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
There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons, for a few days of New York-style fun.
On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.
From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.
The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.
For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.
If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.
May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.
The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.
I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.
On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.
But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.
With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.
I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.
Rabbi Craig Scheff