9/11 and How to Effect Permanent Change
The most powerful High Holidays experience of my life was eight years ago. A week before I went to an office from which one could still see the World Trace Center. By that Rosh haShanah I hadn’t yet returned to work after the nightmare of the attack a few blocks away. The charley horse from walking down 42 flights of stairs and up several miles of Manhattan had faded, and my ash-covered clothes long since went into the trash. I had a hacking cough, my lungs trying to get rid of the burnt airplane fuel, building, and human suffering that was forced into them. My life’s stride was broken, and I hadn’t yet found it again.
Remember how we said the poem “Unsaneh Toqef” that year? “Let us give consideration to the holiness of the day, for it is awe-inspiring and fearful…” That year, who could say “Who will live and who will die? … Who in chaos? Who in fire? … Who by suffocation and who by falling or hurtling?” The chaos came alive in my mind. The floor shaking beneath me from the wave of noise. The ball of fire, the bits of metal falling to the street like confetti. The cloud of smoke that rushed at us as we were trapped on the southern tip of the island. And the bits of falling debris that hid within it. The sight of those “windows” that fell from the buildings, that I realized a moment later in horror weren’t windows.
The notion that our lives literally were in the “Hands” of the Almighty was very real and etched in the core of our beings. That Rosh haShanah, I didn’t need to hear the shofar to be woken up to repent. The thunder of falling buildings, the cries of Wall Street workers suddenly frightened, had already pierced my shell. And it wasn’t just me or those of us who were there. The entire country — the world — we were all awoken from our comfortable and sometimes petty routines.
And in the following months, you stopped on the road to help a stranger stranded on the side, regardless of their ethnicity. We all proudly flew our flags in a show of unity. Even the dynamics and unity with our community of American Jews was markedly stronger. But now? The flag got dirty and faded into a grey, sky blue and pink, and was taken down, not replaced. And if the fellow on the shoulder of the road is identifiably Jewish, and I have time, or if it’s not a stretch of highway frequented by many other Jews who might have pity on him… then I would stop to give him a hand.
There is a pasuq in Devarim which reads “The ‘Eyes’ of G-d are on [the Land of Israel] from reishis hashanah ad acharis shanah — the beginning of the year until the end of a year.” The Satmar Rav points out the asymmetry; first the use of “hashanah”, “the year”, but it closes with just “shanah”, “a year”.
The Yismach Moshe notes that unfortunately that is the way with most of us. Every year, when it begins, we are all excited and determined. “This is going to be THE year!” The year I finally have the patience my children deserve, the year I get to synagogue regularly, the year… But the year goes by, and by the end, it’s just “a year”, another span on the calendar.
In VaYoel Moshe, the Satmar Rav adds that this can be read in the words nusach Sfard quotes at the conclusion of Qedushah, “hein ga’alti eschem acharis kereishis — here I [G-d] will redeem you in the end [of our history] as in the beginning [i.e. in Egypt]”. Hashem will redeem a people for whom “the end is like the beginning”. When we can end the year with the same determination to be better as we had when we began it, we will have merited the redemption.
So we return to my in synagogue, crying in my seat. I swore to myself — “Who will live and who will die?” Me. I will live because I will die. This is the year, finally, the one where I turn over that new leaf, when the old me departs and the person I want to be will be born.
And then we leap ahead to a year later, as Rosh haShanah again approached. I looked over my spiritual accounting for the year and I saw something very depressing. My list of things to commit to working on didn’t differ all that much from one made in 2001 after all. In general, the list of things I wish to do teshuvah [repent] for one year closely resembles the changes I promised myself the year before.
What happened? Why couldn’t we hold onto that feeling? (Ironically, I ask myself that question annually as well!)
My son and I went on a trip to Northern Israel at the end of the Lebanon II war. We brought food and supplies to Tzefat’s poor and to our soldiers at and heading to the front, and we also stopped by Chaifa and the Rambam Hospital. There we met Yechiel ben Zoharah. Yechiel left his bunker, unaware that they were actually situated north of Hezbollah trenches. He was shot from behind, with shrapnel destroying much of his liver, part of his right lung (which the intial bullet went through as well), and his right shoulder. He was waiting for the other wounds to heal sufficiently for him to be up to reconstructive surgery on the shoulder. And yes, he is a righty.
What made him stick out in my mind was something he did when it wasn’t war-time. There are people capable of a moment of bravery, being in the line of fire to save another. It is a different skill (not greater or lesser, just different) to be able to live “heroically” for long stretches of time.
Yechiel lived alone, working the land and building at a spot near the Kineret for a year. I unfortunately forgot the name of the town in the Golan, at nearly 50 families, that he build around his efforts. (And of course, he had to brag about his daughter, who since turned 1.)
What we try to do most Rashei haShanah is closer to the moment of heroism. We think of teshuvah in terms of being at a new place by the end of Yom Kippur.
Rav AY Kook describes two ways of doing teshuvah (Orot haTeshuvah ch 2). The first is sudden, “coming from some kind of spiritual thunder that centers the soul. In one moment he recognizes the evil and disgustingness of sin, and turns into a new person . This sort of teshuvah comes from some influence of inner gift, by some great spiritual influence, that it’s worthy to seek its roots in the deepest of mysteries…. The higher teshuvah comes from the thunder of universal good, the Divine Good which underlies all the worlds….”
The second sort of teshuvah is gradual. “He feels that he must progress and improve his ways and his lifestyle, his desires, his thought patterns. In his travels on this path he conquers, bit by bit, the ways of righteousness, repairs his middos, improves his actions, teaches himself how to become more and more proper until he reaches the pinnacle of brightness and repair.”
The first luchos, “G-d’s manufacture they were, and the writing was G-d’s writing” (Shemos 32:16). They were a “thunder from heaven”, spirituality as a gift from the A-lmighty. As something unearned, there was no guarantee that they could be kept.
The Benei Yisrael sought to maintain this lofty experience; they had a need for further inspiration that could not await Moshe’s return. They built the calf, and it all unraveled. That which was quickly gained was just as quickly lost.
For the second luchos, Moshe is told to “quarry for yourself two stone tablets like the first” (ibid 34:1). Man must take the first step. This is the gradual, incremental path. It’s not a thunderous gift from Hashem, it is a call to which Hashem responds. He “will write on the luchos the ideas that were on the first luchos” (v. 2). But man must invest the effort.
Perhaps we can say that the first sort of teshuvah is embodied by the pasuq “Hashiveinu Hashem eilekha venashuvah – Hashem, bring us close to You, and we will return.” (Eikhah 5:21) Hashem taking the first step. The second, harder but more likely to be permanent teshuvah is “Shuvah eilai ve’ashuvah aleikhem – return to Me, and I will return to you.” (Malakhi 3:7) We take the initiative, and Hashem promises to respond.
The kind of rapid change we typically aspire for over Aseres Yemei Teshuvah is similar to that Rav Kook compares to the first luchos. It is rapid, because it is gifted from G-d. But it is much harder to keep permanent.
Buried under the all the rubble of 9/11 was a gift, an environment that called upon us to grow as people. But like the first tablets, it didn’t come from within. As the world slowly returned to something more like (although never again the same) it was before, so did we lose much (but not all) of that personal growth.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher?
The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”
Once I told the story, the idea is familiar. The idea of spirituality is not where you are, as that is largely a function of forces beyond your control (your upbringing, your genetics, etc…) Rather, it’s the direction you’re heading in, and how rapidly you’re getting there. To apply a notion from Kierkegaard, it’s not about being a good Jew, it’s about the process of becoming one. The journey, not the destination, is what matters.
Holiness is measured by our engagement in becoming, so why do we think of teshuvah, repentance, in terms of who to be by Yom Kippur? My dream of having “the year” was my deciding to be someone new. Teshuvah as motion, getting from point A to the desired point B. Fighting motion is always inertia, and this dream was really my expecting to shift that on the proverbial dime. Expecting sudden relocation to get to that point B is as unreliable as setting oneself a destination without planning the journey.
A different metaphor: teshuvah as acceleration – changing the direction and speed we’re taking in our lives, changing the course of life’s journey to aim for that “point B”, rather than simply expecting to leap there. Not “getting there” by Yom Kippur, but turning to head toward the right direction, and taking more effort to pick up speed.
We must realize that “the work is long”, that the entire year will be one in which we will need to slowly, incrementally, work toward our goals.
The goal to set for the season is that by the end of Yom Kippur we have a plan for that year’s growth, and are more engaged in the process of change. It is a time for gathering the means to implement holiness in our lives, and for starting to use them. Through such efforts, we will hopefully look back on this year as “the year” even as it comes to an end.
Through such efforts, we can hopefully look back on this year as “the year” even as it ends.