On September 11, 2001, I was fourteen years old. That was fourteen years ago — and it was half of my twenty-eight-year lifetime ago.
The proximity of the September 11th attacks to the High Holy Days was never lost on me: the night of that fateful day, I had a rehearsal for the High Holy Day choir. My cantor had composed an Él Malé Rachamim that day, and it was all we rehearsed.
As I pore over my machzor in anticipation of Rosh Ha-Shanah on Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, the words asking “Who shall live and who shall die?” hit me uncomfortably. I have long felt that the liturgy of the High Holy Days hits us at the very bottom of our consciences, where we acknowledge our flaws and errors and learn to live with our fallibility. At the height of the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services, leading into the Kedushah, we note that “On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur [our fate] is sealed.” We ask God, “Who will live, who will die? … Who by fire, who by water? … Who will be calm and who will be disturbed? … Who will be diminished, and who will be uplifted?”
Fourteen years ago, 2,977 people died just before Rosh Ha-Shanah.
411 of these were first responders who ran into the fire and ash rather than away.
246 of these were in-flight commuters who routinely boarded their planes.
19 of these were terrorists who planned these ruthless attacks.
In vidui, the confession, we list all of our communal wrongdoings. One of these is chamasnu – we have terrorized. Chamas (or “Hamas” in typical media English spelling) is the name, as we know, of a notorious Palestinian terrorist organization — one ruling that rules its people through fear, dependence, and destitution. They are agents of terror, not facilitators of peace.
Every time I say this word and strike my heart with a closed fist, I wonder: What have I done this year — what have we done this year — that is so bad to be likened to that entity? How have I stood in the way of peace? Who have I led to dependence rather than independence? How have I, knowingly or unknowingly, participated in oppression?
“Who shall live and who shall die?” Did God premeditate the 9/11 attacks? Did He know almost a year prior? I feel like even asking the question aloud causes the plates of my belief to tremble beneath my feet, as if the earth might split below me.
For centuries our ancestors have recited these texts on the High Holy Days and have asked these questions. In every generation they witnessed their neighbors and family being murdered ceaselessly without cause, and have yet brought their affirmations and their pleas to God in the Days of Awe.
On 9/11, the world changed. Half my lifetime ago, we were forced into the discomfort of eternal suspicion. All at once, as I sat in 9th grade math class in West Caldwell, New Jersey, 23.6 miles away two buildings crumbled as two passenger-filled planes exploded. Our society became less safe and more guarded.
In the past fourteen years, I have witnessed the world crumble and rebuild. It feels like we are in an up-swing; members of communities trust each other more, people are kinder, more compassionate than they were in the immediate aftermath of the attack. There is still work to do, of course. And I wonder: What kind of world my children will grow up in? I wonder: What event yet to occur will define their existence?
May we be moved by our liturgy during this cycle of High Holy Days. May we learn to trust and have faith both in God and in the people who surround us. May we be honest with ourselves, recognizing the work we have to do, and may we all be signed and sealed for life, health, prosperity, and happiness in the coming year.