the Akedah.

“It” seemed to have the right components—death of innocent people, a contradiction with moral behavior. But the connection didn't work, and in fact forcing a parallel between the two seemed inappropriate and perhaps immoral. God didn't ask for the death of all those killed last Tuesday; those killed last Tuesday weren't spared at the last minute; and to think of their deaths as a sacrifice gives the deaths a sick meaning that suggests nobility, even desire to die, and puts the terrorists in the position of Abraham. No, the near sacrifice of Isaac and "it" are not cut of the same cloth.

But I don't even know if that's true. Sure, there are plenty of differences, but what my mind separates, my heart brings together. I can't help but think of the two events in terms of similarities. So what, then? Where am I?

My biggest difficulty with last Tuesday is my inability to believe it. I've seen hundreds of times now video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, but it just doesn't seem real to me. The objects just don't fit—I literally don't believe my eyes. And what makes this so horrible is that the crashes are real—the deaths, the explosions, everything. And I know they're real, and I feel them—I feel sad, I feel upset, the emotions are all real. But part of my mind doesn't accept that they happened. Maybe I'm just scared, and my mind won't let me grant "it" too much reality. Maybe. I remember on that Tuesday, running to the television here in the JRC, awash in panicky confusion. I watched as the second tower fell down. I figured I must be watching a tape—these things don't happen live. But no, that was it—live, I watched a satellite image of a building falling and killing thousands—I stood in the JRC and watched from 150 miles away on big-screen TV. Five miles away, at the same moment, from the 13 th floor of John Jay Hall on 1 14th Street and Amsterdam, my brother looked out his window as the building fell.

That all this occurred in the same moment, separated only by distance, is incomprehensible to me. I just can't get my mind around it.

It reminded me of something I read in an essay by George Steiner about the Holocaust. He describes the deaths of two Jewish men, Mehring and Langner, in Treblinka. "Precisely at the same hour in which Mehring or Langner were being done to death," he writes, "the overwhelming plurality of human beings, two miles away on the Polish farms, five thousand miles away in New York, were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist. This is where my imagination balks. The two orders of simultaneous experience are so different, so irreconcilable to any common norm of human values, their coexistence is so hideous a paradox . . . that I puzzle over time."

It's not only the time element that is incomprehensible to me in the Akedah, though that is certainly part of it. The chapter starts off with the line, "And it happened after these things." What things? The previous line says, "Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many years." Not very helpful—another vague time element that doesn't say much about Abraham. In fact, with the Akedah, the tradition isn't really sure when it occurred. There's disagreement on Isaac's age—in some midrash, Isaac is about 12, in others, 37. Countless years and events pass in the spaces between the opening words—time moves quickly. The passage plays along this sort of contrast, however.

Abraham wakes early in the morning to leave for the land of Moriah, and the text describes every detail—he saddles his donkey, he took his servants with him, he split the wood, he stood up, he went to the place which God had spoken to him. Then—bam three days go by, and Abraham is at Moriah. And from there, the passage details the actions in the Akedah. Does time go by slowly in the Akedah, or quickly? As Abraham binds Isaac on the altar, it must have occurred to him that only five days earlier he was tending his flocks with Isaac, rather than preparing to kill him. And that, at the same time that he is binding Isaac, perhaps Hagar and Ishmael are off enjoying life. Who knows? The tradition differs on Sarah's experience during the Akedah. Did she know what was going on? She's not mentioned in this chapter, but her death is what begins the next one. One midrash holds that Sarah died of shock upon hearing of the Akedah.

And there are other problems as well—for one thing, the paradox of killing Isaac. God has again and again told Abraham that he will be a father of nations through Isaac, working this miracle of letting Sarah conceive Isaac despite her barrenness and extreme old-age. And then God asks Abraham to kill Isaac. The two commands butt heads in a number of ways. First, if you take God's word to be decree, then the two commands are contradictory, and it would seem that the earlier decree would take priority. So does that mean Abraham would disregard God's command? Does it mean that Abraham "knew" that God wasn't serious about killing Isaac? Isaac, his son, his beloved son, whom he loved—to have his throat slit and be turned into ash on an altar perhaps only a stone's throw away from the place where Canaanites sacrificed their children in the valley of Tophet. How can God ask for this? How can Abraham go through with this? Some argue that those questions are too contemporary, that God and Abraham were doing what gods and pious men did all the time back then—sacrificing their children. But I think this ignores the tone of the narrative. The text doesn't suggest a world where child-sacrifice is normal or pleasant for families. If it were normal, why would Abraham earn so much esteem for it from God? And certainly it's not pleasant—the constant repetition of "my son" and "my father," the use of na 'ar, the lad, for Isaac, the way the narrative is dragged out heighten the emotional tension.

Anyway, I could go on for—well, I'm probably already getting boring. But what's important to notice here is how the text doesn't work. You can't accurately put yourself in Abraham's or Isaac's place. I can pretend to analyze their feelings—I just did—but at the end of the day I'm left dumbfounded. An impossible command is given to the father of an impossibly born son, with an impossible rescue at the end. I tend to have problems with using the Akedah as a model of faith—and, depending on the midrash, either Abraham or Isaac can work as a knight of faith. And I guess I have trouble, also, with what I've been doing—calling the Akedah "incomprehensible" and "impossible." It's neither, because it's a real event in Abraham's life, in all Jews' lives. Those Jews who lived in the Crusades and paralleled their experiences to Abraham's—how dare I sit back in my chair and judge whether that's an "authentic" use of the text? How can I sit in my safe little word of upper-middle class Los Angeles Jewry and pretend to know the suffering of Jews in the Shoah? And, at the same time, I think the tradition commands that I understand the suffering of Jews in the Shoah. I can't proclaim my inability to understand real suffering and leave things at that. I have to understand it. At Passover, I have to be able to say that Iwas a slave in the land of Egypt, not that my forefathers were. That's the way that time works in Judaism—that is to say, it doesn't work. It's not a line, it's a stew, it's a cholent where everything molds together in taste. And I think in that way it loses its nature as time.

So I'm back to my old problem—"it," last Tuesday. After all this, I'll probably go back to my room tonight, turn on the TV and watch CNN. Maybe I'll make myself cry. Time is a cholent, with everything mixing together, the goods with the bads. The lovers of the Song of Songs run past Jeremiah, who sits on the Temple Mount steps, mourning for a destroyed Jerusalem. The founders of the State of Israel sign the Declaration of Independence in a Tel Aviv basement, as the ghosts of the Shoah—many still alive—look on. I guess things aren't supposed to be easy,

Tefillah, tzedakah and teshuvah can soften the decree. The tradition commands us to go forth, but not to go forth and suck it up—the opposite is true. We should go forth, do tefillah, tzedakah and teshuvah, but we should still sit and weep by the rivers of Babylon as we think of Zion. We should go and marry, but we should still break glasses and remember the destruction and the exile. I'm looking forward to hearing the shofar again—it'll help wake me up from the last week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *