Looking backward and ahead with memories of September 11, 2001
On the night of September 11, 2001, as we gathered in prayer at Temple Sholom in River Edge (now Temple Avodat Shalom), we didn’t yet know that 2,977 people had died in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. What we did know was that among the hundreds who gathered in our sanctuary there were many who were covered with soot from the explosion, and that everyone in our sanctuary that night was filled with fear, uncertainty, and sadness.
It was the one moment in my rabbinic career where I could not find words of comfort.
We sang Debbie Friedman’s Misheberach not only for those whom we knew were injured, but also for ourselves and our fellow Americans whose hearts were broken. We recited Kaddish and El Male not only for those who had perished, but for our nation and our world. I remember that it was the first time, but unfortunately not the last time, that I worried that the American dream may have been a fatality of 9/11.
On my search for context I turned to my favorite Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who had died months before. I read Amichai’s poem “The Diameter of the Bomb” then, and again and again at a number of community memorial services in the subsequent months.
I share it with you, today, soon after the 21st anniversary of September 11, 2001, with the caveat that while I continue to find Amichai’s words all too relevant, and salient, I continue to disagree with Amichai’s ending.
I do believe that there is a God.
Here is the poem:
The Diameter of the Bomb
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.
The God in whom I believe is Avinu Malkeynu, our parent and our sovereign, but similar to our own parents and our own leaders God has power only when we listen and learn the message of Leviticus 19:18, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Today, 21 years later, after the day when, as the Record columnist Jeff Page noted, our world changed forever, as I remember that awful awe-filled day I ask you all to join me in acknowledging the accuracy of Amichai’s description of the impact, that every act of evil can have.
As we enter Rosh Hashanah, may we remember our family, friends, neighbors, and all the strangers who died 21 years ago by committing ourselves in 5783 to truly be God’s voice and hands in the world. If we can make that change in ourselves we can change the world, and through our deeds we can change Amichai’s message by confirming and affirming that there is a God, and we have the ability and the responsibility to bring God’s presence into the world
Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, is a former chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.