Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.

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Parashat Mas’ei: An Oral History in Sight of Jericho

There is a Jewish custom of studying Torah in honor of a deceased loved one around the time of his or her yahrzeit. My family commemorated the third yahrzeit for my grandfather, Larry Eisen, zichrono livracha, this past Thursday, the 26th of Tammuz. The Torah study I’ve done in preparation for this d’var Torah has been dedicated in his memory. I hope I honor him by sharing these words with you today.

Before he passed away in the summer of 2008, I had the privilege of recording my grandfather’s oral history. He told me, chronologically, about his life, starting from childhood in Brooklyn, and recalled an early memory of running away from school every now and then in kindergarten. As he unfolded his life and memories to me, the details ebbed and flowed – some pieces were just outlines and dates, and sometimes he would vividly recall a story that he lovingly shared. My grandfather told me that he remembered his first middle-school crush, but wouldn’t tell me her name because it was still “too personal”. He told me that he served in the American army’s signal corps in World War 2, actually taking about a third of the oral history to describe to me in detail his experiences as a soldier. He reminisced about the time in 1945 when he was on a boat on the Atlantic with his platoon, traveling from Western Europe to the Phillipines via the Panama Canal, when suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the atom bomb had been dropped, the war had ended, and they watched the wake of the ship as it turned ninety degrees to head home to New York. My grandfather told me about his experience studying physics at NYU, his work in the sixties with early calculators for measuring explosions. He told me that while his first love of study was physics, he taught other subjects with some level of competency, sometimes keeping just a chapter ahead of his students. He told me, “oh yes, there was the time when I went to jail,” by which he meant the experience in which he taught astronomy in a medium-security prison, just because he’d been asked to; but, he remembered with a smile, “They wouldn’t let us go outside to see the stars. How can you teach astronomy and not let the students go outside?”

We find the Israelite nation at the beginning of this week’s parasha in Plains of Moav. If we think of the Book of Deuteronomy as entirely Moses’s final words to the Israelite Nation before they enter the Land of Israel, we recognize Parashat Mas’ei as the very last narrative parasha in the Torah. The contents of Parashat Mas’ei include the people’s Journeys; a mandate from God to possess the Land of Canaan and an outline of its borders; laws of ערי מקלט – cities of refuge for those who commit accidental manslaughter; and the resolution of the story of the daughters of Tslofehad, whereby it was decided that they could only marry those from within their tribe, so that the land they had inherited on behalf of their father would not transfer into the hands of another tribe. The parasha concludes, “אלה המצות והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ ביד משה אל בני ישראל בערבות מואב על ירדן ירחו” — “These are the commandments and Laws that the Lord commanded of the Children of Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan, near Jericho.” Nervous and uncertain, the Israelites face their future. As Kafka wrote in his work, The Castle, it would have been “‘A fine setting for a fit of despair,’ it occurred to [K.], ‘if I were only standing here by accident instead of design’” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, p. 19). Then again, perhaps not nervous and uncertain. In his translation and commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter points out that the fact that the book of B’midbar is concluded with the word “יריחו” is appropriate because “Jericho will be the first military objective when the Israelites cross the Jordan, and so the concluding word here points forward to the beginning of Joshua” (Alter on Numbers 36:13).

Parashat Mas’ei itself, particularly in the first third of the parasha, is like an oral history of the life of the Israelite nation, having been “birthed” forty years earlier with the Exodus from Egypt. Like my grandfather’s oral history, this recapitulation of the long forty-year journey from Egypt to the Israelites’ present camp just across the Jordan River from Jericho ebbs and flows.

When a person tells an oral history, we can generally assume that his motives for providing certain information in more detail than other information is that he finds those moments more defining, more important, or more relevant to his audience. Here, though, in Numbers 33, details about stories we consider most important to our modern Judaism are omitted: of the forty-two ventures listed, there is no mention of receiving the Torah, no mention of battling against Amalek, no mention even of the miracle crossing the Red Sea, though all of the locations for those events are simply listed; and we only hear more than just geographical details about four of the forty-two ventures. Looking at the details that have been included, we must ask ourselves, “Why are these the most defining moments that God and Moses want the Israelite nation to take with them / as they prepare to cross the Jordan River / and start a new chapter of Israelite history?”

First new detail:

· At the beginning of the parasha, when the Israelites are leaving Ramses, “… on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.”

This account of the Exodus echoes but still has a very different feeling than the one that we heard back in Sh’mot, chapter 10. As triumphal as this account still feels, being told about the Egyptians burying their dead is a new addition to the Exodus story for us — last we checked in Parashat Bo, we read about the Ten Plagues, how God explains that He Himself “brought Judgment on [Egyptian] gods,” but we don’t get any sense of the stark feeling this image brings us — mourning, mass deaths, a preoccupation with their own grief which is what allows the Israelites, according to Rashi, a safe departure from the Land. Well, at least a safe head-start.

Two more non-geographical details:

· STOP #5 – At Elim, “… where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date trees.”

· STOP #10 – At Rephidim, “… where there was no water for the nation to drink.”

My nine-year-old chevruta partner had a very insightful interpretation of why these particular details are necessary. One particular comment he made rang very true in response to the question, “Why would God and Moses point out that in Elim there was lots of water and lots of food, while in Rephidim there was no water?” “Well,” my chevruta pondered aloud, “maybe it’s because having no food and water was what made Jacob’s sons go down to Egypt in the first place. Maybe this was to show them that sometimes they have a good supply and sometimes they don’t, but that they will always survive and be successful.”

The last detail we are provided:

· STOP #33 – At Hor HaHar, “… which is on the edge of the land of Edom. And Aaron the Priest went up on Hor HaHar, on the word of God, and died there in the fortieth year since the Children of Israel left Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month.” (Aside, this means that the Yahrzeit of Aharon Kohen HaGadol is Rosh Hodesh Av, which, incidentally, is on Monday). “Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Hor HaHar.”

Why is the death of Aaron notable here? It seems to me that this mostly has to do with time-frame more than anything else. Thinking as the nation currently standing in front of Moshe, we remember this event — it was important to us, and it happened recently.

Now, Parashat Mas’ei tells of forty-two stations at which the Israelite camp was situated throughout their forty-year journey in the desert. (And what would a summer d’var Torah at Temple Emanu-El be like without some Math? So here we go.) Forty-two is a very important number. Firstly, its prime factors are two, three, and seven — all very important numbers to our tradition. Additionally, anyone who read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows that 42 is the “answer to the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” Rashi points out in the name of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan that, lest you think the Israelite nation was always moving, the first fourteen of these journeys all occurred in the first year of travel. These, Rashi says, are chronicled here to let us know that even though the Holy One sentenced the Israelites to wander the desert for forty years, you should not say that they were moving and wandering from journey to journey all forty years and never had any rest; […] rather, [of the forty-two] take fourteen away because these were all in the first year, before the decree (i.e. their travels from Rameses until they arrived at Rithmah.) […] Take away another eight journeys that were between the death of Aaron at Hor Ha-Har and the arrival at the Plains of Moav, and you’ll find that in all thirty-eight years of the decree since the negative report brought back by the מרגלים, the spies, the Israelites only traveled a total of twenty times.

But why retell this journey at all? What is so important that each of the forty-two stops be recounted so meticulously? A friend gave me a unique insight, taking our mind’s eye all the way back to B’reisheet. At the end of the first Creation story, God takes a step back and looks at everything He’s done, establishing Shabbat as not only a day “to rest and relax,” but also a day “to recount what we did during the week,” and say, “Wow, we did this?” Perhaps, continues my friend’s midrash, this is what this parasha is all about. Hindsight, reflection, is incredibly important. Perhaps the message God and Moses are trying to send is one of “look how far we’ve come”. Not everything is going to be easy, but look what experiences we’ve already had as a people — a dramatic move from slavery to freedom, experiences with times of plenty and times of drought and famine, death and transitions of leadership. As the Israelites look across the Jordan River, at the site of their next great step in nationhood, they are reminded that whatever they weather, with the help of God and with faith in their leaders they will succeed in whatever ventures they try. May we be blessed with the same faith and the same success.

Shabbat Shalom.

Depicting the Holocaust: A Problem

It is a constant struggle for us to figure out ways to represent the Holocaust that are respectful to those who perished. Often representatives from different groups wish to remind the world what happened in those dark years while Hitler was in power and the Nazi party ruled and ruined the lives of all it enveloped, so that the world can remember and renew our vow again and again that we will do what we can to ensure that it never happens again. The question is always: how?

Today, January 31, 2008, a group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was faced with this very issue. The Rio carnival has a reputation of being “a festival recognised worldwide for its joy, humour, entertainment and eroticism,” the lawyer of Fierj, the Jewish federation of Rio, explained in an article about the opposition toward a certain float depicting the Holocaust. He opposed the float because of the aforementioned characteristics, and represented Fierj in their fight against it, saying that “The monstrosity that is the Holocaust just cannot be combined with the excessively festive nature of the carnival.”

According to the same article, “The float is one of several that Viradouro was planning to use as the group parades down Rio’s sambadrome under its theme ‘It gives you goose bumps’. The other floats are set to portray cold, fear and birth.”

Does the memory of the Holocaust give you goose bumps? Does it sometimes infringe on your ability to sleep at night? Of course it does. How about the time of Pogroms? Or the Crusades? Or the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, in which the Church told many pagans, Jews, and others, that they were to convert, be expelled, or die. And yet, Mel Brooks can poke fun at both the Inquisition and the Crusades in his movie, “History of the World: Part I”. What is it about the Holocaust that makes us so opposed to those who want to depict it for an effect? What is it that makes it okay for people to create video games in which the player is a Crusader, reminding us of a time when thousands of Jews, and others, were killed in the name of Jesus Christ, but the idea of a video game in which players play the role of Nazi is abhorrent to us?

Don’t think I’m downplaying our pain still from the Holocaust. I am not. I am asking simply why we don’t share that pain when we think about the other events that were just as horrific? On Yom Kippur we read the martyrology, which tells of ten Rabbis who were brutally murdered in their respective time periods, just for being Jewish. This is perhaps less well-known, but this too doesn’t make you want to vomit?

The fact that people would want to dedicate a parade float to displaying anything resembling the atrocities of the Holocaust sickens me. A memorial is one thing. A display is another.

Try to have some respect for the Dead. They have been through enough.