“On the Anniversary of September 11th”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is known as Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance. The Torah portion that is read on this Shabbat is Haazinu, one of the closing chapters of the Five Books of Moses, in which Moshe calls heavens and earth to bear witness to the final message that he communicates to the Jewish people in G-d’s name. The Haftorah, the parallel prophetic message, is composed of selections from the books of Hoshea, Yoel and Micah, and speaks of the return of the Jewish people.

I believe that it is not mere coincidence that this year the anniversary of September 11th occurs smack in the middle of the Ten Days of Penitence. To my mind there is little doubt that the September 11th attack was meant, among other things, to serve as a wake-up call to the Jewish people, especially Jews who reside outside of Israel–a wake up call that bears a similar message to the one communicated in parashat Haazinu. Consequently, the ancient words of Moshe from this week’s parasha should reverberate in our ears.

Although G-d has done so many wonderful things for the Jewish people throughout history, and particularly during the last 50 years of Jewish history, our people are often unappreciative. In his message to the ancient Israelites, Moshe declares in Deuteronomy 22:15: “Vah’yish’man Ye’shurun vah’yiv’aht,” but Jeshurun (the Jewish people) has grown fat and kicked: You have grown fat, you have become thick, you are covered with fatness: [Israel] forsook G-d who made him, and treated with disrespect the Rock of his salvation. We, diaspora Jews, especially American Jews, have taken so much of G-d’s beneficence for granted. We act as if all the good that He has visited upon us is coming to us and thoroughly deserved. In return for His goodness, we rarely express gratitude, indeed, we often instead complain, “Why are things not better?”

In one fell swoop on September 11, 2001, (or perhaps two fell swoops), the Al-mighty showed how vulnerable American Jewry is in “The home of the free, and the land of the brave.”

This has been a brutal year for the Jewish people. The hatred of almost all the nations of the world, which was under the surface until now, has suddenly erupted with a vengeance. The numbers of innocent terror victims in Israel has reached the point where we no longer treat them as individuals, but are often brushed away as mere statistics. American life has changed dramatically. The most powerful nation in the world has been brought to its knees. Its people are afraid of what the future has in store for them. We’ve become obsessed with security. We talk of closing the airports around New York City. Even a cuticle scissors may not be brought aboard a plane. Our enemies have taken away many of our freedoms, and it is hard for us to see any silver lining at all on the horizon.

And yet, just as G-d promises in parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:40): “Kee eh’sah el shah’mayim yah’dee v’amar’tee chai uh’noh’chee l’olam,” For I (says G-d) will lift up my hand to Heaven and say, I live forever. G-d promises that He will mete out judgment and vengeance upon His enemies. Overwhelmed by evil, we mortals often cannot see goodness. Overwhelmed by darkness, we fail to see the sun. Overwhelmed by bondage, we do not sense redemption. But Haazinu is a genuinely optimistic parasha. It is an upbeat parasha, with a definite promise of ultimate, if not imminent, salvation.

An apocryphal story: A king in Africa was out hunting. His companion and gun bearer was a person whose attitude towards life was that “Everything is for the good.” The gun bearer erred in loading the king’s rifle causing a misfire which blew off the king’s thumb. When the gun bearer exclaimed, “This is for the good,” the king replied, “No, it’s not!” and had the gun bearer thrown into prison.

Close to a year later, the king was once again hunting. This time he was captured by cannibals. They were ready to cook the king and eat him for dinner when they noticed the missing thumb. Being superstitious, the cannibals would not eat anyone who was less than whole. So they let the king go!

Immediately, the king went to the jail to free his gun bearer. “You were right,” said the king, “This was for the good! I am so terribly sorry that I sent you to jail.” “No,” replied the gun bearer, “Being in jail was for the good, too.”

“What do you mean? Look how you have suffered!” said the king. “Yes,” responded the gun bearer, “But if I wasn’t in jail…I would have been with you!” (Thanks to Rabbi Kalman Packouz of Aish HaTorah)

Perhaps the message of 9/11 having occurred during the Ten Days of Penitence is G-d’s way of urging us to be more optimistic and upbeat in our faith. Perhaps He’s telling us that it’s time to lighten up, and time to brighten up. During the Ten Days of Penitence, we Jews believe with special conviction that G-d is particularly close to us. He is there for us, waiting to shower us with His blessings. If only we work to merit them–G-d’s blessings will be ours. If only we work to be worthy of it–G-d’s loving-kindness will be ours.

The Ten Days of Penitence signal that the clouds are beginning to disperse, and that the sun is beginning to shine through from behind the vast, frightening darkness. The glow of redemption is at hand, and the origin of that glow is teshuva–whole-hearted repentance.

Shannah Tovah.

May you be blessed.