Every morning I arise at dawn, hop on my bicycle, and ride down to Overpeck Park. As I hit Fort Lee Road, I pass the giant utility poles that are home to the parrots of Leonia. They squawk their greeting, and I tip my helmut hello. On my right I pass the Leonia section of Overpeck. The 6:00 AM walkers are already doing their loops, just as the sky is alighting.
I cross over to the larger Ridgefield section of Overpeck, and begin my own triple loop, each about 2.5 miles long. As I round the first bend, the tip of the Manhattan skyline comes into view. It never fails to surprise me. I pass the ball fields and there on the horizon is the Empire State Building, and further down, the new World Trade Center.
The sun is just coming up, and often it shines on the side of those skyscrapers, casting them in striking hues. Turning again, I ride along the river, the dawn sky reflected in a palate of pinks and oranges over the water as the sun rises.
The water is placid, the sky is brilliant; the birds wing their way over the water. Sometimes a sculler glides along, causing barely a ripple. All is well with the world… except it isn’t.
The Leonia section of Overpeck Park, as many of you know, contains a memorial to those lost in 9-11. The Ridgefield section of Overpeck Park once revelaled a glimpse of the twin towers that are no more. Every morning that I take my idealic bike ride the subtle but persistent reminder of our national tragedy is there. The reminder that our beautiful world is also a troubled world is there.
This week we are celebrating the Jewish New Year. That’s why we’re here. But this past week also marked the 11th anniversary of 9-11. The commemeration this year was so much more muted than last year, for the tenth anniversary. That is understandable.
But for me the anniversary of 9-11 is not muted—for two reasons:
My visit the week before last to ground zero,
and my worry over a nuclear Iran.
Permit me to explain why each affects me deeply, and the lessons they impart, as we gather in prayer and reflection at this new year.
A meeting connected to my work at the Jewish Publication Society brought me to a building next door to ground zero. I had not visited ground zero before, so I arrived early to visit the site. It was a weekday morning, but already hundreds of people were lined up. I heard languages from around the world. As you make your way to the entrance you see photographs of people gathering in the wake of 9-11, and holding vigils on every continent.
Ground zero is not a quiet place these days. It is a booming construction site. But once you enter the Memorial Park, the surrounding noise seems to fade away. You come to the edge of the memorial pools, water cascading along the sides. First I am struck by the enormity of their size. These pools represent the exact footprints of the twin towers. They are huge, and 30 feet deep. The void that absence creates is so palpable.
Then you come to the edge and you begin to see the names of the deceased. You begin walking around the edge of the square. Row after row of names. I begin to read one, then tens, then scores. There are hundreds of names; hundreds of hundreds. There are too many names to possibly read.
But seeing each individual name you begin to realize the enormity of the loss. Every name a precious soul. Every name a whole universe. Every name beloved by someone who grieves to this day.
The water streams on; as life goes on. But the falling water is also, I think, our tears. They never run dry.
Away from the pool are a grove of newly planted trees. In the words of design jury chair Vartan Gregorian: “The voids left by the destruction are the primary symbols of our loss. While these voids remain empty and inconsolable, the surrounding plaza’s design has evolved to include teeming groves of trees, traditional affirmations of life and rebirth. The result is a memorial that expresses both the incalculable loss of life and its regeneration.”
In the front center of the grove stands one tree taller than the rest. It looks healthy and vibrant, but support cables are by its side and there are scars on the trunk. This is the Survivor Tree: the calloway pear tree found as the only living thing at ground zero. Rescuers, looking in vain for signs of human life, found none. But then they found this scorched eight foot stump, and thought it too was dead, until they saw the roots were still intact. Carefully they removed the charred tree and brought it to the Parks Department Plant Nursery in the Bronx. For nine years the tree was nursed back to life, almost succumbing a second time during a particularly bad storm. Two seasons ago it was brought back to ground zero. Last year President Obama laid a wreath at its base. The Survivor Tree is now 30 feet tall. This year it blossomed, on the first day of spring, astounding New Yorkers.
I have a picture of the survivor tree that I took on my cell phone. I will pass it around. Behind it is the new World Trade Tower. The new tower is some 93 stories tall, and due to be completed in 2013. From the ashes, life. The irrepressible life force of a tree. The irrepressible life spirit of a nation.
We Jews can relate to that. We know what it is to face tragedy, and to overcome tragedy by affirming life in its wake.
As Jonathan Saks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes in his book To Heal a Fractured World:
What was it about Judaism that led Jews, in circumstances that should rationally have led to despair, not merely to survive, but to respond with a new burst of creativity? For that, historically, is what happened. The division of the kingdom after Solomon led to the flowering of prophecy. The destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile reinvigorated the study of Torah. Responding to the destruction of the Second Temple , the sages created the vast rabbinic literature: Mishnah, Midrash and the two Talmuds. The encounter with… Christianity gave impetus to Jewish bible commentary; with Islam, to Jewish philosophy. The crusades led to new forms of north European Jewish pietism. The Spanish expulsion evoked the mysticism of Safed. The Holocaust, in human terms the worst tragedy of all, led to the single greatest affirmation of the collective Jewish will to survive: the birth of the State of Israel.
Our common scripture and our common history cherish life; venerates life. Amidst the cleared away rubble ground zero is coming to life again. The museum that will tell the story is not open yet, but if you want to glimpse some of that story, if you want to sense the inexhaustible life affirming potential of everyday people, then stop in at St. Paul’s Church just a block away. The story of their ministry in the wake of 9-11 is inspirational. People of all faiths joined hands, night and day, to comfort the afflicted and assist the rescuers. Three months after 9-11, the church helped sponsor the lighting of a Hannukah Menorah at ground zero. Light against the dark.
Which brings me to my second reason for speaking on the eve of this new year. Our beautiful world is still a deeply troubled world. Thomas Friedman wrote that our greatest failure prior to 9-11 was a failure of imagination. Our failure to imagine how committed to evil some people can be. Our failure to imagine how such people will employ any means to justify their ends. Our failure to imagine that there are religious fanatics who cherish not life, but death.
Today I am haunted by my perception that we are still failing that test of imagination. We just don’t want to believe that there are people who hate us. The Islamic republic of Iran has said, repeatedly, that America is the Great Satan and Israel the Little Satan. Its president, the head of state, has said, repeatedly, that he wants to wipe Israel off the map. Its top cleric has said, repeatedly, that Israel is a cancer to be eradicated.
We don’t want to believe it because we are not hateful, spiteful people. We don’t want to believe it because our religious traditions abhor the very notion of suicide bombers and the slaughter of innocents. We don’t want to believe it because we forget history very quickly.
Well, even as the Jews rise from the ashes time and again, we are haunted by history. We are told to remember, remember, never to forget.
So we remember that, in the lifetime of many of us here today, people of good will did not, could not believe what a man named Hitler could do.
What an emperor named hirohito could do... What a supreme leader named Stalin could do… What a chairman named Mao could do… What a regime called the Khmer Rouge could do… What a tribe called the Hutsis could do… What a clan called the Janjaweed of Darfur could do… What a mullah named Omar and a shiek named Bin Laden could do…
How much history do we need to forget in order to delude ourselves once again?
And as noted columnist Charles Krauthammer, a man I respect but rarely agree with, argues, relying on a theory of deterrence like that of the mutually assured destruction doctrine of the Cold War era is dangereously misguided. He gives three reasons:
1. The Soviet quarrel with America was ideological. Iran’s quarrel with Israel is existential. The Soviets never proclaimed a desire to annihilate the American people. For Iran, the very existence of a Jewish state on Muslim land is a crime. an abomination.
2. America is a nation of 300 million, Israel 8 million. America is a continental nation; Israel, a speck on the map. As former Iranian president Rafsanjani has famously said: “Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
3. Irans’s clerical regime rules in the name of a fundamentalism for whom the hereafter offers the ultimate rewards. The classic formulation comes from Tehran’s fellow Jiahdist Al-Qaeda: “You love life and we love death.” Try deterrring that.
We just can’t wrap our heads around that . “You love life; we love death.” We don’t want to believe it because it runs counter to everything we have been taught. To our deepest values. To our most cherished principles.
I know this is grim stuff, but with the window of opportunity rapidly closing, can we begin the new year by avoiding the most dangerous situation in the world? Never mind the existential threat to Israel?
We pray that our leaders, here and in Israel, will be determined, wise and courageous as they wrestle with the weighty decisions that must be made, and will be made.
Allow me to close on an optimistic note. Al-Qaeda and Teheran are right about one thing. We do love life.
Look at the words we read in our prayerbook this evening: “Zochreinu l’hayim: remember us unto life, Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, o God of life.”
We love life, as that pear tree that would not die loves life. As the victims loved life. As the rescuers loved life. As the rebuilders love life. As our Jewish heritage loves life. As our nation loves life.
Life will find a way. It always does.
We will write ourselves into the Book of Life, because that is who we are.
“There shall come a time,” Isaiah said, “when none shall hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain. When they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. When every man shall dwell under his vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.”
On this Rosh Hashanah we say, as we do each and every time we raise a glass: L’Hayim! To life!