Rabbi Eli Perlman delivered this D’var Torah on Shabbat Shuva – 9/11 – 2021
Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I must admit that I never realized the sense of urgency of this until I began preparing for this Rosh Hashanah. You want to know why? I remember as a child walking with my family to Shule, anticipating Rosh Hashanah with great awe. Even from my earliest memories, I understood that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were special. I remember looking forward to the majesty of the High Holy Days and the liturgy that my father, he should rest in peace, ensured would remain familiar and meaningful to his congregation. From when I started leading High Holy Day Services as a teen, to this very day, those feelings and memories that were instilled in me by my father have grown stronger with the passing years.
Even though I can say this without fear of being contradicted, 20 years ago, something happened that changed the way I would approach the High Holy Days forever. Yes, 20 years ago, congregations all over the United States came together to pray for the victims: the living, the dead, and the unknown on 9/11. During those days, we came together to pray, even though everyone knew that the way we needed the prayers to be answered, would never be.
I will never forget what a sad time that was. People came to Shule from all over the community, Jews, and non-Jews alike. Professionals, non-professionals, politicians, and local first responders all came from all walks of life to pray. People came with a sense of shared despair.
Within hours of those communal Services, we were back in Shule to begin a most emotional Rosh Hashanah. As we stood in Shul begging G*d for a better year, all we could do was to wonder why any of us would want to go through the motions of praying for forgiveness for what we did, when we could not stop thinking about the horrors those monstrous terrorists did only a week before. It gave me a different understanding about how those who survived the Shoa looked at Rosh Hashana.
During the last year of his life, I finally got the courage to ask my father why he thought he had survived Iwo Jima when almost everyone else in his unit perished in that hell. His answer, while painful for him, was spiritually uplifting for me. While my father was too modest to say this in so many words, what I heard him say was that G*d needed him to inspire others through his voice and command of the traditional Jewish musical modalities we call Nusach.
What gave me the courage to ask my father that question after all those years? Ever since 9/11, each year I found myself asking myself that same question about my own survival. Had I not been at the funeral of my wife’s aunt on that fateful 9/11 morning, I would have been in a meeting on the 98th floor of World Trade Center 2 with a man named Dan VanLaere at the same time that a plane was flown into that building. Dan was a good man. He was a generous man. He so willingly gave much of himself during his life. I often think of the good he did, and it will always live in my mind. If, G*d forbid, I ever forget, I will be letting him die and that is something I cannot let happen.
All too often I hear people ask, “Why me?” when bad things happen to them; but ever since 9/11, after thinking about Dan, I often asked “Why me?” to understand why I was spared. Since I could not find the answer for me, I asked my father why he survived Iwo Jima, thinking his answer would help me answer mine.
As it happened, this past week I started looking over the Musaf Service for Rosh Hashanah. While I usually start at the beginning and work my way through the Service, for some reason, the pages opened right to B’rosh Hashanah. When I saw those words, I felt an unexplainable emotional jolt. My mind shut out everything else. Those words started to talk to me in a way they never did before. This year, more than ever before, I became fixated on that part of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Service.
We all know that B’rosh Hashanah is a prayer during which we overtly face our mortality by saying: “On Rosh Hashanah our destiny is inscribed. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away, how many shall be brought into existence; who shall live, who shall die; who will live a long life, and who will die too soon; who by fire, who by water; who by hunger, who by thirst; who by a natural disaster, who by another human?”
After we read those words, we all join in singing that Teshuva (repentance), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzeduka (righteous deeds of charity) will avert the harsh decree. I must admit that since 9/11, whenever leading our congregation in those words, I have questioned if Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka would ever change illness to health, starvation to satiated, thirst to quench, death to life… Suddenly, this year for the first time, the answer came to me.
So, what happened? While thinking about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 that happens to fall today on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, I returned to reading some of the stories of the people who lost their lives on that day. You know what I learned? I learned the real meaning of Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka. I found the difference that performing repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds make. It became obvious from what people facing certain death did as their “Books” were being sealed for the last time.
After reading about some of those who lost their lives on 9/11, it made the B’rosh Hashanah come alive for me like never before. Those words told me that we have no control over our fate. The fatalism of those words that made me face the coming year with fear, dread, and worry, were replaced with the same kind of hope and optimism that I had before 9/11. The question about how we must face life with hope, even though we know our fates will be sealed, finally got answered. Teshuva, Tefilla, and Tzeduka offer such a positive and exciting outlook for the future.
Like 9/11, Shabbat Shuva reminds us that we are mere mortals who must endure joy and pain, happiness, and suffering. Even though most of the things that happen to us are arbitrary, 9/11 has brought the words of B’rosh Hashanah to mean that the only thing that is important is how we choose to live our lives. Very little we do can change the randomness of life and death, but how we deal with events will make a profound difference.
I would like to share what I learned from the stories I read about 9/11 with the hope that maybe, just maybe, it may benefit all of us. These were people who knew their lives were coming to an end, but they chose humanity and compassion as their final act. Instead of allowing themselves to freeze from fear, they chose to do good. While facing the worst human beings can do, these angels chose to be the best that people can be.
I read about Praveen Patel. Praveen phoned his wife, Priya to tell her that there had been an explosion in a World Trade Tower, but that it was in the other building and he was told to remain there as it was the safest place to be. Moments later, the second missile hit. Praveen phoned his wife again to say that the tower he was in was hit four floors below him. Overcome with emotion, Priya could not speak. She gave the phone to a neighbor who had come over after seeing the news on television. Praveen’s last words were used to beg his neighbor to “Take care of Priya and take care of my children. I am not coming out of this.” Even though he knew his Book of Death had been sealed for the last time, his last act was based on his love and commitment to his family. Even though he was a Hindu, he called upon the universal truth of Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka to ease what had been sealed in his Book.
I read about David Orchinsky, an Orthodox Jew who willingly stayed in a burning tower with his Christian friend, Edward Walsh. Why? Ed was a 42-year-old quadriplegic who was wheelchair bound. Even though Ed insisted that David should try to get out and save himself, David steadfastly refused. He chose to stay with Ed to make it as easy for him as possible in their final moments of life. David’s last act was based on his love and commitment to his fellow human being. He called upon Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka to ease what had been sealed in his Book.
A more famous story is the one about Father Michael Judge, the NYC Fire Department Chaplain who chose to enter the World Trade Center at the worst possible time? He felt that his fellow department members needed his support, so he willingly entered the burning inferno. Father Michael died along right along with the hundreds of other heroic firefighters and police who ran in while everyone else was running out. Father Michael’s last act, as well as those of all the first responders, was based on their love and commitment to their community. Even though few were Jewish, they all called upon Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka to ease what had been sealed in their Books.
Then there was the heroism of the passengers who fought back on United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Facing certain death, the passengers would not allow the terrorists to have their way. Even though most, if not all them were gentiles, they called upon Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka to ease what had been sealed in their Books.
That is what I learned this year. I learned that we must understand there is a sense of urgency to practicing Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzeduka. No, they will probably not change the situation, but it does profoundly change how we deal with it. This new understanding of the sense of urgency raised by B’rosh Hashanah that I learned from those angels who were facing their Books as they were being sealed on 9/11 also helped me better understand the Jews who were giving their lives for the sanctification of G*d’s name in the Shoah.
One more thing. I now feel better about not being able to answer my own “Why me?” question. Even if there was an answer, I no longer care because I have internalized the power within the wisdom of B’rosh Hashanah that, for me, nullifies the need to get that question answered.
On this Shabbat Shuvah, may each of us find inspiration from the final acts of those whose lives were being sealed in their Books on 9/11, 20 years ago. May our G*d who makes peace in the Heavens, shower us and all people who live on this earth, with Divine mercy and complete Peace. Let us all say, Amen. Kain Y’hi Ratzon. May it be G*d’s will.
Now, let us turn to page 82 in Siddur Sim Shalom and together, rise and say the Mourners Kaddish in one voice.