Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing




It was on Monday, September 10th, 2001 that my son Josh received a call asking him if he would interview with a prominent law firm for a job on Tuesday, the 11th, at the World Trade Center. Originally they made the appointment to be early in the morning, it was changed to 2:00pm. He never made it to his appointment, for by that time there was no World Trade Center. Thank Gd, thank Gd, thank Gd he was OK. It’s a prayer of thanks that every parent understands only too well. Watching the unfolding events that morning, he then saw his roommate, Steven Westerman on TV, fleeing from the scene.

My brother-in-law Steve, was around the corner at a business meeting when he heard and felt the blast from the 1st tower. He ran into the street only to see a plane hit the 2nd tower. Jack Hyman told me about a brother-in-law who, because of a problem with his dog missed the ferry. He saw his office aflame from the next ferry. Another congregant told me about a relative who worked on the 102nd floor. Of all mornings he overslept. Dozens of religious Jews had gone to Slichot services earlier that morning as is customary the week before Rosh Hashanah and were, thank Gd, late for work. There are so many similar miraculous stories. It’s miraculous that some 45,000 others who work at the towers were able to walk away. But alas 3,000  others were not as fortunate.  

For many of us, these memories and these interviews of the events of 9/11 are still very painful, traumatic or impossible for some to listen to.  Some of us may have known victims or their families. It’s important that we remember the pain and the sorrow, the trauma and the shock…as well the response of the heroes—the police, firefighters, military service members, doctors, nurses, health care providers, and others who tried to and in some cases succeeded in saving lives—some who sacrificed their own lives in the effort. And most important is to remember how we came together as a nation and how we—for a moment at least—were united as one great family. That’s how we were and that’s how we are—even now—when push comes to shove and our country is threatened. And we must never forget that!

It’s been 10 years, and yet, what happened on 9/11/2001 hits home personally for us all. Every one of us remembers where we were and what we were doing when we 1st heard the news. The scenes—from the repeated showings on television—are forever engraved on our minds and hearts: planes crashing into buildings, the World Trade Center collapsing, human beings jumping in desperation from the towers that no longer exist, a huge ball of smoke and ash pursing people running for their lives down the streets of lower Manhattan, the celebratory clapping, singing and dancing by the Palestinians and in the Arab streets all over the Middle East. Our lives have never been the same. America is not the same.

Today’s Torah portion ends with the Torah equivalent of the modern Jewish slogan that refers to the Holocaust, “Never Again!” It commands us, Zachor, “Remember,” Zachor eyt asher asa l’cha Amaleyk, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt. That he happened upon you on the way and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted.” In other words, Amalek didn’t attack military outposts; he attacked those who were defenseless. The terrorists of 9/11 attacked ordinary people who went to work early in the morning to support their families in the 100-story Twin Towers. They had no way of fighting back or defending themselves.

The Torah continues: timcheh et zeycher Amaleyk mitachat hashamayim lo tishkach, “wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven—you shall not forget!” We dare not forget 9/11 and the modern Amalekites who perpetrated it. Make no mistake; this was not just an attack against America. The World Trade Center was chosen precisely because it symbolized globalization, the free world coming together to trade. This was an attack against the entire free world.

The Torah today begins: Ki teytzey lamilchama al oyvecha, “When you go out to war against your enemy.” But who is our enemy in this war? There is no country—no formal army to fight. This is a new kind of war and we’re still not sure how to fight it—even after 10 years. But one thing I am sure of is that we dare not become complacent in the face of terror.

It’s become fashionable to characterize America’s response to the attacks of 9/11 as an overreaction. After all it’s been 10 years and nothing more has happened. A colleague, Rabbi Wayne Allen, in the aftermath of 9/11 sent me a copy of an open letter he wrote to all those who harbored and supported 9/11’s terrorists and to those planning new acts of terror:

You may topple our buildings, collapse our communication systems, disrupt our government, crash our markets, and leave behind the carnage of thousands of bodies, but you will never destroy the soul of America. I don’t know what kind of god you believe in, or what hateful rhetoric you espouse, or what your misguided political beliefs might be that allows you to do what you did today without a fear of eternal damnation. I only know that you may win a battle or 2, but you will never win this war. If you accomplished anything at all [on 9/11], it was to give America a wake-up call, and we will now rise up ever stronger than before.”

And we did. As Joseph Lieberman wrote in yesterday’s Wall St. Journal: “That we have gone a decade without another major terrorist strike on American soil hasn’t been for lack of trying by our enemies…We have taken the offensive overseas with focus and ferocity our enemies did not expect.” 

America is a beacon of all that’s good throughout the world and that’s why we’re hated. Let the word go out to all those who hate us and want to see us fall. We’ve been down before. Remember Pearl Harbor, remember when Russia put up Sputnik…remember when we used helicopters to flee from Saigon…remember when Japan and Germany were producing the most advanced cars and cameras? Remember what people said? “America has lost it! America is not what it used to be!  Others will soon surpass it.”

Remember what we did? We did what Americans do best. We picked ourselves up by our boot-straps and put American ingenuity to work and became the super-power of the world. In the wake of today’s financial crisis we hear the same things. “America has lost it. China will overtake you soon.” I believe, however, in the greatness of America—a greatness fueled by our freedoms and our diversity. You can bend us but you’ll never break us! You can call us the “Great Satan,” but we know that we are the greatest country on the face of the earth. Nobody has done what we—the American people—have done. As Gordon Sinclair, a Canadian television commentator once put it:

It is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people on all the earth. Germany, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Britain and Italy, were lifted out of the debris of war by the Americans who poured in billions of dollars and forgave other billions in debts …When France was in danger of collapse in 1956, it was Americans who propped it up and their reward was to be insulted and swindled on the streets of Paris…When earthquakes hit distant cities, it is the United States that hurries in to help. This spring 59 American communities were flattened by tornadoes--nobody helped. The Marshall Plan and the Truman Policy pumped billions of dollars into discouraged countries…I can name you 500 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble… stand proud, America. Wear it proudly.

We should stand proud as Americans. The president of Bar Ilan University, Moshe Havlin said something about Jews that is also true of Americans:

We are a loving people. Even when we struggle against a horrible enemy, we do not bomb their pizzerias, nor do we spray gunfire into their nursery schools. We do not preach hatred nor teach that heavenly rewards await the suicide bomber who kills as many Jews as possible. We are, thank Gd, a people of love.

Mike Lukavich, in a classic cartoon tells the story of a little girl who once asked her father about the Statue of Liberty, “Daddy, doesn’t her arm get tired holding that flame up all the time?” The father answered, “It doesn’t become tired, my dear, because she has all of us to help her.”

My friends, the major response as we remember the events of 9/11 ten years ago must be to put aside all the petty nonsense that separates us now as Americans and come together in love, helping and supporting each other. In our present economic crisis we need that more than ever. May we draw inspiration from the memories of those who were lost and from those who showed us how to respond in times of need. May we all find blessing in this moment of remembrance and inspiration in the days to come. Amen!

          Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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