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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Yom Kippur 2004 Drash

Yom Kippur 2004 Drash

A Martyr is a person who endures persecution and, usually, death for the sake of their religious profession or position. It is a Greek word, meaning "witness."

On 9/11, I witnessed the more than 2,700 martyrs. I saw something in the span of minutes, than many live their entire lives without witnessing. I saw martyrs who choose to sacrifice their lives and their humanity, so that they could commit mass murder on a horrific scale. I saw martyrs choose to embrace their humanity and sacrifice their lives, trying to rescue people that could not be rescued. And I saw martyrs that choose to simply go to work and live their lives, but who died anyway.

When I came out of the Chambers street subway station that day, the first plane had already hit and the tower was on fire. There were about 70 people on the street corner with me watching. We were all trying to convince ourselves that it was a terrible accident and that most of the people would be ok. Then the second plane hit. It must have hit the other side of the tower because I didn’t see it. All I saw was the explosion and what looked like an engine turbine come flying out of the building. I later learned that the turbine had landed two blocks away on Murray Street. At that point we all just ran. I fell and was stepped on by a few people but almost immediately two people helped me up. I walked a block to my office. My window looked out at the towers at the time. I remember seeing people hanging out of the windows, waving sheets or curtains back and forth, amid thousands of pieces of paper fluttering in the sky. At the time I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I just kept thinking of a tickertape parade. Part of me thought that they these people were just "killing time" while waiting to be rescued. Waving to the world. Seeking attention the way some people always seem to do when the news cameras are on. And then people started jumping. And the illusion was shattered for me. I was no longer capable of narrating a story in my mind to explain what was happening. What was happening defied explanation.

Hearing hundreds of people gasp in disbelief as people fall from the sky defies explanation.
Watching the tower collapse in on itself, destroying in a moment the hope of thousands of spouses, children and parents, defies explanation.

Walking from City hall to the GW Bridge, with hundreds of people, many without shoes and covered in a shroud of gray dust, defies explanation.

I think under normal circumstances, we see things and our minds immediately begin making up stories to explain what we see. There is always a voice in our head, narrating reality, telling us how everything that happens affects us. We witness something and our mind invents a meaning that fits what we witness. Someone doesn’t call and we know that means they are forgetful, or it means that they are angry, or it means we were supposed to call them. There’s traffic on the bridge, so it means it is Rush Hour, or it means I’ll be late. We are always ready to impose meaning on our world. But that day, there was no rationalizing anything for me. There was no internal voice explaining anything to me. The city, especially the people from the downtown area, were on autopilot that day. We all shared an experience that day left no room for internal commentaries.

Last year during this time I talked about how the blowing of the Shofar calls us all back to Sinai, to the moment of revelation. And how we all stand at Mt. Sinai and to hear the revelation of Torah for the first time, again and again. The greatest of spiritual good. A time when an entire people turn as one to God and God as One turns to his people.
Whenever I hear someone speak of 9/11, or watch video of the towers, I hear a different Shofar. A blast that calls me back to that day, where I stand at the corner of Chambers and Church street to witness the instant infliction of pain, suffering, death, and mourning on a terrible scale. A time when an entire nation – a nation of martyrs – was murdered in God’s name.

After 9/11 our rabbi spoke of a new and fuller understanding of the need to eradicate all sources of hatred and evil in our world; and a new understanding of the preciousness of each an every life; a new appreciation of every night we’re able to kiss our loved ones. The reality is, of course, that after a short amount of time passes, we tend to ignore the infinite value each moment of life possesses and concentrate on just getting through the next moment, just waiting for the work day to end or for the kids to go to sleep.
And so what does this all mean? What have me learned? All of us here today were able to walk away from 9/11. How have our lives changed since that day? There has to be meaning in so many deaths. Something other than shock over the immense waste of life, or anger with people who would do such a terrible thing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all those people who died and how the whole story of 9/11 has been laid out in great detail for us, like some great Midrash, demanding that find meaning, some truth, in the those terrible events.

So here is my midrash. On Yom Kippur we give up life affirming actions – procreation, showering, eating and drinking. It is a day when we cannot pretend that we’re immortal. That death is someone else’s problem. Today we come together as a community and we all rehearse our deaths. And while we are not martyrs, but only a group of people pretending that we can prepare for death, that is no small thing. It is no small thing to stand as witnesses for each other. It is no small thing to come together as one people and acknowledge the innate value and fragility of life. It is no small thing to acknowledge that our own lives are fleeting, grass in the wind, and at the same time, infinitely precious.

We know that he who saves one life it is as if he saved a universe. And we know that we are ashes and dust.

For me both 9/11 and Yom Kippur are reminders of all this. They are a shofar blast that ingrains this paradox in my bones and blood.


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9:00 AM, May 19, 2006


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