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
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
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
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
veotzem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh, my strength and
the power of my hand have produced all this affluence for me
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 dont
succeed right away, it just means you havent tried hard enough and often
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
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
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
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
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 Gods 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 Gods
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
Gods 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 Gods
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
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
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 eagles 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
fathers 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.