September 11, 2001
The indelible images of that day tell the story. Smoke rising from the building. Dust enveloping lower Manhattan. Streams of people walking uptown. All bear testimony to the trauma of the day. As we watched the story unfold on TV that morning our minds struggled to comprehend that these monumental buildings could collapse, that they had collapsed, that we were vulnerable.
These events of national shared trauma mark our lives. Decades from now it is likely that when someone asks about 9/11 we will vividly recall the details of where we were and what we did on that tragic morning and the days that followed. The juxtaposition of images of rescuers sacrificing their lives and strangers helping one another, set against the perverse rejoiciung of our enemies wil likely never leave us. Many of us we will remember them as days when our view of the world changed.
Our Sages knew traumatic upheaval as well. They marked their calendar with the dates on which the Babylonians, and later the Romans, approached Jerusalem, breached her walls, and destroyed the city. These dates are preserved as a succession of fasts in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 10th months of the Hebrew calendar.
The Temple of Jerusalem was an amazing building. Josephus, describes it as “the most admirable of all the works we have seen or heard of, both for its curious structure and its magnitude, and also for the glorious reputation it had for its holiness.” (The Jewish Wars 6.4.8 267-268) It was the Place where God caused his Name to dwell. What could be more indestructible? And yet, the Romans burned it to the ground.
The Talmud records the reactions of R. Yohanan and his brother-in-law, Shimon ben Lachish. They lived in the north of Israel, primarily in Tiberias, during the 3rd century CE. Though the Temple had been destroyed generations earlier, the trauma continued to haunt them. Reflecting on the deep losses of those traumatic days they used the analogy of a king whose son was taken from him.
Rabbi Yohanan compared it to a king who was calculating the calendar (I presume it was a calm and relaxing exercise) when [courtiers] came to him and reported that his son had been taken captive. His calculations went awry. He said, let's begin the calendar from this date.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lachish likewise compared it to a king who was calculating the calendar when [courtiers] came and reported to him that his son had been captured and forced into prostitution. His calculations went awry and he said, Let's begin the calendar from this date. -- Y. Ta'anit 4:5, 23aThey tell the same story. The loss of the Temple is likened to the loss of a precious and beloved son. The prince, whom one would presume is well protected by the walls of a castle or the diligence of a security detail, has been snatched. Ben Lachish makes the story even darker; the child is forced into prostitution. The prince is not only taken, but debased. The new reality is overwhelming.
What do you hear in their story? Two things come to mind. The first is the inconsolable loss. The king loses his mind. He is unable to do that which he had just been doing – calculating the calendar. It wasn't a matter of forgetfulness. Grief stole his mind. He didn't even know what day it was.
It is a sense of disorientation. Which way should we go? What policy should we pursue? The questions of what to do in the aftermath of 9/11 are the same questions that baffled the king. Recall the image of President Bush reading to school children when he was informed of the tragedy. What to do? Finish the story? Rush out leaving confused children behind? And where to go? Remember that the president flew about the country – from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska, while the vice-president went into extended hiding. The very first reactions of our political leaders to 9/11 echo the disorientation of the king in our story.
My second thought concerns the prince who is taken and debased by his captors. The Romans issued coins proclaiming “Judea Capta” – Judea is captured. Some of the coins portray a bearded captive (representing Judea) standing with his hands bound behind his back while a female (representing Jerusalem) mourns his loss. It echoes our story. The prince is now a prisoner, fair game for whatever follows. His royal identity is meaningless; it has failed to protect him. Even more, he is robbed of his very personhood.
We also have gone through a long period of redefining who we are as a nation. Even today we debate the rules of this new warfare: Are we a nation that uses “enhanced interrogation”? What is the role of drones? Are we justified in withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan? More than a decade later we still debate our proper role in the world post-9/11. We are looking to redefine ourselves.
Tragedy makes an indelible mark upon us. It is true for national traumas, and it is true for personal traumas as well. Perhaps you know someone who has lost a child, whose loved one has been murdered, or whose friend died in a freakish accident. Like the king of our tale, time moves in a different way than before. We tell time in relationship to the loss. When we hear the phrase “since 9/11”, we know it reflects the sense that something essential changed that day. The past belongs to a different world, and a new era of time starts post-destruction.
When Mark Twain's daughter Suzy died, he wrote, “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.” A thunder stroke – something that stops us so completely we don't know if we can keep going. Something that stops time, just as the calendar no longer made sense to the king of our tale. Something that redefines who we are.
The king declares, “Let's begin the calendar anew from this date.” It really happened. The Sages retreated to Yavneh where they initiated the rabbinic era, an approach to Jewish living that did not depend on the offerings brought to the Temple and could function without a geographical center. From that day to this we mark the destruction of the Temple in the traditional fasts of the Jewish year. Rituals of remembrance and moments of silence have begun to emerge in our culture each year to mark 9/11. Like the king, for one moment our nation stood together, thunder-struck, unable to articulate what had happened or where we were headed: and ever since we have marked time in relation to that awful day. From our Sages we should take solace that we will find a new path forward as we define our new day.
© Rabbi Louis Rieser