(Slightly revised speech given in 2002).
A martyr is a person who endures persecution and often death for the
sake of their religious profession or position. It is a Greek word,
meaning "witness." On September 11, I witnessed the instant initiation
of more than 2,700 martyrs in a span of minutes.
I saw martyrs who chose to sacrifice their lives and their humanity by committing mass murder on a horrific scale.
I saw martyrs who choose to embrace humanity and sacrifice their lives trying to rescue people that could not be rescued.
And I saw martyrs that simply choose to go to work and live their lives, but who died anyway.
I came out of the Chambers street subway station that day the first
plane had already hit and the tower was on fire. There were about 70
people on the street corner watching with me. All of us trying to
convince ourselves that it was a terrible accident and that most of the
people would be okay.
Then the second plane hit. It must have hit the
other side of the tower because I didn't see it. All I saw was the
explosion and what looked like an engine turbine come flying out of the
building. I later learned that the turbine landed two blocks away on
Murray Street. At that point we all just ran. I fell and was stepped on
by a few people but almost immediately helped me up. I walked the block
to my office. My window looked out at the towers at the time.
remember seeing people hanging out of the windows, waving sheets or
curtains back and forth, and thousands of pieces of paper fluttering in
the sky. At the time I couldn't process what I was seeing. I just kept
thinking of a ticker tape parade. Part of me thought they were just
"killing time" while waiting to be rescued; waving to the world and
seeking attention the way some people always seem to do when the news
cameras are on.
Then people started jumping; and the illusion
was shattered for me. I was no longer capable of narrating a story in my
mind to explain what was happening. What was happening defied
Hearing downtown New York gasp in disbelief as people fall from the sky defies explanation.
the tower collapse in on itself, destroying in a moment the hope of
thousands of spouses, children and parents, defies explanation.
from City Hall to the George Washington Bridge with hundreds of people,
many without shoes and covered in a shroud of gray dust, defies
Under normal circumstances our minds immediately
begin making up stories to explain what we see. A constant and
comforting voice in our head explains and narrates reality to us,
telling us how everything that happens affects us. We witness something
and our mind invents a meaning to fit what we witness. Someone doesn't
call and we know it means they are forgetful, or they are angry, or we
were supposed to call them. There's traffic on the bridge, so it means
it is rush hour, or I'll be late. We get through our day by imposing
meaning on our world -- by inventing stories to explain what we
But that day there was no rationalizing anything.
There was no internal voice narrating any story for me. The city was on
autopilot. We all shared an experience which left no room for internal
Last year during the High Holy Days, I remember
discussing how the sound of the Shofar calls all Jews back to Sinai, to
the moment of revelation. And how we all stand at Mt. Sinai and hear the
revelation of Torah for the first time, again and again. It is the
greatest of spiritual good. A time when an entire people turn as one to
God; and God, as One, turns to his people.
Whenever I hear
someone speak of 9/11, or watch video of the towers, I hear a different
Shofar. Its blast calls me back to that day, and I am again standing at
the corner of Chambers and Church Street -- a witness to the instant
infliction of pain, suffering, death, and mourning on a terrible scale. A
time when an entire nation - a nation of martyrs - was murdered in
After 9/11 our rabbi, like many of the clergy, spoke
of a new and fuller understanding of the need to eradicate all sources
of hatred and evil in our world. She spoke of the preciousness of each
and every life; and called on us to experience a new appreciation of
every night we're able to kiss and hold our loved ones. A beautiful
thought. But the reality is that after a short amount of time passes we
tend to ignore the value each moment of life possesses and concentrate
on just getting through the next moment, just waiting for the work day
to end or for the kids to go to sleep.
And so, what does this all
mean? What have we learned in the last eleven years? For all of us who
were able to walk away from 9/11, how have our lives changed? There has
to be meaning in so many deaths. Something other than shock over the
immense waste of life, or anger with people who would do such a terrible
thing. I find myself thinking about all those people who died and how
the whole story of 9/11 has been laid out in great detail for us, like
some great midrash, demanding that we find meaning -- some truth -- in
the those terrible events.
So here is my midrash - my story. On
Yom Kippur Jews give up life affirming actions - procreation, showering,
eating and drinking. It is a day when we are not permitted to pretend
we're immortal -- that death is someone else's problem. Instead, we come
together as a community and we rehearse our deaths. And while we are
not martyrs; while we are only a group of people pretending that we can
prepare for death, that is no small thing. It is no small thing to stand
as witnesses for each other. It is no small thing to come together as
one people and acknowledge the innate value and fragility of life. It is
no small thing to acknowledge that our own lives are grass in the wind -
fleeting and at the same time infinitely precious.
We know that
he who saves one life it is as if he saved a universe. And we know we
are but no more than ashes and dust. September 11 will always call me
back to these two truths. It is a Shofar blast that ingrains this
paradox in my bones and blood.