The Days of Awe- September 11, 2001, and After
I write books for children. I have two rules: they can’t be dull and they must, no matter how frightening or sad, offer hope. God seems to have the same rules. We read Psalm 27 at least forty times at this time of year, in the season which commands celebration of the world’s creation. It is a poem expressing David’s terror of his enemies and his deepest desire to rest against the bosom of God, safe at home with the Parent who will never abandon him. The last verse reads: Hope in God, be strong and let your heart take courage, hope in God. I’ve read this so many times, and now, since the attack on America, I understand it as never before.
For many of us, the liturgy of the this High Holiday season suddenly made a new, brilliant kind of sense in the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s destruction. Every year rabbis attempt to get their congregation’s attention during the High Holidays. We don’t wish each other something so trivial as a “happy new year,” we tell them. We ask for a good sweet year that signs us up for a year of life. How we choose to live is everything, will determine whether we will righteously seize the day and bless it with our behavior or whether we’ll sleepwalk through it and make a mess of things. This is of paramount importance, we exhort. It’s not just apples and honey, it’s not just my life at stake, it’s the world’s. Take it seriously or perish, the Unetanetokef darkly hints.
The mitzvah is to hear the blowing of the shofar. Rambam, in the twelfth century, taught that its shrieking blast is to remind us that our brief time here is no dress rehearsal. It’s now or never that we learn the lesson of the season, and if these days do not fill us with fear and trembling, then we’re not listening to the urgency bursting in the piercing sob of the shofar.
This year, the rabbis had an easier job of it. Congregations came to them awakened, God help us, by the most terrifying shofar any of us had ever heard in our lives. And it was accompanied by fire, smoke, ashes, and bodies falling from the sky. Red-eyed from sleeplessness and crying, they came to synagogue alert and broken-hearted, as David wept to his God. Please give me shelter from my grief, fear, and rage, they begged. Tell us what will happen, what we can do to get past this. But however much we wanted to, those of us who stood before the people couldn’t build the ark for anyone, because we were broken, too.
After I went to B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan the Shabbat morning before Rosh Hashanah, I felt that I’d found the lap of God in the thousand people who had come with the same need. I walked through Central Park and found another consoling place. The day’s fresh, crystalline beauty didn’t bother me as dissonant; I always like a sunny day for a funeral as counterbalance. And in the park, an uncharacteristic calm prevailed. The usual whizzing of rollerbladers and joggers, children and parents yelling and shouting, didn’t predominate. New Yorkers were sitting and watching, occasionally making eye contact with the stranger. Healing comes in different ways, maybe most intimately from looking into each other’s eyes and finding a neighbor in shared experience. No one was taking such a day as this, peaceful at least for the moment, perhaps blessed by being with another, for granted. More than words of profound wisdom from spiritual leaders, communion such as this wherever we gather is what gives us the will to live as we remember the thousands who died and the tens of thousands whose lives will never be the same after losing loved ones.
Nothing made me feel more helpless than looking in the eyes of my sons, 31 and 27, and realizing that I couldn’t keep the promise made at their birth that they would be safe. At first, I talked of living through other catastrophes-the Kennedy brothers’ assassinations, the Los Angeles earthquakes, but the words died in my mouth. As Roger Angell wrote this week in the New Yorker, “Now we’re all the same age together.” We all know now that our sense of security in the world is illusory. Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and pockets of passionately committed communities united by hate, make everyone of us a frightened child.
During the Days of Awe are commanded, in the great Aleinu, to lower ourselves to the earth. While it is a humbling act, it also puts us closer to the root from which we earthlings have emerged. This year as I took the posture, I found myself putting my hands over my head as I did as a child during the drop drills in schools during the fifties. Are there any of my generation who do not carry deep, primal fear of omnicide from this terrifying preparation for a nuclear war?
Here is where being Jewish is useful. Who better than a Jew can teach the post -World Trade Center generation how to live with this fear? For 3500 years we have been on the verge of destruction, but we’re still here! While dying, we’ve built, loved, and laughed in the world. As Nachman of Bratzlav, our ecstatic depressive counseled, “The world is a narrow bridge, and the only thing is not to be afraid.”
But before we steel ourselves with resolve not to give in to terror, consider this. The shofar has blown to awaken us to awe; it’s a wake-up call to us as individuals, as a nation, and a world community. Fear in the name of perspective and humility is as necessary as love.
Hard-wired as we are to believe in our own power and little else, we are nothing before the Source of power. We’re reminded of the fragility and shortness of our lives for two reasons. First, it makes us less entitled and more grateful for everything and every day we have. Second, it reminds us, in our breathlessly dangerous world, that our strength comes only from remembering our royal descent.
God is all, the terror and the calm, the dark and the light. We beg the Womb of Mercy to protect us from our enemies, and we know that our work is to be the best we can be. To emerge on my feet from this catastrophe is imperative, yet I don’t want my tears and fears to stop too soon, because I like myself better with less veneer. It’s so easy to be cradled by the familiar and the routine, to be irritated that the New York Times is late, and to feel triumphant in obtaining hard-to-get theater tickets. However shattering the shofar may be to our sensibility, the time has come to be awakened beyond our local selves. A bomb a month in random places in once-invincible America will turn us into Israelis who no longer ride buses, think twice about going to crowded places, and risk going out to have a pizza. No one in the world can be a bystander anymore. Never in my lifetime have I seen such international and national unanimity. It gives us a glimpse of what the Oneness of God means. In fear and trembling, we remember that we are one on this planet.
Nothing mitigates the criminal behavior of those who are bent on destroying civilization, and yet perhaps we can learn from this tragedy and become better people. Osama bin Laden says, “Kill me and ten more bin Ladens will be born.” Do we ask ourselves why this is probably true? Many in the world hate America not only because we represent modernity and materialism. Our government has supported repressive regimes globally for our own interest, our companies employ laborers in third-world countries for pennies, and we do business with countries that allow child prostitution and white slavery. What has happened is not so much punishment as perhaps a quid pro quo. Soloveitchik said that evil is the will to dominate, and we’ve done our share because we can. Now there is hell to pay. Despite global unanimity-even Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson singing at the same benefit for America!-many of those countries simply fear bin Laden and our wrath more than they hate us.
Yes, nobody and no country is perfect, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere but here, but my God, can’t we do better than this? Please understand that I don’t think for a second that taking up the cry of Micah, “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” is going to eradicate terrorism. What I must believe, however, is that most people want full bellies and peace within their gates, and if we sent the Peace Corps to Afghanistan as quickly as we’re sending the military, we might be more successful. Finally, at least we will have known that we did our best to make the world more fair.
Since I’m not the President of the United States, I ask myself if there is anything I can do. I’ve begun to turn off lights when I leave the room and I don’t run water gratuitously. Big deal. But the practice is keeping me alert, giving me a sense that there is something to do, and I intend it as a first step. Maybe one day I’ll give up my big house and hot tub. It would feel better not to be such a “have” in the world of have-nots. In the meantime, I’ll do the best I can with my imperfection and the world’s imperfection and pray that we all grow up very soon. We may not save the world, but our effort will make us worth saving.
The One who revives the dead has jump-started my lifeless spirit many times. I’ve seen totally hopeless situations turn out well. No one knows how these days filled with memory and dread will turn out, and we’ll never forget them. But let’s also remember Khadafy and Arafat expressing condolences and the countless acts of lovingkindness and radical altruism practiced by ordinary citizens. I’ve learned to walk humbly in my despair. Maybe it’s faith.