I Remember Where I Was When…

D’var Torah by Rabbi Aaron Weininger
Rosh Hashanah Day 2—September 11, 2018

I remember where I was when… For many here it may be, “I remember where I was when the Halloween Blizzard hit.” Or, “I remember where I was when the Twins last won the World Series.” Both date back to 1991. Sorry Twins fans—maybe next year. My parents would say they remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or where they were when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.

I remember where I was, 17 syears ago today, when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11th, 2001. It was my first day of junior year at the Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan, and I was in first period Spanish class. The first reports announced that a private jet accidentally crashed into the north tower, and our class tuned into New York’s 1010 WINS to find out more. We learned it was no accident. (The tragedy hit close to home; we found out later that a ninth grader lost her father in one of the towers.) The school went on lockdown for several hours, and then we were dismissed early. Once outside the building at 91st St and Central Park West we saw plumes of smoke invading an otherwise clear blue September sky. It was like a scene from a horror movie shooting a few miles away. But instead of actors, throngs of New Yorkers flooded the streets fleeing their way to safety by foot. Despite the chaos, strangers stopped to help strangers, slowing down here and there to make sure no one was left behind. Crossing through Central Park, I went over to my friend’s apartment where I stayed until I could get home that night.

I remember where I was when…

Today is the day of remembering. Rosh Hashanah is developed in rabbinic literature and our High Holy Days prayer book as just that: a day to remember God’s faithfulness to Israel. And on this second day of the holiday, our Torah portion comes from the book of Genesis, Chapter 22 about the command Abraham receives to sacrifice his son Isaac:

“On the third day Abraham looked up and saw ha’makom from afar.” Ha’makom is Hebrew for “place” or a name for God. We don’t know why the Torah decides to state, “on the third day,” because it does not do so for day one or day two. By mentioning the third day, the Torah seems to suggest something memorable happened. A day about which Abraham could have said, “I remember where I was when I went to sacrifice my son Isaac.” On that day Abraham looked up and saw God from afar.

Where was God in the flames of destruction in lower Manhattan seventeen years ago, or in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania or at the Pentagon, where so many lives were lost on September 11th, 2001? Where was God for Abraham as he struggled to find God on the path to sacrifice his son? At best, Abraham could only see God from afar.

I want to suggest that we might find God in the moments that follow, “I remember where I was when…” based on how we respond, especially when the situation is dire and we search for God’s presence. We might find God in others; in the hands of 9/11’s first responders who shielded victims from falling debris and rushed them to safety. We might find God in ourselves; when we recognize our human capacity to open our eyes and draw close through the choices that are in our control.

I can remember where I was when — but more important, I can remember how I was after. How I was when I decided to let God into the picture, to draw close as Abraham struggled to do. We might do this by asserting Divine qualities that we proclaimed earlier this morning when we opened the ark doors, Adonai Adonai el hanun v’rachum, erekh apaim v’rav hesed, “God merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations…”

If only we were to act and recognize our power as God’s messengers.

This summer, my grandma Annette and I were invited to participate in the Great Gratitude Tour of Liberty Diversified International (LDI), based here in Minnesota and owned by the Fiterman Family. Organized by Adath member Ann Miller, the tour (more of a gratitude movement) marked Liberty’s 100-year anniversary, and took the place of a big bash. At a time when world events unfold beyond our control, the Fiterman Family decided to reach into that world with gratitude and center it in Liberty’s celebration. Traveling by bus across parts of the United States and Mexico, the family visited its company’s employees and made gratitude grants to unsung organizations and underappreciated heroes. As we passed the Statue of Liberty on a boat tour of the New York Harbor, my 92-year-old grandma captivated everybody on board with the story of her parents’ immigration from Poland and the lessons it taught her. Reflecting on the experience, my grandma wrote, “There have been many times when I silently thanked my parents for coming to America when they did. I wish I had done it when they could hear me. Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close and Ellis Island not that far away brought tears of gratitude for them and for America.”

The Fitermans remember where Jack Fiterman was when he founded Liberty in 1918. But more important than remembering where he was when, Jack’s family remembered how he would want them to celebrate 100 years later. Jack’s family remembered how he would want them to act, extending the hope he felt gazing at the Statue of Liberty as a Russian immigrant, repurposing wooden boxes under the name “Liberty Used Boxes.” Indeed, 100 years later, Jack’s family remembers how by embracing the tapestry of this country. Jack’s family remembered how when they stopped to buy donuts for truck drivers at a rest stop. Jack’s grandson Mike Fiterman remembered how, on our way to minyan and then the monuments in DC, when he asked taxi drivers to share their stories of immigration, struggle, and hard work as new and aspiring Americans. Or simply they remembered how when the family ventured to the Momofuku Milk Bar to enjoy ice cream together in the oppressive DC heat.

Are we willing to open our eyes and see how we can be God’s messengers with greater compassion and mercy?

At the very end of the day in New York, before we left for DC, I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan. Sitting below the footprint of the Twin Towers, the main wall of the museum is emblazoned with the poet Virgil’s words, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Surely not the victims of 9/11 who lost their lives. And today, I would add not Abraham setting out to bind his son Isaac. Not immigrants trying to make it to this country. On this Yom Hazikaron, our people’s day of remembering, it is up to us to recommit to how we carry the moments of “I remember where I was when.” How we carry them with kindness. How we bring our faith into focus so that we not only remember where we were when, but how we show up with Godly mercy and compassion today. Being Jewish does not mean endless, feel-good trips down memory lane. Once we’re on the path of life, we have a responsibility behind the wheel. It is not an inevitable journey that happens to us. Our past paves the way into a broken world that demands we show up as partners with God.  If we have fallen asleep at the wheel, the shofar is the horn waking us before it is too late.

I remember where I was when…

As I walked through the entrance to the 9/11 Museum, nearly seventeen years after the attacks, I was brought back to the 11th grade. As I made my way through the exhibits, six miles south from Solomon Schechter, I almost missed a burn mask, an artifact amidst thousands, in a glass case by itself. I read the caption:

While in an elevator on his way to his 104th floor office at Cantor Fitzgerald, Harry Waizer was severely injured by burning jet fuel. He was given a 5 percent chance of survival and spent weeks in a medically induced coma, followed by months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. For about 16 hours a day for one year, he wore a burn mask to facilitate healing and minimize scarring. Waizer was one of eighteen 9/11 burn victims admitted to the burn center at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Of those 18, he and 10 others survived.

I stared at the mask, the caption, and back to the mask. Wait a minute, I thought. I know Harry Waizer. Harry was among the first to welcome me as a rabbinic intern to Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains where he remains an active member. Harry is one of the regulars who greets you with a big smile on Shabbat morning and schmoozes with you at kiddush.

There was a face behind that mask who wanted to make a difference after he remembered exactly where he was when his life was almost taken. Days later, I read the testimony Harry delivered at the first public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks in March of 2003. Addressing members of the Commission Harry said,

This commission cannot turn back the hands of time. There is nothing to be gained by asserting blame, by pointing fingers. The dead will remain dead despite this commission’s best efforts and intentions. But it is my hope that this commission can learn and teach us from its scrutiny of the past, and if the findings of this commission can prevent even one future 9/11, if they can forestall even one plan of Osama bin Laden, prevent even one more act of madness and horror, I and the rest of this nation will owe the commission our gratitude, and I will be proud of the small part I was allowed to play today.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Yom Hazikaron, on this day of remembering, we can remember where we were when…. but more important, we can orient ourselves to remember how we choose to live today. How we, in Harry’s words, learn and teach and show gratitude. Maybe, just maybe, our remembering on Rosh Hashanah can redirect us so we get closer to emulating God’s qualities of mercy and compassion, el hanun v’rachum.  So it was with Abraham.

On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw God, hamakom, from afar. Maybe Abraham said, “I remember where I was when…” But more important was how it changed him after. Abraham eventually drew close. Not as you might think by hearing God’s voice call him again, but by a messenger of God who stops him from killing his son, “Abraham! Abraham!” the angel cries. And so the story concludes, “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai—yireh, whence the present saying “On the mountain of God, there is vision.” B’har Adonai yeira-eh.

Abraham removes Isaac from the altar and names a site for God—not when he sees God directly, but when he encounters God’s messenger. We have the power to be those messengers and to seek them out, so that we can say we remember where we were when…and choose how we translate life to live it more intentionally. To love more deeply. To lead with greater integrity. To be transforme d so that out of pain AND out of joy come vision. A vision that is born when we decide how to discern God’s presence through the messengers who appear in the messiness AND our willingness to become those messengers. Just like the messenger who stopped Abraham in his tracks from sacrificing Isaac. Just like the first responders who reached out to save lives on 9/11. Just like hero Harry Waizer who wanted his testimony to prevent future attacks. Just like the families who organize Gratitude Tours. Just like the no-nonsense New York grandmas who speak truth to power and take no prisoners — with heaping measures of love and blintzes.

As we open our eyes like Abraham and open our ears to the ram’s horn, may we open ourselves to complete this sentence today: I remember where I was when I heard the sound of the shofar and decided to…

May we move from seeing God afar on the third day to seeing God up close every day. Because no matter the pain or joy, we can bring el hanun v’rachum, a merciful and compassionate God into the thicket of our lives and not leave God’s goodness to fade on the pages of the machzor. May that be our sacred work in the New Year. And let us say: Amen.

Closing Prayer

El hanun v’rachum, God merciful and compassionate, may my prayer to You this day be reflected in my action every day so that we fulfill the words of the Psalmist:  V’ani tefeelati lecha, “And I, I am a prayer to You.” I am a prayer to you God when, like Abraham, I recognize the power to see and name and choose differently, and not let life be inevitable. And so I remember where I was when the prayer of my heart became the work of my hands. And let us say: Amen.