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  After the Twin Towers from
With Hearts Full of Faith
Insights into faith and trust in Jewish life - A selection of addresses by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon

By Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon  Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman 

Other Available Chapters
A Matter of Life and Death 

After the Twin Towers

Rosh Hashanah this year was unlike any we have experienced in a long, long time.1 We said the same prayers. We read the same portions from the Torah. We sounded the same shofar. But it was a different Rosh Hashanah. A very different Rosh Hashanah.

After the passing of the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rav remarked, “This is more than the passing of a great sage. The world has changed. Until now, we were living in a world with the Chazon Ish, and now, we are living in a world without the Chazon Ish. It is a different world.”

I think we can say with certainty that our world has changed as well. Until now, we were living in a world with the Twin Towers. Now, we are living in a world without the Twin Towers. It is a different world. A very different world.

It is hard to look for the positive in a disaster as awful as the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. It is hard to say that good things may have come out of that morning of utter horror. But as faithful Jews, we recognize the hand of God in all events. We strain to hear the divine messages that speak directly to us in all times and in all forms. We must listen, and if we listen, we will hear and understand.

The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Taanios 1:3), “If people were to say, ‘This thing happened to us in the ordinary course of events; it is just happenstance that we have suffered this calamity,’ it would be an act of cruelty ... it would only lead to more calamities.” The events of this past week were not happenstance. They were a shattering clap of thunder from the heavens, a call to awakening, a call to introspection, a call to repentance, a call to effect profound changes in our lives.

If we seek out positive messages in this disaster, if we find signs of grace and mercy, if we rummage through the rubble to discover the good that is meant to come out of it, we certainly do not intend to belittle the awful dimensions of the tragedy that has occurred.

There is a saying in the American military that bombing attacks sometimes cause “collateral damage.” This means that in order for the primary objectives of a bombing campaign to be achieved there will sometimes be incidental, unintended casualties. Well, acts of God do not cause collateral damage. Divine providence is infinitely complex. Every aspect of every event has a specific purpose, every moment of joy, every bit of suffering is part of the overall divine plan. We believe as an article of our faith that those people who perished in the attack had been inscribed for their fate last Rosh Hashanah, and that all who were spared had their names inscribed in the Book of Life on that very same day. God brought all those people to that place on that day to allow a terrible crime to be committed, so that the entire human race would sit up and take notice. There is no such thing as collateral damage; there are no collateral benefits. Everything is intended. Everything has a message. It is up to us to hear the messages and heed them.

The attack on the Twin Towers was a horrendous crime. It unmasked the face of evil before the world. It caused immeasurable human suffering, thousands of families torn asunder, thousands of widows, widowers and orphans. It spread fear and panic throughout the civilized world. It caused tremendous financial damage; hundreds of businesses failed, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. It sent shock waves through the international political community and raised tensions in Eretz Yisrael even higher, if such a thing were possible. And then there were the miracles, the thousands of people who should have been there on that day and “just happened” to have stayed away, the forty Hatzalah members given up for dead when the buildings collapsed yet all emerging alive and unharmed. A person would have to be absolutely blind not to discern in these events the divine hand of God steering a world gone awry so that it will right itself and regain its steady course. A person would have to be utterly blind not to see God showing us the stark contrast between good and evil and challenging us to choose.

There is no question in these circumstances about who is the villain and who is the victim. The attack was perpetrated by evil terrorists, cold-blooded murderers who thought nothing of taking planeloads of living, breathing innocent people, defenseless women, children, the elderly, and using them as weapons against thousands of unsuspecting, harmless people. These are the same people who kill innocent Jewish men, women and children almost daily in the streets of Jerusalem, Natanya and all over Eretz Yisrael. They are the angels of death.

America, on the other hand, the victim of this attack, is a wonderful country, the best Gentile nation in the history of the world. It a land of freedom, tolerance and kindness, a safe haven for millions of Jews. But America is not a perfect society. In addition to all its beautiful qualities, it also has its sordid sides. One of the prices of freedom is a decadent, lewd culture, which is unfortunate. Another is the overwhelming sense of kochi ve’otzem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh, “my strength and the power of my hand have produced all this affluence for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

More than any other people on earth, Americans are inclined to consider themselves masters of their own destiny. They believe in unlimited opportunity, that “the sky is the limit,” that “where there is a will there is a way,” that there is nothing you cannot do if you set your mind to it. They believe that effort is always rewarded, that if you don’t succeed right away, it just means you haven’t tried hard enough and often enough.

But where is the Creator in this scheme of things? Where is divine providence? Where are the rewards of goodness and the consequences of sin? Where is the acknowledgment of the Source of all blessings? There is no faith in this world view, no humility, only arrogance and conceit.

Two weeks ago, if one had to choose a single symbol for this American sense of limitlessness, one would undoubtedly have chosen the Twin Towers, these two massive structures reaching halfway to the heavens.

And then they were gone.

In one mind-numbing hour, both of these man-made mountains crumbled and fell, and along with them, American arrogant self-assurance collapsed. The balloon was punctured, and the air hissed out until only a humble, shriveled skin remained. All people were forced to admit they were vulnerable, that they really did not control their own lives, that one streak of fury could undo a lifetime of effort. People recalled that there was a God, and that He ruled the world.

At the very end of Eichah, after we have wept bitterly over the ruins of the Temple, we conclude with a wistful prayer (Lamentations 5:21), “Bring us back to You, O God, and we will return, renew our days as of old.” Tragedy and disaster have brought us to our senses, but it is too late. The Temple is gone. The people are exiled. We have let our good fortune slip through our fingers, and now we mourn. But within the mourning, there is also a glimmer of hope. The gates of prayer are open, and we beseech God to take us back. We plead with Him to bring back our people from exile, to gather us together in peace in Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Temple. We plead with Him to give us once again the wonderful privilege of bringing sacrifices in the Temple. We plead with Him to “renew our days as of old.”

What do we mean by “renew our days as of old”? Which “days of old” are we asking God to recreate for us? For which times do we yearn?

The Midrash explains (Eichah Rabbah 5:21), “‘Renew our days as of old.’ This means the olden times, as it is written (Malachi 3:4), ‘And the meal offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be as pleasing to God as in bygone days and olden times’ ... ‘Olden times’ refers to the days of Abel, when there was as yet no idol worship in the world.”

We are not pleading for the times when the Temple stood in all its glory, when the scent of the sacrifices the Jewish people brought rose up to the heavens. Those times were indeed wonderful, but they were not the best of times. They were not the ultimate. We are pleading for the days of Abel, “when there was as yet no idol worship in the world.”

The Jewish people who brought sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem were certainly not idolaters. They were fine, upstanding, faithful Jews. Their thoughts and intentions were pure. And yet, their sacrifices were not as “pleasing to God” as the sacrifices Abel brought when there was as yet no idol worship in the world.

Why was this so?

Because when there is idol worship in the world, the very atmosphere becomes contaminated. The spiritual pollution clings to all things, even those that are themselves pure and good. The sacrificial scent that “pleases God” perfectly cannot emanate from the same world that harbors idol worship. And so we pray for days like those of Abel, when the scents of sacrifices rose through pure, unsullied air until they reached the heavens. We pray for days when there will be no idolatry to befoul the pristine air of the earth, to blend its acrid fumes with the holy aroma of our sacrifices.

Today, the air of the earth is somewhat purer than it was two weeks ago. Today, we have learned humility. Arrogance, conceit, self-worship are all forms of idolatry, and they have been greatly diminished. Today, the stench is fainter than it has been in a long time. Amidst all the pain and tragedy, God has handed us an opportunity. Who knows how long this will continue? Who knows how long it will be before people forget that they are not invincible and rediscover their forgotten arrogance? But now the air is fresh and clean. And if we take proper advantage of it, our Torah and mitzvos can rise up to the heavens purer than they have ever been.

Fear is another of the unexpected benefits of this great tragedy. Think back to last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For what did we pray? “Uvechein tein pachdecha,” we beseeched Him. “Please bestow Your fear upon us. Let us be overcome with awe. Let all creatures feel dread.” Well, our prayers have been answered. We asked for fear, and we have gotten it.

For many of us, those who are more sensitive to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, our prayers were already answered in a large measure all through the year. We have been living with fear for many, many months. But now we have all been given such an immense dose of fear that no one can avoid inner trembling. We are all terrified, every single one of us.

So what do we do with this fear? We asked for fear, and God has given it to us. Should we panic? Should we lose our heads in confusion and hysteria? What are we meant to do with this fear? Why did we want it in the first place?

Let us look a little further in the prayers. What did we say after we prayed for fear? We said, “Let all the works revere You. Let all creatures bow down before You. Then they will all become one united group to do Your will wholeheartedly.”

This is why we wanted fear. We wanted to use this fear to unite us in our devotion to God. We wanted this fear to bring us to the realization that we are all in God’s hands, that we are not in control of our own destinies. We wanted this fear to bring us closer to our Father in Heaven. We wanted this fear to unite all of us, the whole world, all of creation in devotion to the Creator of the Universe.

Well, we have been given the fear. Now we must use it. In Selichos, we pleaded with God to take pity on us for we are agudim betzarah, united by sorrow. Now we can also say that we are united by fear. We all share the fear. We are all terrified; that is what God wanted. Now we must unify for Him; that is what He wants.

We fear for our lives, for the safety of our families, but what are we doing about it? Our only hope for refuge and salvation is in God’s mercy. That is how we should direct our efforts to allay our fears. That is the only way we will achieve real safety.

People are only people, and in times of crisis, it is only to be expected that they will hunger for every bit of news, every development that may have some relevance to the overall situation. It is understandable that people will be glued to their radios to hear the latest reports. But what is the purpose of listening to the same reports over and over again, repeated from every which angle without adding anything new or meaningful? Is this the best way to calm jittery nerves? If people can find the time in their busy lives to listen to so many redundant, irrelevant reports, surely they can also find time to learn a little more Torah, to do a few more mitzvos, to say a few more Psalms, to perform a few more acts of kindness to other people.

Battles, investigations and manhunts will not bring us ultimate safety. “‘Not with armies, nor with strength,’” declares the prophet (Zechariah 4:6), “‘but with My spirit,’ said the God of Hosts.” We have to bring the spirit of God into our lives. If we want safety, we have to sanctify ourselves, purify ourselves, raise ourselves up, make ourselves more spiritual. We have to pattern our lives after God’s ways. We have to be kind and merciful to our families, friends, neighbors, to all people. We have to be compassionate, fair and forgiving. We have to learn the holy Torah and obey its commandments. Armies and strength will not bring us safety. Only closeness to God will protect us. If we dedicate ourselves to being faithful Jews, God will take us under His wings and shield us from all harm.

The wings of an eagle are the metaphor for God’s relationship with the Jewish people. He brought us forth from Egypt (Exodus 19:4) “on the wings of eagles,” and He continues to rescue us and carry us through our perilous history like the mighty king of birds, soaring across the skies and bringing his beloved fledglings to safety.

“Like an eagle,” the Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 32:11), “He awakens His nest, hovering over His fledglings; He spreads His wings and takes them and carries them upon His wings.”

There is so much divine kindness in this description, so much compassion in this comparison to an eagle bearing his fledglings aloft.

Rashi explains that the eagle is a large, heavy bird and its fledglings are tender and frail. Should the eagle land in his nest as other birds do, he would frighten his young. So what does he do? He hovers over the nest but does not land. Instead, he flaps his wings and swoops from tree to tree, shaking the branches and creating so much commotion that his fledglings awake and see him coming, and they prepare themselves to receive this great bird who is their father.

When God comes to judge us and set the course for our future, He does not come upon us all at once. The experience would be too intense. It would be unbearable. So what does He do? He shakes the branches, so to speak. He creates a gathering commotion in the world around us so that we shake ourselves loose from our slumber and take notice. The events that we have witnessed in the last week have caught our attention. The branches and all the trees are still vibrating. We see Him coming. It is time to prepare.

Let us look at the rest of the metaphor. “[Like the eagle,] he carries them upon His wings.” Not under his wings but upon them. Unlike other birds that carry their young beneath them, the eagle carries its young upon its wings. Why is this so?

Rashi explains that other birds fear the eagle that flies higher than all of them, and they seek to protect their young from him. But no bird flies higher than an eagle. The eagle’s only concern is an arrow shot at him from below. So he carries his young upon his wings to shield them from danger. In the same way, God carries the Jewish people upon His wings, so to speak, and shields from attacks from below.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch makes an additional observation about the comparison to an eagle. The young of all other birds can remain passive and be saved. The father bird grips them in his talons and flies off to safety with them in his grip. But the eagle carries his young upon his wings, and therefore, the young must participate in their own salvation. The eagle comes down low and hovers over its young, and they must jump up onto their father’s wings. Otherwise, they will remain right where they are.

The Master of the Universe has come to awaken us from our slumber, we who are the fledglings in His nest. He has stirred the world into an uproar so that we will take notice of His arrival. He has come down to us and spread out His wings.

“Come, My children,” He calls out to us. “I have come to carry you to safety. When you are on My wings no harm can come your way. But you must make the effort. You must make the leap. Come, children, jump! Jump higher! Jump as high as you can, and you will finds yourselves upon My wings. Hurry! I am about to carry you aloft!”

1. Adapted from an address in Beth Medrash Govoha on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5762, one week after the attack on the Twin Towers. This chapter also includes elements from related addresses.
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