Friday, February 15, 2013


September 11, 2001 

 When you flew into New York you saw them high above even Manhattan's skyline, defining the city. They epitomized New York. What words can capture the experience of that awful morning 11 years ago? Surely you remember where you were when those iconic buildings, the Twin Towers, crumbled. 

 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, 23a 
 They 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

Friday, February 1, 2013

Diving into the Yerushalmi again to find a prescient warning

This posting concerns the same section of Gemara from the Yerushalmi, masechet Ta'anit, concerning 5 terrible things that happened on the 17th of Tammuz. Following the lesson on not judging on the basis of guesswork, the discussion veers in another direction: just how it happened, and at whose instigation, the tablets were shattered.  Four opinions are offered:

  • R. Yishmael tells us: Moses broke the tablets at the behest of God. R. Yishmael derives his view from Deuteronomy 10:2 in which God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.”
  • R. Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of R. Yonatan tells us: Moses holds one end and God holds the other. Upon seeing the Golden Calf, God attempts to wrest the tablets away from Moses, but his grasp is so firm that God cannot, which is why the very last verse of Torah is …for all the great might power (ha-yad ha-chazakah, lit. “the strong hand) and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:12) — this is God’s admission of Moses’ superior strength in this instance.
  • R. Yochanan in the name of R. Yose bar Abaye tells us that the tablets themselves try to fly away, but again Moses holds them fast. He calls on Deuteronomy 9:17 to support his claim because it there Moses says, “So I took hold of the two tablets…” suggesting that Moses has to grasp them in order to prevent them from flying off.
  • R. Ezra in the name of R. Yehudah b. R. Shimon explains that the stone tablets are inherently exceptionally heavy. The writing — God’s words — holds the tablets aloft, lightening the load, as it were. The writing flies off the tablets, however, and they became so heavy that Moses can no longer hold them up. They fall and shatter.

The opinions expressed share a common idea: God, or the tablets themselves, or the writing on them, wish to disassociate Torah from Israel, presumably because, having worshiped the Golden Calf, Israel is unworthy to receive God’s words. I find this line of thinking peculiar: We have Torah not because we are righteous and deserving, but because we need Torah to become better people. At the moment they are encircling the Golden Calf with song and praise, Israel desperately needs the Torah.

In each case, it is not Moses’ who wishes to shatter the tablets. In fact, Moses attempts to hold fast to the Torah (etz chaim hi l’machazim ba / “it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it). In the eyes of the Gemara, Moses is the true prophet and shepherd, even more patient and long-suffering than Torah makes him out to be. What is more, he extends the teaching about reserving judgment to another level: reserve punishment. Instead, offer help to change. Ideally, do we give up on someone who fails to follow the right path in life, or do we redouble our efforts to redirect them?

The writing fleeing from the stone tablets is a most curious image, evoking many thoughts. Moses is left with blank stone tablets. Alone, they lack sanctity and value. They are merely stone tablets. How easy it would be to mistake the tablets for Torah. In a similar vein, how often do people mistake scrupulous observance of the minutiae of ritual for the heart and soul of Torah, a value system and way of life that inculcates a sense of compassion and justice?

Just yesterday I heard this story from a woman who has been babysitting for the children of a family that considers itself highly observant. The children are undisciplined and unregulated, and treat her rudely. Yesterday, they behaved toward her with egregious disrespect again and again in their mother’s presence, yet the mother did not make a move to correct them. The woman who recounted the story said: “It makes me very sad to see a family that is so ‘religious’ on the outside but yet can't be bothered to teach there kids the fundamental value of treating others with respect. I am still stunned that a parent can witness behavior like that in their children without being overcome with embarrassment. She never once indicated to them that their behavior was inappropriate or that I was a human being with feelings just like them. But I'm sure if one of those kids flipped on a light switch on shabbos or ate dairy too soon after a meat meal, she would immediately be reprimanded. It just baffles me!” This family, exemplifies the danger of mistaking the tablets for the writing. Their practice is calcified and lifeless. They worship the stones, not realizing that the writing has flown free of them.

This is a danger in a tradition such as ours that places a premium on delineated detailed behaviors; we can lose sight of the meaning and purpose of our practice and the moral values that lie behind it. Rabbi Avi Weiss, whose Orthodox credentials are unquestioned (though not everyone in the Orthodox world is pleased with him) will tell you that the mission of Judaism is to “spread a system of ethical monotheism, of God ethics to the world.” This is our purpose. The mitzvot are vessels for expressing love for God by living ethical values of Judaism. When we place the vessels above the content, the means above the mission, the ritual above the purpose, we worship the blank stone and the writing flies free — away from us. And that is idolatry.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Marina Krakovsky,Mixed Impressions: How We Judge Others on Multiple Levels,” Scientific American. January 27, 2010.