Sunday, March 30, 2008


The Jewish Week, January 25, 2002

We’ve heard so much about how America has changed following September’s terrorist attacks that it’s almost reached the level of cliché. Yet the evidence continues to show this on numerous fronts, including a seismic shift in the role of religion in our lives. According to a Pew Research Center survey released last month, fully 78% of Americans now say religion's influence in American life is growing ­ up from 37% eight months ago and the highest mark on this measure in surveys dating back four decades.

Curiously, the Pew survey does not indicate a strong increase in attendance at religious services, nor have a large number of those not actively religious before 9/11 suddenly flocked to faith. But people are praying more, privately and publicly, and a small but significant minority (16%) does say they are attending services more now than before.

Of course any rabbi could have told you the same thing. Anecdotally, we’ve all seen at least a temporary jump in service attendance; but more significantly, we’ve seen a jump in our own significance. The Pew statistics are right on the money: it’s not simply a matter of how many walk through the door each week – it’s that the ones who are walking through are drinking up every word. Never in my lifetime has it meant more to be a religious leader, and, Jerry Falwell notwithstanding, most clergy have been up to the task.

That’s why it has amazed me to hear that a surprisingly large group of rabbis chose not to speak about the terror attacks last High Holidays. Sure, it wasn’t easy to rewrite sermons at the last minute, while simultaneously dealing with the immediate human fallout of the disaster. But such a response demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what our congregants so desperately needed when they walked into services on Rosh Hashanah. Our job – and Judaism’s – is to take the temporal, with all its warts, add two tablespoons of Torah, and try to discover in the mix some semblance of eternal meaning.

I must confess that not only did I tie in the September 11 tragedy to each of my High Holiday sermons, I haven’t stopped since. While many are showing a desire to put the tragedy behind them, as I plough through each of the portions of the Torah cycle, I can’t help but read them all through the prism of the WTC “Churban.” I’m not doing it by design, but rather by my own lingering need to make sense of what has happened, as well as the lingering desire not to allow the world to forget about it.

I use the term “Churban” advisedly, for it is the Hebrew word most often employed in regard to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. While the WTC structure might have served a very different purpose from that of the Second Temple, the impact of these two cataclysms is analogous. The tears of Jerusalem’s survivors are chronicled throughout the Talmud; in fact, one could easily make the claim that the entire Talmud itself is a response to that disaster.

In Brachot 32 we read that when the Temple was destroyed, all the Gates of Heaven were closed except for one: the Gate of Tears. The Western Wall therefore became known as the Wailing Wall in recognition of all the tears Jews have shed there. Our own Wailing Wall-style memorial to destruction is now under construction, beginning with the new platforms erected near the Manhattan wreckage. During one recent news report from Ground Zero, I even saw a child inscribe a small note to leave at the scene.

We read in Sanhedrin 104b of a neighbor of Rabban Gamliel, who, upon the death of her child, wept so hard during the night that when Gamliel heard her wailing, he was reminded of the destruction of the Temple. Gamliel wept in sympathy “so much that his eyelids seemed to disappear.” We learn elsewhere (Lamentations Rabbah 1:16) that when the Temple was destroyed, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, unable to eat meat or drink wine.

Apparently the shock waves registered far beyond the earthly realm as well: we read in several places (including Avoda Zara 3b) that since the Temple was destroyed, “there is no laughter for Holy One, nor does the firmament appear in its full clarity.” Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel adds, “Ever since the Temple was destroyed, there is no day without a curse.” It is impossible to overestimate the impact of that catastrophe on the Jews of that time – and consequently on the Judaism they handed down to us.

The rabbis understood that such profound grief could not be minimized or denied. Rather, it had to be channeled into constructive, life-affirming activity. So they validated the mourning process by ritualizing it, for instance by mandating the breaking of a glass at weddings, and then they created a way of life that enabled them to transcend that sorrow, to turn tears into triumph.
Just as the sages were able to reinterpret Torah in light of that destruction, thereby gaining new inspiration from it, so is it necessary for us to do the same now. Rather than reaching for the Prozac, we need to confront our pain the old fashioned way: by wrestling with God. The Talmud speaks of one consequence of the Temple’s destruction being that a wall of iron was interposed between Israel and the Holy One. The only way to breach that wall is to fill with new meaning the space that exists between Torah and Terror, and for our tears to stretch heavenward.

Perhaps they might meet God’s tears somewhere in between.

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