I was startled out of my sleep at 6:15 AM Tuesday morning by a phone call from my daughter, Gable, who is living just a ten-minute walk from the World Trade Center in New York. “Oh my God,” she cried into the phone, “I’ve just witnessed the most horrible scene of my life.” With those words Gable epitomized the dread and horror that we have all felt ever since.
Life will never be the same for any of us. A country of hundreds of millions living in 50 states spread throughout thousands upon thousands of miles – and on Tuesday, we were all New Yorkers.
Will any of us ever forget those terrifying images, indelibly etched into our memories? The plane crashing directly into the tower; that first sense of disbelief as the North Tower disintegrated before our very eyes and the 110 story gigantic tower that remained suddenly seemed so frail, vulnerable, and strangely lonely? And the final rush of numbness as we watched the second tower implode and vanish forever from the so familiar New York skyline?
At that instant we knew that it wasn’t merely the New York landscape that had forever been altered, but that the entire landscape of America itself would never be the same.
What do I say to my twenty-one-year-old daughter as she describes to me the horror of watching human beings jumping to their death from 110 stories up before her very eyes?
What do I tell her as she cries with the pain of all the human suffering that surrounds her, covered with dust and ash and soot and totally unable to comprehend the magnitude of the trauma that she has just endured?
I wish I had some magic words to make it better, but I don’t. The best I could do was cry with her, long to be with her with my arms around her giving her comfort and support, and knowing that the 3,000 miles that separated us might as well have been the other side of the world.
Of course all Americans are in shock and numb. We can’t help but feel more insecure and vulnerable to the blind hatred and fanaticism of terrorism than ever before in our history. We gasp in disbelief at the human carnage of thousands of innocent lives that can vanish in an instant of unleashed evil. The world as we know it has changed forever, and our souls lie burdened with doubt and grief.
Once again we know to the core how fragile life is, how unpredictable life is, how we are all linked by the common bonds of human frailty, fear, and longing for a better, safer world. By the time our ancestors stood at the banks of the Jordan river in this week’s Torah portion preparing to cross into the promised land, they had endured forty years of desert wanderings, the attack and murdering of their women and children by the evil Amalek, wars with numerous armies, revolts from within, plagues, poisonous snakes, earthquakes that swallowed up thousands and now the imminent death of the only leader they have ever known.
But God holds out the promise of ultimate renewal and redemption with these words: “When all these things befall you – the blessing and the curse that I have set before you – and you take them to heart amidst the various nations which Adonai your God has banished you, and return to Adonai Your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul…then Adonai your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love….and God will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors.” (Deut. 30:1-5)
”The entire world is a very narrow bridge,” wrote Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “and the essential thing above all is not to fear.” We Jews are an old and ancient people. We have known much sorrow and loss over the thousands of years of our civilization’s history. Perhaps there are lessons we have learned from our own traumas and tragedies that we need to share with our neighbors.
What the perpetrators of terror want most of all, is our terror. For us to give in to the debilitating nightmares of fear. They tried to destroy us in Egypt but we walked away from our enslavement with heads held high. They bound and tossed us into the fires of the auto de fe during the Spanish Inquisition, and we emerged to start again in countries throughout the world. They stripped us naked and forced us into the chambers of death in concentration camps throughout Europe, and we created the reborn State of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and have thrived beyond our wildest imaginations in the United States of America and throughout the free world.
And just as the Jewish people continue to survive all of our enemies, so the inner strength of the American people will shine forth to renew the promise of America for the rest of the 21st century as well. Now, more than ever is the time we need each other’s strength, each other’s courage, and each other’s love. What this week’s portion reminds us of, is that it takes courage to go on in the midst of pain, and tragedy and loss, but that is the path that we have always chosen.
The reality of life is that there will always be blessings and curses, joy and sorry, celebration and tragedy in our lives. The real challenge is to pick ourselves up when we are knocked down, dust ourselves off, and know with certainly that one day we will laugh again, one day we will dance again, one day we will celebrate life again, and blessings will once again outweigh everything else.