This weekend is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Always between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a day for remembering to turn and return to our true selves, our highest selves.
It is also the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Which is certainly not a day we wish to return to, although we sometimes yearn for the times before.
The stories from that day are heartbreaking. The people who weren’t supposed to be at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, and the ones who were. The people on routine flights who instead of landing as intended crashed into New York’s tallest buildings, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
Just under 3,000 innocent souls died that day. And millions more souls were irrevocably damaged. We remember where we were, what we were doing, how it felt.
This is always true of tragedies. I was in first grade, but I remember when JFK was killed, and then five years later when Bobbie Kennedy was killed, and when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I remember the 6-Day War, and when the Challenger exploded.
Many people here tonight have memories that go back much farther. And our Jewish collective memory keeps other tragedies alive, even if they happened centuries ago. Today (Sept. 10) was Tzom Gedalia, a Jewish fast day that remembers when the Jewish governor of Judah was murdered in 582 BCE. And yes, there are people who still fast from sunrise to sunset on this date.
Rabbi Dina Rosenberg recently told me a story about Tisha B’Av, the day on which Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. One evening on Tisha B’Av, Napoleon Bonaparte passed a synagogue in the streets of Paris. He was startled to hear people weeping inside. He asked his lieutenant, “Why are these Jews crying?” “They are mourning the destruction of their temple.” “Is that all?” said Napoleon, “If their temple was destroyed, I shall rebuild it for them!” “You don’t understand, General, it was destroyed 2000 years ago when they were exiled from their land.” Napoleon thought for a moment and said, “A people who can mourn for their temple and land for two thousand years, shall certainly return to rebuild it!”
Rabbi Rosenberg wrote: “As a Jewish people, we have learned that memory is what has kept Judaism alive for the last 5000 years. Whether it is Passover when we retell the story of our Exodus, the rereading of the Torah, or even in our daily prayers – the foundation of Judaism is memory. How do we take that wisdom and find a functional use in America’s history? How do we want or need to remember a day like 9-11? What should the history books teach the future generations that were not alive to experience the despair and shock on that balmy morning in September?”
There is a human desire to define ourselves by the tragedies we’ve experienced. Especially those communal tragedies that can define a generation. Like 9-11. And yet if we do that, we are not keeping faith with the people who died, nor indeed with the world that we lost.
Judaism is a religion of memory, but it is also a religion of action. In a few minutes we will read the Shema, our declaration of faith in a God of Unity and of Oneness, and then the V’Ahavta, a litany of actions that are to be performed every day. Actions that remind us of our role to do good in the world.
When we mourn on Tisha B’Av we don’t do so as victims – we do so as a people who hope to learn from our tragedies. We reflect on our past and learn from it. We try not to lay blame. Instead, we ask ourselves what we can do to be better.
There is a story in our tradition that attempts to explain why the world is imperfect. Rabbi Isaac Luria lived in Safat in the 16th century, and he suggested that terrible things happen not because God caused them, or that God allowed them, but that God needed our help to stop them.
He imagined that when God began creating, God planned to pour a Holy Light into special vessels. But there was a problem. The light was so incredibly bright and strong that it broke the vessels into millions of pieces.
Luria discerned that our world is a mess – and what a bigger mess it is today than it was in the 16th century! – because of these broken fragments, a cosmic heap of broken pieces, too big a mess for even God to clean up.
So God created humans. We were endowed with free will, to allow the world to remain broken, if we chose. But we could also choose to begin the hard work of repair. Luria called this tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to find what is broken in the world and fix it.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who told this story in The Book of Miracles, ended with this advice: “When you see something that is broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it. When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way, you will take care of your world and repair creation…. If everything broken could be repaired, then everyone and everything would fit together like the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.”
Is this a tall order? Absolutely. But I believe it is far more beneficial than wallowing in sad memories, or fasting because a Judean governor was killed 2,600 years ago.
There is a group called 911-Day. This year especially, they ask us to take the day to Shine a Light. To do a good deed. They ask us to help them “ensure 9-11 is a day that inspires good deeds for years to come.”
Their mission begins with the phrase: “To transform the annual remembrance of 9/11 into a worldwide day of unity and doing good…”
It’s so Jewish. So beautiful. And so easy to do. Because neither they, nor I, nor even God are asking very much. Just to do one good thing every day. Do the things the V’Ahavta asks you to do, and then add one more. One thing that makes the world a tiny bit better. Then the tragedies we remember will be less a time for mourning and more a time for joyous service to the community.
This was my sermon on Friday night 9/10 at Congregation Kol HaaNeshama. I am grateful to Rabbi Dina Rosenberg for generously sharing her thoughts and her writing.