September 11, 2020

 In Contemporary Life, Torah

September 11, 2020

         It’s Sept. 11th.  You just can’t ignore that date.  Or maybe you can?  It’s hard to believe it was 19 years ago, so there is a whole generation for whom Sept. 11th is the day after Sept. 10th and the day before Sept. 12th.  But not for me.  As with so many profound moments in our lives, I know exactly where I was when I heard the news.  I felt like the fourth child at the seder, the one who doesn’t even know how to ask the question.  Unlike that fortunate child, my ignorance stemmed not from innocence but from shock. 

         This week we read a double Torah portion- Nitzavim and Vayelech.  In parshat Nitzavim, the entire community comes together, and the Torah makes it clear that this means everyone- men, women, and children, from the mightiest to the most humble.  The word Nitzavim means, “standing.”  You are all standing here together.

         Vayelech means, “And he went forth.”  What a funny juxtaposition.  Are we standing still or are we moving forward?  When those airplanes hit the World Trade Center, when United Flight #93 went down, we were stuck in that moment.  We couldn’t move.  It was incomprehensible.

         Yet, time moves relentlessly forward, so, as individuals, as a community, as a country, we went forth.  We went forth, reminded of, armed with, the terrible knowledge, as Franz Kafka put is to hauntingly, that “the meaning of life is that it ends.”  So many lives were cut short on that terrible day.  We, who are blessed with the gift of life, what are we doing with that blessing?

         “In his book Lessons for Living, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg cites a study by psychologist William Marston who asked three hundred people this brief question: “What do you have to live for?”  He found that ninety-four percent of his respondents were simply enduring the present while they waited for the future.  They were waiting for:  “something to happen- waiting for the right man or the right woman; waiting for children to grow up; waiting to pay off the mortgage; waiting for a vacation; waiting for retirement; waiting to get involved in the community; waiting to learn some new skill or hobby.”  Ninety-four percent of us are waiting while each new day passes us by; one-hundred percent of us are running out of time.”[1]

         Rosh HaShanah is one week away.  What are we waiting for?  The High Holidays are finally and ultimately about our confrontation with our own mortality.  The words of the Makhzor, “Who shall live and who shall die?  Who in the fullness of years and who before?  Who by fire and who by wild beast?”, have never been more meaningful.  Our days are, indeed, like a “passing shadow”. 

         The story is told of a Talmud professor who asked the student hurrying by, “Where are you running to?”  “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holy Day prayerbook, the machzor, before I have to lead services in my congregations,” replied the student, catching his breath.  “The prayer book hasn’t changed since last year,” said the professor.  “But perhaps you have?  Go home and look yourself over.”[2]

         This is our task.  The meaning of life is that it ends.  We have one more week to consider- what is the meaning of our lives?  If our lives ended tomorrow, what would we regret most?  What changes would we wish we had made?  What are we waiting for?  Even within the confines of the pandemic, there are many opportunities to earn that greatest honorific in our tradition, “She was a mensch.”  Shanah Tovah- may you be blessed with a good year.  May you be blessed with the strength, wisdom, and courage to MAKE it a good year.


[1] Quoted in Leder, Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, pp. 94-95

[2] Ibid., p. 3

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