Do we need to revisit the image again? Yes we do.
First one tower, then the other. Then the Pentagon. Then a field in Pennsylvania.
You will never forget and you will never remember. The image of your own face seen from inside your body is a permanent part of your soul. You will be able to summon it at will. You will never be able to recreate it.
Every moment was a metaphor. Each incident had implications. Every individual’s fate was a wealth of irony.
To analyze it, to draw lessons from the tragedy, is almost obscene. What lessons shall we learn that are worth the instruction? The arrogance of Western civilization? The otherness of radical Islam? The hazards of unfettered access to technology and information?
Teach a lesson from the crematoria of Auschwitz instead, make an instructional plan from the corpse-filled rivers of Rwanda, plan the day’s learning from the killing fields of Cambodia.
It was life imitating art, to our enduring horror. Here is the coyote, sending the rocket into the house. Here is Elmer Fudd, stepping off the cliff and plummeting – his tie pointing skyward, that look of disbelief on his face. Here is the government building, set ablaze by aliens, charred and burning against the blue sky. Here are the clouds of debris, chasing the citizens down the street, after the teetering skyscraper surrendered to the seismic impact. Who knew we could imagine so well? Who knew that our nightmares, caricatured for deconstruction, choreographed and scored for cheap thrills, were rehearsals for our future? Dare we ever imagine again, dare we ever suspend disbelief for a moment?
And where shall we keep our children safe? There are not enough Jersey barriers, not enough fighter pilots, not enough barcode i.d. cards, not enough x-ray machines to anticipate it all. We already have taught them to fear strangers, taught them to fear sex, taught them to fear the rays of the sun, taught them to fear mosquitoes – who and what and how is left to love?
Suddenly, on a single day, the boredom of routine, the political incorrectness of our appetites, the lives of quiet desperation have begun to look pretty good. But a year and not-quite-a-week later, it is Yom Kippur. And today we are asked by God to gird ourselves with courage, seek forgiveness of our sins and face a new year with hope.
I remember saying one thing in the days after this national tragedy that still rings true for me after these months of reflection. It is this: we Jews have a vocabulary for dealing with tragedy. It is not so much a linguistic lexicon as it is a vocabulary of the soul. Still, only through words can we share with each across the generations. And so words I must attempt to use.
An anthropologist by the name of Ruth Benedict wrote an important book before most of you were born. It is called Patterns of Culture, and it had a tremendous impact on the study of anthropology. Among the very first stories she reports is in the chapter she prophetically called “The Diversity of Cultures.” She reports a series of conversations with a chief of the Digger Indians in California. He had become a Christian and an agriculturalist, teaching his people how to raise peaches and apricots in orchards on irrigated land. But occasionally, he would talk about the days of his youth, about the shamans who could transform themselves into bears through sacred dance, about the wealth of foods his people found in the desert. Medical science was unknown to them. They had never experienced tin cans or butcher shops.
Benedict reports that suddenly one day, the old chief said these words: In the beginning, God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay. And from this cup, they drank their life. They all dipped in the [same] water, but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now.
“Our cup is broken now.” The members of his tribe survived, many with their Native American self-image fully intact, but the unique way they experienced the living waters of life had shattered. Benedict writes, “The things that had given significance to the life of his people, the domestic rituals of eating, the obligations of the economic system, the succession of ceremonials in the villages, possession in the bear dance, their standards of right and wrong – these were gone, and with them the shape and meaning of their life.”
The story is both beautiful and painful. The eloquence with which the chief expressed his loss is accessible to Native American and non-Native American alike. The clay cup is shattered; it cannot be repaired. To be nurtured, to drink from the living waters of life, the Digger Indians must drink from someone else’s cup. Even if the water was the same, even if it came from the exact same spot in the river of life, something essential was lost.
As if to illustrate the poignant truth of the chief’s story, you should know that the name “Digger” is the white man’s name, a term of derision to indicate that the tribe dug up roots and other things for food. The Diggers had to sue in Federal Court to be called by their tribal names, including, in California, the Mewok.
None of us would be surprised to hear this story from a grizzled elder of an ancient Jewish community. Perhaps old Moshe the shamash in Elie Wiesel’s town of Sighet, miraculously surviving the Nazi onslaught, would return to the remnant of a decimated town in Eastern Europe and tell the story. Perhaps sun-bronzed Behrouz, squatting in the shade of a stone house outside of Tehran, would describe the remaining minyan in a 2000-year-old community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. Perhaps Benito, visiting the decaying structures in his Argentine homestead, would look wistfully at the fallen beams of the old synagogue and see his childhood playmates before the cup was shattered. They might find a new life, maybe imitate the old ways for a while, but it could never be the same. Even if the water was the same, something essential was lost.
It is hard to hear the story of the old Indian without thinking of every Jewish wedding. The shattered cup cannot be repaired; it symbolizes something irretrievable that separates what was from what will be. It comes at a moment of exquisite joy and anticipation that is still, somehow and unfailingly, a moment of tears.
Have we Americans lost our special cup, the one from which we drink of the waters of life? Are we on the verge of decline, forced to drink from others’ vessels? Can we expect, in two or three generations, to find a ghost of a man in windswept lower Manhattan, in Atlanta all covered in kudzu, in rubble-strewn San Francisco, speaking of free press and civil rights and high-speed internet access with a wistful and far-away look in his eyes?
I doubt it. But our cup could most certainly be chipped or cracked and therefore set aside lest further damage occur. Unless we have a different response to our crisis than the Mewok Nation.
It is not only at weddings that we have familiarity with shattering experiences. When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai, two tablets carved by God’s hand cradled in his arms, he saw the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The Israelites, recently liberated, were an impatient people. They demanded results, and Moses’s forty days on the mountain left them feeling uncertain, so they asked Aaron to build them a god they could worship. Enraged and betrayed by the sight, Moses hurled the tablets to the ground, where they smashed to pieces.
Did you ever wonder why there were two tablets instead of one? I never did, but I answered the unasked question in my reaction to the crashes at the twin towers on September 11. My first reaction, like many of you, when I heard about the first plane crash was that an accident had occurred. But, like most of you, when the second plane hit, it was clear it was no accident. Something had been done on purpose.
Had there been one tablet and had it broken in a fall, we might have debated about whether Moses had dropped it or thrown it, whether it was a willful act or a result of shock. But with two tablets, it is clear that it was a willful act, the second tablet following the first, or, perhaps, flung in a different direction. The tablets were destroyed and with them the evidence of God’s hand and God’s command. The result had to have been devastating.
The wellspring of Torah, uncovered by God, had gone dry before the first life-giving sip. Here were the Israelites, stranded in the desert, having antagonized the source of their sustenance and have squandered the guidance designed to see them through the years. To add insult to injury, thousands of them died in the resulting purge of sinners. The Israelites were each devastated once, and many were devastated twice by the loss of a loved one. What were they to do? Were they to become Amalekites and imbibe of the heritage of violence? Were they to seek out the Midianites and throw themselves on the mercies of Moses’s adopted tribe? Were they to return to Egypt and drink again from the cup of slavery?
The Israelites had two responses, and they both had some measure of success or I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you tonight. They were guided by an exceptional leader who was, ironically, responsible for their predicament. After all, it was he who broke the tablets. And they were inspired by God, after all.
The first response was that Moses went back up the mountain to carve a second set of tablets. The tradition is quite clear that this second set was the result of Moses’s physical labor, unlike the first set, which were carved by God directly. The long stay atop the mountain the first time was for the sake of spiritual purity and inspiration. The second time, the long stay was for heavy labor.
And did Moses manage to recreate that original set of tablets? Was he exacting in his replication of the set he had destroyed?
The evidence isn’t clear. We have, after all, two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah itself. Though the differences are variations on a theme, they are differences nonetheless. If the hand of God was evident exclusively in the first set, the hand of Moses may be evident as well in the second set. Are we to remember Shabbat or observe it? Is it to remember creation or to afford rest to the enslaved? Are we to refrain from lying in testimony or offering vain testimony? Are we to refrain from coveting or craving our neighbor’s possessions? Those may seem like minor questions to you, but the inconsistency in a document that lays claim to perfection cries out “explain me!”
Moses took the task in hand and recreated as best he could the word of God. The result was sacred, every bit as much as the first, but not necessarily the same as the first. Whether the words were the same or whether they suffered for accuracy by the filter of a human memory, they bore the imprint of a human being unwilling to drink from someone else’s cup. For the People Israel to live in this world, and to live in this world as the People Israel, they had to live on their terms and, I might add, in their land.
Moses understood the need to reassemble the values of the people, accepting them where they were but leading them where they needed to go for their own self-realization. The tablets that shattered were mere pieces of stone. Pieces of stone were plentiful in the wilderness. But the commandments on the tablets were the ideas that would inspire and animate their future. It was what penetrated the stone and then emerged from it that mattered.
Moses rebuilt those tablets.
Sometimes I think those tablets have been broken again. God knows we would not be here tonight if the commandments written on them, and 603 more besides, had not been broken just over the past twelve months alone. We do not have a Moses to climb up the mountain and carve us a new set. The restoration, the repair, the renewal, must therefore be achieved by those of us who remain at the foot of the mountain. We have done and we have heard, asinu v’shamanu, we have all the knowledge Moses imparted.
Unless we drink from our cup, unless we act from our tablets, those things that had given significance to the life of our people -- the domestic rituals of eating, the obligations of the economic system, the succession of ceremonials in the villages, the standards of right and wrong – will be gone, and with them the shape and meaning of our lives.
The shattered tablets, the shattered cup, the shattered buildings represent what we believe, but do not dictate what we believe. They are the symbol of what we do, but not the sum of who we are. Symbols can be replaced. But what they symbolize will surely disappear like the customs of the Mewok Nation if not given the expression of a living society.
The Mewoks and other Native American tribes were branded primitive and marked for extinction by an unenlightened generation. By the time America wised up, it was too late for the battered people to recuperate. As Jews, the world is open before us to choose renewal or decline. As Americans, the world is open before us to choose renewal or decline. As Jews, we can model for America what has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. We are partners with God in replacing those shattered tablets.
The reason those tablets were shattered, the reason those buildings were shattered is irrelevant to the response. Moses suffered the consequences of his actions and, I have every faith, so will Al-Qaeda. How we rebuild is the essential task before us – recreating the very best of our nation, its liberties for all, its justice for all – so that gain honors the sacrifice of the victims by strengthening the values the faithful upheld. It is hard work that requires uncharacteristic patience, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past that led to the need before us.
The other response we had to the breaking of the tablets was equally important. In a peculiar way, we have reclaimed it in ritual when we shatter the glass at a wedding. These days you can purchase in many stores, but none better than the Agudas Achim Sisterhood Gift Shop, a colored glass cup and a satin bag. After the groom steps on it at the end of the ceremony, the shards are sent in the satin bag to a company that embeds them in a ritual object or a set of bookends. I’ll bet you don’t know where that commercial enterprise originated.
The pieces of the original tablets were stored in the ark of the covenant, just like the new tablets that Moses carved. One midrash says there were two arks, another says there was only one, but either way, the shattered pieces were preserved because they maintained their sacred nature, even after their practical usefulness has been lost.
I love this notion and I love this story – I have used it to illustrate everything from the reason we should cherish those whose minds have crumbled from dementia to the importance of preserving memory.
The stones and dust that were once tablets bore upon them the imprint of our origins, the imprint of our foundation, the imprint of the Holy One of Blessed Name. They were of no practical consequence in their dissemblance and all the King of King’s horses and all the King of King’s men couldn’t put them back together again. They were sacred because they reminded us that our beginnings were as important as our arrivals, and to reassure us that when the tablets we carved in our generation were shattered – as they would be – the ones who followed us would cherish the loss of our efforts as well.
Jewish history is a cycle of loss and renewal, loss and renewal, frequent loss and unfailing renewal. That, too, is our gift to a country that has not fought a war on its soil in 150 years, that has built its legend on innovation and expansion, that accepts as divine fiat that every generation will live better than the one before. Without loss, there can be no renewal.
The chief of the Mewoks did not seem to know where to begin when his cup was shattered. Moses seemed so certain – but he had God to say “climb up the mountain and carve two tablets with the words that were on the ones you broke.” What are the values of this country, of this society, that are worth preserving as the lasting legacy of the fallen buildings and the foundation of the symbols that will rise in their place?
Ian McEwan is a British journalist, and just a few days after the tragedy he wrote about what he had heard and seen in America. In the midst of his article is the answer to the question about the basic value that Americans hold dear, that I believe humanity holds dear. When you strip away our materialism and our optimism and our egocentrism, you will find what this British observer could see so clearly through the dust and ash.
A San Francisco husband slept through his wife's call from the World Trade Center. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow, he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing that there was no escape for her. The building was on fire and there was no way down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you.
She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.
We cherish each other. We may not be as good at showing it as we might like. We may express it in the most peculiar ways. But in the end, we hurt so much from the events of a year ago because we love. We make cartoons of suffering because we cannot bear to inflict it on others. We ache over protecting our children because we cannot bear to see them suffer. We watch a disaster in disbelief because those thousands of souls from those hundreds of places with those dozens of languages are the people we love, strangers almost every one.
It is the message of the shattered tablets and the ones that replaced them as well. God is One and we are one with God, especially when we call upon each other in times of need. It is the message of those shattered buildings that inspired strangers in a stairwell, off-duty firefighters, construction workers from distant homes, college students on bicycles to put their lives on hold and their lives in danger for the sake of an ideal or another person.
Are you looking for the reason to revisit the image? It is to remind you of your capacity to rebuild because of your capacity to love. It is to remind you of your responsibility to preserve because of your responsibility to build. It is to remind you of your reason to drink from your cup, even if it is cracked or broken, because it is your cup.
This piece of stone is not from the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, and neither was it raided from the lost ark. But it is a piece of someone’s cup. I found it at a tel in Israel. An archeologist dated it to about 5000 years ago. When I hold it in my hand, I reach back across history, all the way across an ocean. And though I cannot name or envision the Canaanite who drank from this cup, he and every human being like him live because I care enough to preserve what was once important, and to remember it when I drink from my own cup.
I wandered tonight. My thoughts are not as clear as I thought they were when I decided to write this sermon. I wanted to help us put some of the pieces back together. I don’t know if I did.
But a few days ago, I emerged with my faith renewed, and if my words tonight did not suffice, then perhaps my miracle will. The second Tuesday in September 2001 was a clear and cool morning. Who could imagine what was ahead? The second Tuesday in September 2002 was likewise cool, and almost clear. At 7:00 I walked my son to the school bus and he pointed up in the sky. A child showed me what I might have missed because I was too tired and looking down. What did I see but a renewed symbol that we will not again be destroyed. From horizon to horizon, a rainbow.