15th Anniversary of 9/11/2001 - Shabbat Shoftim - For Those Who Changed The World Through their Bravery

Shoftim – September 11, 2016 - For Those Who Changed The World Through their Bravery
Rabbi David Baum

“Honey.  Something terrible is happening.  I don't think I'm going to make it.  I love you.  Take care of the children.”
“Hey Jules.  It's Brian.  I'm on the plane and it's hijacked and it doesn't look good.  I just wanted to let you know that I love you, and I hope to see you again.  If I don't, please have fun in life, and live life the best you can.  Know that I love you, and no matter what, I'll see you again.”
I love you a thousand times over and over.  I love and need you.  Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions you make.”

We are fortunate enough to live in an age where almost everyone has cell phones, and what I read you I just read were a couple of transcripts, sacred words, words of goodbye from victims of 9/11.  

It's hard to imagine, but it has been 15 years since the attacks of 9/11.  For us, those who were alive on that day, hearing those words bring us back.  9/11/2001 was one of those rare moments where everyone knew where they were, and I'm sure many will be telling that story today.  

But more than recalling where we were, it was those days and weeks after that really shaped who we are today.  We are more fearful, that is for sure, but those days after awakened something within us.

I remember those days and weeks after.  Immediately after the attack, it seemed wherever you were, people were focused on who perpetrated the attack.  Was it terrorists who attacked in the name of Islam?  Was it a home grown attack by white supremacists?  Many still think it was our government itself.  

Remember what President Bush said – "I can hear you!  The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." And you heard the crowd yell USA! USA!  It seemed everyone was ready for revenge, war was on our minds.  

I had a ticket to go to New York to attend what was supposed to be one of largest pro-Israel marches in the nation.  But Immediately after 9/11/2001, the march was cancelled.  After 9/11, all the airlines refunded tickets to New York, but I decided to go because I had friends and family in New York.  For me, 9/11 wasn't about going to war, it was as if I had to perform the mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim – comforting mourners.

I'll never forget riding the subway – seeing the pictures of people at the Times Square station:  missing.  And when I went to ground zero, I saw thousands of people at work.  I saw rabbinical students from JTS counseling people along with priests and Imams.  What was interesting was, I didn't see a march to war – so what was I seeing in person that looked so different on television?  

In our parashah this week, Shoftim, we read about justice – the parashah begins with the creation of a court system for the future country, it continues with the famous line, tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice Justice you shall pursue.  We learn about the Jewish king, the cities of refuge for those who are guilty of unintentional manslaughter, and so on.  It seems to be a parashah that tries to impose order to the disorder of the wilderness.  But at the end of the parashah we read about two relevant topics:  war and the responsibility that a society has when a corpse is found between two cities  

When it comes to war, the Torah gives very specific instructions.  It begins with a President George W. Bush moment – the high priest rallies the troops - 
שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם׃
כִּ֚י יי אֱלֹֽ–הֵיכֶ֔ם הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽם׃

“Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. 4For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.”

But the Torah takes a different turn – the Shotrim, the officials, the magistrates and judges, who were set up at the beginning of the parashah, go around looking for certain soldiers – soldiers who built a new home, soldiers who had just planted vineyards, soldiers who were recently engaged – and took them out of battle.  

Lest he die and leave this new house with so much hope and potential become vacant…
Lest he die and leave a vineyard unharvested...
Lest he die and leave a partner behind who will never know a day married life with him...

The Torah gives laws of how to attack – to offer terms of peace and letting the people live if they surrender; not to cut down fruit trees of a city in siege lest you prevent life from ever coming back.  

It seems that the Torah isn't so much concerned about war, but about the perpetuation of life.  

And at the end of our parashah, we read a peculiar case – the case of a man whose body is found in between two cities – a missing and unidentified corpse  

We just read the account at the end of our portion:
“If, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you to possess, someone slain is found in your open land, and it is not known who killed him…[t]he elders of the town nearest the corpse shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never pulled in a yoke, and the elders shall bring the heifer to a flowing wadi which is not cultivated or sown. There in the wadi they shall break the heifer’s neck. The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward, for Adonai your God has chosen them as God’s servants, and they shall pronounce blessing in the name of Adonai, and every lawsuit and assault is subject to their ruling. And all the elders of the city nearest the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall declare, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see it. Absolve, O Adonai, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.’… Thus you will remove from among you the bloodguilt for the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Adonai.”  (Deuteronomy 21:1-9)
What exactly is happening here?  It seems like a strange reaction, doesn't it?  It's not about vengeance, but it also doesn't seem to be about taking care of this body – peace.  

Rashi brings an interesting explanation 21:4: 
“The Holy One of Blessing said, Bring a year-old heifer that has never borne fruit, and kill her in a spot that has never produced fruit, to atone for the murder of this one, who has lost his chance to bear fruit.” None standing in that place could ever know what the dead person could have accomplished if he or she had lived.
It was an acknowledgement of the loss – an allowance for public mourning.  But still, what about the statement:  Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see it.
What can this possibly mean except for them saying, it was someone else?!?

The Talmud (b. Sotah 45b) notes of the elders’ statement of non-responsibility, “Could we think that the elders are shedders of blood? Rather, he did not starve at their hands, and they did not see him and leave him unburied.” 

In the nature of an oath before God, the elders’ statement became something they had to live up to. 

Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see it.

Every person is our responsibility – and we will never put out eyes upon a person dying and not save them.  

This isn't only a Jewish concept, thankfully, others share this charge as well.

People like the first responders who rushed into the towers to save others.  And not just first responders, but co-workers.  People like Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandanna.  Welles was a 24 year old junior associate at an investment firm in the South tower of the World Trade Center on the 104th floor.  At one point, after the attack, Welles made it out safe, even leaving a voicemail for his mother.  Welles always kept a red bandana in his pocket since he was a kid, a gift and reminder of his father, a volunteer firefighter.  He would often be teased, are you a farmer or something?  And his answer:  “With this bandanna I’m gonna change the world.”  And on 9/11/2001, he did change the world.  He saw people in the tower who were alive – and he helped them out, rushing back into the towers.  

In the darkness of the towers, he repeated over and over:  “Everyone who can stand now, stand now. If you can help others, do so.” 

Welles Crowther was killed when the tower collapsed, although no one knew for sure until his body was found 6 months later.  It wasn't until a year later that they learned how he died – helping others, changing the world with his bandana by saving people, individual universes, from becoming corpses between two towers.  

15 years later, many who did not live through those days might look at the war cries as the high moments after – but I'll never forget those who in the face of death, sought to save life. May each one of us pick up the same red bandana and change the world.  

May the names of those lost be a blessing to all of us, and may their final words of love teach us what really matters in life.  Amen.


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