A Congregation of Holy Souls: Reflections on 9/11 One Year Later

September 1, 2002
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By Avi Weiss

On Tuesday morning, September 11, immedi-ately following the attack on the World Trade Center, I set out from 53rd Street making my way south to the site of the devastation. It was as if something – someone, a congregation of holy souls – was calling me.

As I drew nearer it became difficult to breathe. I waded through a white, otherworldly dust, which, at times, reached up to my ankles. The scene was apocalyptic, horrifying; the extent of the evil inflicted upon it made it seem almost polluted, impure. But soon I was overwhelmed by the very opposite realization – my sense of the sanctity of the place. This was where innocence had been violated by evil. It had become a holy place-a makom kadosh. I had entered the precincts of holiness.

This holiness encompassed not only those who had been lost to terror, but those (unlike myself) endowed with essential life-saving skills – firefighters, police personnel, doctors and nurses – who had converged on the site. Among these men and women, I discovered quite by accident and with great emotion my own son-in-law, Dr. Mark Levie, who led a group of volunteers with the call “We can’t just stand here – let’s go.” The heartbreaking image of the makeshift triage center on the evening of 9/11 will never leave me. Set up in Stuyvesant High School with beds and a full array of emergency equipment, doctors and nurses stood awaiting the casualties.

The wounded never arrived. As the stark realization of the finality of the catastrophe set in, medical personnel sat down with heads in hands, overcome. I understood, to my great sorrow, that what remained now was to comfort and minister – and this, at least, with my pastoral experience, was a service I could offer. An image that will remain with me from those early days is of standing as one member of the clergy among many others of all faiths as police and firefighters snapped to attention when the remains of a comrade were taken out – remains not necessarily whole or intact, a limb, perhaps, a finger, a toe – all holy. And those rescue workers who stood there, giving them honor – all holy.

This black hole in the world, which has become known as ground zero, was beyond anything I had ever before witnessed. I have been to devastated zones – in Israel, in Argentina – but nothing could compare to this. Those devastations could be placed in a corner of this hole. This hole will remain forever in my consciousness as a dark foreboding of what is possible – an emptiness, an absence, a silence.

And it is with a ritual of silence – of reflection and meditation that transcend the limitations of words – that we shall remember this tragedy in our synagogues when its first anniversary falls during the Days of Awe. First, we will ask for silent meditation. We will recall where we were at that moment. We will reflect on how our brush with death can help renew our appreciation of those closest to us. We will close our eyes and imagine those dearest to us, and say prayers for each of them.

Firefighters and police officers will be invited to join us in the sanctuary, and right there on the High Holy Days, we shall rise to express our gratitude. I’ll remind my congregants that – as I first heard from a colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt -those who died in the service of the people did not fall as buildings collapsed upon them; rather, they ascended toward God as they worked selflessly to save others. We’ll listen closely as portraits of the lives of some of the victims are read by congregants from throughout the sanctuary. In this way, the victims, although no longer on this earth, are brought briefly to life. We’ll raise our hands in prayer, and then reach out to embrace those closest to us in an expression of love and song – of how good it is, brothers and sisters together.

This has been an enormously difficult year. The fate of being targeted, which had once seemed to mark and isolate Israel, has now expanded outward to include America. But common victimization by terror will lead only to common resolve to combat the evil. At the Twin Towers during those terrible days, I felt a profound sense of Universalism. Jewish Particularism had expanded outward, encompassing all innocents. Suddenly, all humanity had become Jews.

When faced with evil, the goal cannot be to dispel the darkness; that is often impossible. It’s much like walking into a dark room crowded with furniture. The first time we enter, we grope blindly, we bump into everything, we stumble everywhere. But after a time, when we enter, although the room is still dark we know where the obstacles lie; we no longer fall, we have found our way. Meditating on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to commemorate this first anniversary of September 11, we will hold fast to hope as we struggle in the midst of the darkness to find our way.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is Senior Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, President of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns/Amcha, and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox rabbinical school. His most recent book is Principles of Spiritual Activism (KTAV, 2002).

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