My reflections on 9/11 always happen after 9/11. The day is too powerful for me even now. Father Tom and I officiated at many, many memorial services in the days after 9/11 and none of them had a casket. Even now, 15 years later, I remember how this gauntlet of grief broke both of us in ways we understood immediately and in ways that took years to understand. I was also the president of the New York Board of Rabbis during 9/11 and in that capacity I was asked to deliver the Jewish eulogy for 9/11 at the memorial service in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 24. I offer to you on this year of memorial, some of what I said then. At that time we thought that 6,000 people had been killed in the attack and only later did we discover that the number was half that. May God receive all their souls and comfort our still grieving nation with peace. God bless us one and all.
From the Sept. 24 eulogy
On that day 6,000 people did not die. On that day one person died 6,000 times. We must understand this and all catastrophes in such a way, for big numbers only numb us to the true measure of mass murder. We say six thousand died or we say six million died, and the saying and the numbers explain nothing except how much death came in how short a time. Such big numbers sound more like scores or ledger entries than deaths. The real horror of that day lies not in its bigness but in its smallness, in the small searing death of one person six thousand times. And that one person was not a number but our father or our mother, our grandpa or grandma our brother or sister or cousin or uncle or aunt, our friend or our lover, our neighbor or our coworker, the gal who delivered our mail or the guy who put out our fires or arrested the bad guys in our town. And the death of each and every one of them alone would be worthy of such a gathering and such a grief. Our sages taught that when one kills a single person it is like killing the whole world altogether and when one saves a single person it is like saving the whole world altogether. Last week over six thousand worlds were killed and thank the Lord, a few, too few worlds were saved by heroes most of whom will never be known. The dimensions of last week’s horror only become fully drawn when we enter each murdered world one world at a time.
The Talmud and the African Masai tribe both teach a simple wisdom for our wounded world, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable, but sticks alone can be broken by a child.” The fears and sorrows of this moment are so heavy they can break us if we try to bear them alone. But if we are bundled together, if we stick together, we are unbreakable and we shall do far more than merely survive, we shall overcome. We shall overcome the forces of hatred without allowing hatred to unbundle us. We shall overcome the forces of terror without allowing fear to unbundle us. So in all our comings and our goings from this time forth let us remember that the person next to you, in front of you, behind you is not merely an obstacle to your free and unfettered life. They are a part of this bundle that keeps you and each of us from breaking.
For some of us, the source of that strength, the twine that binds us and bundles us, is not just community but community under God, and above all that religious belief shared by all the Abrahamic faiths that each and every human being is made in the image of God. Also we people of faith share the belief that a good God will not allow evil to win out over goodness, hate over hope and death over life. History proves this, but for religious people of all faiths the proof comes from the way we know that we are bundled up in God’s love, and the way we know that our dear ones who have died are now wrapped up in the bundle of eternal life in the World to Come, in Heaven and there they wait for us, waiting to fulfill the promise that we will not be separated forever from those we love.
And for those who cannot find hope trough faith, I say to you that you are also a part of our bundle too. For the important task in our spiritual journey now is not for all of us to agree that the name for hope is God. The main task now is to agree that hope was not one of the worlds destroyed on that day. The day when 6,000 people did not die, but one person died, six thousand times.
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