September 11 attack.
September 11 attack. Photo by AP
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On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat learning in a yeshiva on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Minyan had just finished and we were settling into our studies. Tentatively, one of the administrators walked out of his office and said, “something happened downtown. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” We looked around, unsure of how to respond. And then, befitting a yeshiva, an argument broke out.

“Let’s go outside and see what’s going on,” someone said. Remember, this is before smartphones and there was no television in the yeshiva – so we had no way of knowing what exactly was happening.

“No!” said someone else. “Whatever is happening it’s clear that now is davka the time to study Torah. It’s the best thing we can do to help.”

Everyone paused for a moment, and then most of the students (myself included) went outside to a Radioshack around the corner to see what was unfolding. We stood there and watched on three rows of televisions as the first tower fell. We stared in disbelief. Here we were, a diverse group of New Yorkers all crammed into this electronics store, speechless. No one knew what to do.

Ten years later, it still feels like we’re not sure what to do. We debate the right balance between security and civil liberties. We struggle with how to fight the war on terror. And we do our best to raise our children in a post-9/11 world. In many ways, I still feel caught in that argument from the yeshiva. Do we go outside and see what’s going on? Or do we hunker down, and refuse to look up from our books.

Each option involves risk. If we leave our comfort zone, and engage with the world, who knows what could happen? We might encounter impossible questions that have no right answers, questions that test our values. But if we keep our eyes only in our books, and just stay with what we know, we lose the opportunity to make a difference. We also forfeit the richness that the world, even a broken one, has to offer. In the Talmud it says: “Study is great for it leads to action.” We learn so that we can do better.

The answer, of course, lies in between. It comes when we learn how to integrate the wisdom from our tradition with the challenges of our world. Ten years after 9/11, we find that guidance when we look to our tradition. In Avot D’Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirke Avot, we find a story that seeks to make sense of the world after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem:

Once Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was walking with his student Rabbi Yehoshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Woe for us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement. We can do it through acts of lovingkindness, as it is written, ‘Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.’”

Here destruction is met with a resolve to do good. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is able to look past the tragedy. He seeks to rebuild his broken world on hesed, lovingkindness, as it teaches in the book of Psalms. His words of comfort lay out a vision for the future.

As I look back to that morning I sat in yeshiva, I think that that day was so disorienting for Americans because it was a violent reminder that evil exists in the world. Before 9/11 we saw it on TV, but it rarely came to our shores. There are people who are our enemies, who want to destroy our way of life. We must continue to confront them, and prevent their hatred from spreading further.

But in doing this we cannot lose sight of our values. Rather, they offer us guidance in removing this evil and rebuilding our world.

Since 9/11, I’ve become a husband, a rabbi and a father. It’s heartbreaking that so many who were killed in the attacks will never have these same opportunities, and that their loved ones still feel the pain of their loss. But it is through honoring their memory, and supporting their loved ones, that we deepen our determination to do good. Like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, we too can aspire to rebuild with hesed as our foundation.

 

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.