Fifteen years ago this Sunday on September 11, 2001, 2,996 people left their homes on a seemingly ordinary day that boasted crystal blue skies in New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They did not return home because 4 planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an empty field.
I was a rabbi then in New York City, and that day is etched in my heart forever. After the attack, I called the members of my synagogue who worked downtown - thankfully everyone was accounted for. But one man lost his best friend, and another lost his sister - the one funeral I presided over during those days.
Three out of our four friends who worked in the Towers were not at work that day. For nearly five hours after the attack, we didn't hear from the Best Man at our wedding, and we feared the worst. Already flyers with pictures of loved ones were plastered all over the city. People missing who had been in the midst of life.
We finally got an email late in the afternoon: "I am ok. Walked to my sister's in Brooklyn." We later learned that he descended 40 flights of stairs with his coworkers, he passed an engine from one of the planes on the street, and saw things he would not soon forget.
The events of September 11, 2001 happened just before Rosh Hashanah, in the month of Elul, which began once again just last week. The horrors of that day, as well as so many since that robbed the world of people in the midst of their lives, serve as constant reminders that life turns on a dime. We can be here today and gone tomorrow, and we swing precariously on the pendulum between stability and fragility with the aching awareness that the longer we live the more our lives will be touched by tragedy and loss. That day, and many others since, have tested our sense of safety, trust, connection, and community. Yet, everyday we remember the profound gift and challenge it is to be alive.
Jewish tradition does not present a naïve view of the world. Our Torah reading this week, in fact, Parashat Shoftim offers some rules of war that are less about engaging the enemy and more about engaging the self. Before Israel goes off to war, the Torah teaches that the army officers must address the people with the following: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not let lived in it?...planted a vineyard but has never harvested it?...who is betrothed, but not yet married? Let him return to his home, lest he die in war" (Deut. 20:5-7).
The idea here, as expressed powerfully by the rabbis, is that if we leave something unfinished or incomplete, we have fallen into a state of trafe da'at - a "torn mind." Because of the "unfinished business" of life, a person such as this would be of little use in war, and might even pose a danger to fellow soldiers.
The phrase, "lest he die," is not insignificant because it underscores that there are no guarantees in life, and even without being a soldier heading off to war, every day we leave our homes, families, loved ones, and we don't really know what might come our way. September 11, 2001 left so many stories of life tragically interrupted - the weddings that would not happen, the expectant mothers without a partner, the children growing up without a parent.
This is where the text relates to the work of teshuva - returning to ourselves. We should seek to enter the new year without a "torn mind," resolving conflicts, repairing our relationships, and repenting for our wrongdoings. We don't really know how long we have, and it is up to us to recognize our mistakes in order to experience the compassion that comes along with apology and forgiveness and make changes in our behavior, thereby making each day matter.
These are the terms of the covenant we reaffirm in these weeks before Rosh Hashanah. As we deal with the messy complexities of our lives, we hope to experience divine love and compassion from others, and from ourselves in the year to come.
Psalm 15 asks and answers: "God, what are we that you have regard for us? What are we, that you are mindful of us? We are like a breath; our days are like a passing shadow; At sunrise we shoot up, renewed; At sunset we fade and whither. If only we were wise and could comprehend this..."
May the memory of those who perished on September 11, 2001 continue to be a blessing and inspire us to live fully, and as completely as we can.