The God Squad: 9/11 plus 20 years
When the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, I was the president of the New York Board of Rabbis. What that meant was that my days and weeks were spent presiding over funerals with no bodies. It also meant that on Sept. 24, 2001, at the memorial service at Yankee Stadium, I had to give one of the three main speeches (Catholic, Muslim, and Me). This is what I said then, and it is what I believe now. May God help us to heal our wounds that still bleed.
"On that day, 3,000 people did not die. On that day, one person died 3,000 times.
We must understand this and all catastrophes in such a way, for big numbers only numb us to the true measure of mass murder. We say 3,000 died or we say 6 million died, and the saying and the numbers explain nothing except how much death came in how short a time. Such big numbers sound more like scores or ledger entries than deaths. The real horror of that day lies not in its bigness but in its smallness, in the small searing death of one person 3,000 times. And that one person was not a number but our father or our mother, our grandpa or grandma, our brother or sister, or cousin or uncle or aunt, our friend, or our lover, our neighbor or our co-worker, the gal who delivered our mail, or the guy who put out our fires or arrested the bad guys in our town. And the death of each and every one of them alone would be worthy of such a gathering and such a grief. Our sages taught that when one kills a single person it is like killing the whole world altogether, and when one saves a single person it is like saving the whole world altogether. Last week, over 3,000 worlds were killed and, thank the Lord, a few—way too few—worlds were saved by heroes, most of whom will never be known. The dimensions of last week’s horror only becomes fully drawn when we mourn each murdered world one world at a time.
The Talmud, and the African Masai tribe both teach the same simple wisdom, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child.” The fears and sorrows of this moment are so heavy they can break us if we try to bear them alone. But if we are bundled together, if we stick together, we are unbreakable and we shall do more than merely survive, we shall overcome.
We shall overcome the forces of hatred without allowing hatred to unbundle us. We shall overcome the forces of terror without allowing fear to unbundle us. So, in all our comings and our goings from this time forth, let us remember that the person next to you, in front of you, behind you, is not merely an obstacle to your free and unfettered life. They are a part of this bundle called America that keeps you from breaking. Let us never again view our fellow New Yorkers, our fellow Americans, our fellow members of the human community of the world, as limitations on our life, but rather as the moral twine that binds us and saves us and delivers us from evil.
For some of us, the source of that strength, the twine that binds us and bundles us, is not just community but community under God, and that religious belief shared by all the Abrahamic faiths that each and every human being is made in the image of God. And also we people of faith share the belief that a good God will not allow evil to win out over goodness, hate over hope and death over life. History proves this, but for religious people of all faiths the proof comes from the way we know that we are bundled up in God’s love, and the way we know that our dear ones who have died are now wrapped up in the bundle of eternal life in the World to Come, in Heaven and there they wait for us, waiting to fulfill the promise that we will not be separated forever from those we love.
And for those who cannot find hope through faith, I say to you that you are also a part of our bundle, too. For our mission now is not for all of us to agree that the name for hope is God. Our main task now is to agree that hope was not one of the worlds destroyed on that day.
In his suffering, Job still found hope in a cut down tree,
For there is hope of a tree, even if it be cut down, it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. If its roots are old in the earth…at first scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant. (Job 14:7)
Dear God, we have been cut down, but our roots are deep in you. And today, yes today, we can smell the scent of water, because today we are sticks in a bundle and today, we are unbreakable."
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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