Almost ten years ago, on September 23rd, 2001, thousands of ordinary citizens, strangers to one another yet suddenly bound in mourning, gathered at Yankee Stadium for an evening titled "Prayer for America." At the event, clergy from each of the major faiths led this mega “congregation” in a worship service reflecting on the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen the nation less than two weeks prior. The evening’s message was clear: true meaning and salvation come from the Almighty alone.
Fast-forward ten years to September 11, 2011. At the planned ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, reports indicate that not only will no clergy be present in an official capacity, but no former prayers will even be uttered.
What has changed?
Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once related the following parable. A race horse named “Snag” was known never to finish a race, always stumbling or tiring before its conclusion. At one particular contest, Harry, a devoted racing fan, had only ten dollars to wager, so he figured he would go “all in” and place his bet on Snag…and not only to finish, but to actually win the race, at 100-1 odds. The risk was limited, and the potential upside…
Before the race began, Harry turned to the Almighty and gently requested that Snag at least begin the race on strong footing. Sure enough, out of the gate, the steed held pace with his swifter counterparts. Buoyed by his success, Harry again beseeched the Almighty that Snag remain nose-to-nose with the other horses. And once again, rounding the third bend, Harry's prayers were answered, as Snag maintained tempo with the front running pack. Now riding high on his own birches, Harry submitted his final entreaty to the Almighty – that Snag pull two furlongs ahead moving towards the finish line to win the race. And what do you know, the miracle horse indeed began to pull away. Presently, with Snag comfortably cruising to victory, Harry turned once more to G-d, this time in self-assured gratitude, and whispered, "Thanks G-d, I’ve got it from here." Snag collapsed.
Immediately following 9/11, Americans – and lovers of peace and democracy worldwide – felt so vulnerable and so helpless in the face of these unconscionable tragedies. Collectively we realized that we needed the Almighty to guide us through our lives. But like Harry, as we moved away from the initial peril and frightfulness of those days, slowly receding back into a life of routine and perceived security, our belief in and need for a Greater Power weakened as well.
Thankfully, as a country we have suffered no further attacks of 9/11’s horrific order, and our military’s finest eventually captured its chief perpetrator. And so with each passing day, with each tactical triumph, the hubris of self-determination has seeped ever so slowly back into our consciousness.
Judaism recognizes the tendency, shared by Harry in our parable and millions of us around the world, to take life for granted when we are spared the reminders of unspeakable evil. While many religions feature a formal benediction before eating, Judaism is unique in that it requires a grace after meals as well. Once we are sated, no longer acutely aware of our reliance on the Almighty to fulfill our lacks, precisely then the Torah demands that we declare our dependence and offer our gratitude.
Likewise, once the Jews departing Egypt had crossed the Red Sea, their pursuers foundering in the waters behind them, they could have relaxed and enjoyed their new state of security and wealth. After all, they were safe on terra firma, and as the Sages explain, they were privileged to plunder incredible riches from the sea. Yet instead the Jews composed a song of praises (the “Az yashir”). For in the Jewish worldview, the passage of time, the movement from fearfulness to refuge, only magnify G-d’s blessings to us; these emotions must not be permitted to diminish with the shifting vagaries of time.
So let us remember those who fell on 9/11. But let also their memory remind us of our vulnerability, of our humanity, of our need to connect all of life’s events – joyous and tragic alike – to their ultimate Source, bringing perspective and meaning at all moments into our lives.
Rabbi Jason Gelber, MS is the co-founder of BD Health Services, INC, a substance abuse facility in Maryland, a member of the Kollel at Ner Israel in Baltimore and also teaches for the Etz Chaim Center in Owings Mills.