The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Here in the valley where the tree roots form a rugged map
of chaos and danger, we step carefully to avoid falling.
Shadows of low branches on old trees play tricks on our resolve.
We walk with fear and worry, bereft of enjoyment
Getting through to get past to be out of this place
Feeling helpless and low in the dusk
Questioning the wisdom of the journey even here at the start.
Ascent is required, of course, and we know its challenges:
The breathless trudging onward, the desire to stop, the seduction
of the backward glance toward the downhill.
But we turn our face toward the summit and climb and we climb.
May we reach the summit together and there find
a well-worn trail along the ridge from which we see the
wide vast world, a perspective that brings sense and understanding.
From here we see that the journey will never be easy and we will
need to hike it again and again. But there will always be
at the close of each day, a belief in the summit and
the joy of that hike along the ridge.
I wrote this poem for Yom Kippur services this year. The metaphor of a chaotic valley, a painful and challenging ascent, and a respite at the summit felt like a much-needed affirmation after the past difficult year. The perspective and ease available from a high point on our journey are gifts of the Jewish New Year.
I share this poem now, even though Yom Kippur is already a memory as we rush forward to Sukkot, because I want to share a very important idea: Many of us never reach the summit on Yom Kippur. Despite our best intentions and honest soul-searching work, many of us do not feel cleansed, affirmed and brand new on the Day of Atonement. For us, Yom Kippur does not feel like a well-worn trail along a ridge. We say we are sorry to those we have hurt. We recite the words of the prayers. We beat our chest as we recite the confessional prayers. With all of our hearts, we believe the metaphor that we must complete the work of teshuvah before the gates slam shut at Neilah (the concluding service of Yom Kippur). We try. But we don’t accomplish what we set out to do. We hear the blasts of the shofar and head out to break our fast feeling uneasy about our lack of connection with God. We still have relationships to repair, promises to fulfill, mistakes we want to correct.
Here is the good news: we have an extension for this work of teshuvah until Hoshannah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. We beat the willows from our lulav and etrog ritual and shake off the remainder of our sins.
And here is even better news: Judaism understands that living a good life, striving to be a contributor to a holy community, and fulfilling the desire to be our best selves are lofty goals that do not come easily to all of us. Yom Kippur is a red-letter date on the calendar each year because we humans tend to require deadlines to get serious about things. Judaism teaches, however, that every day is another opportunity to turn our lives around, to get back on the trail heading upward, and to see the world from a perspective of a well-worn path along a ridge. Teshuvah is available in our daily prayers, in the study of Torah, and in small meaningful acts of kindness. May this year offer you abundant opportunities to become your best self.
G’mar chatimah tovah, May you be sealed for a good new year,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill