Was God at Ground Zero?
I visited Ground Zero at midnight on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and felt myself transported, as if by a time machine, back to that terrible day that changed America forever. An eerie stillness hung over the site, reminiscent of a visit to a cemetery, an apt description for a place where the dust of so many bodies still lingers. Everywhere there were poster boards with hand-written tributes by family members and friends alongside the pictures of the fallen which sunk me into a state of gloom and had me fighting back tears. Flowers sent anonymously by citizens from all over the country with cards reading, “Send to Ground Zero, NY, and leave outside,” reminded me of the big-heartedness of the American people. The moving bronze firefighters memorial covering an entire wall and reading “May We Never Forget” and “All Gave Some and Some Gave All” conjured recollections of the incomparable sacrifice of those who rushed up the stairs against a tide of humanity which was hurrying the other way.
Suddenly, my mind was flooded with memories of that terrible day.
What I remember most are the jumpers. Of all the horrors of 9/11 none conveyed the full extent of the tragedy more than those who were given the choice to either be incinerated in 2000 degree jet-fuel fired heat or plunge to certain death more than 1000 feet below. I recently watched an amazing HBO documentary about the attacks whose core is an amalgamation of all the privately recorded video of that frightful day. Seeing the jumpers through the lens of ordinary citizens and hearing the screams of the amateur cameramen and women as they watched their fellow countrymen plunge to oblivion is chilling beyond words.
Could God possibly have caught them? Could He have extended the famously outstretched arm He used in Egypt to save the Israelites and grant the jumpers a soft landing so they could safely return to their families?
The next most chilling recollection was the recordings of the phone calls made by those trapped in the buildings to their families. Nearly every one mentioned their love for the person they were calling and the fact that they were trapped in a burning building with little prospect of getting out.
Could God have not reached down from his heavenly thrown and plucked them from the inferno, just as he saved Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from Nebuchadnezzar’s cauldron in the Book of Daniel.
The firefighters who charged up the stairwells were instantly turned to dust when the towers came crashing down. Could the same God who breathed life into the clay of Adam have not have breathed life into the ashes of these heroes and restored them to their children?
And as the two planes flew at great speed toward the towers in the first instance, could the same God who provided defensive clouds and protective fire to the Israelites for forty years in the desert not have provided a barrier and shield that would have made the buildings impregnable to the aerial assault?
Of all the monumental questions that relate to 9/11 none is so strong as how an omnipotent, all-powerful God watched in silence as 3000 men and women – whose only crime was to rise early in the morning to feed their families – perished in a grizzly tragedy that traumatizes America till this day. September 11th was a religious attack against the United States by a group of men who thought they were striking a blow for their deity and would earn eternity for doing so. But the infidels they chose to murder are a nation where 92 percent believe in God and where the Almighty even features on the currency. I am reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered.” Fair enough. But why then were the prayers of one – the terrorists who screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they blasphemed by killing in the name of God – answered? Would it have been too much to ask of the Creator that their wire cutters set off the alarm of the airport screening machine so that the entire plot be discovered and foiled?
America is a righteous, benevolent nation. It deserved far better than the suffering inflicted upon it ten years ago today. Why God allowed a tragedy of this magnitude is something we humans will never know. But our ignorance should not let God off the hook. In commemorating the tragedy we dare not practice a submissive, counterfeit faith that assumes our own sinfulness and God’s righteousness. We did nothing to earn this. Those who would fault America, as some religious leaders did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, would have us embrace a fraudulent relationship with God where man is always culpable and God is always innocent. I prefer the faith of Abraham who pleaded with God for the lives of even the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses who told God that if He punished the Israelites He must also remove Moses’ name from the Bible and thereby sever their relationship forever.
A few nights ago on HLN’s Joy Behar show I debated the question of whether the 9/11 terrorists ought be forgiven. Hell no. Let others peddle their syrupy speeches about how an inability to forgive leads to psychological scarring and emotional pain on the part of he who harbors the anger. It is not anger but righteous indignation that we Americans feel. And we ought all prefer to live with that scar and endure that pain rather than trivialize the memory of 3000 innocents and inflict even greater suffering on their families by affording absolution to heartless killers who believed they were earning an eternity of sex in exchange for a brief instant of monstrous violence.
As their wretched souls left their bodies no doubt they were shocked to discover that it plummeted downward faster than any jumper into the eternal abyss.
But shooting up right past them, like a rocket to the stars, were the souls of those lost whose bodies may have been claimed by the earth’s gravity but whose spirit was pulled directly into heaven.
And upward they go, every day and every year, loftier in our consciousness, grander in our memory, pulling we who remember them ever higher.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will be releasing his newest book “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself” in two weeks, to be followed by his book, “Kosher Jesus.” His book on why the righteous suffer is called “Wrestling with the Divine.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.