United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141 | 314-469-0700

September 11, 2020 – Nitzavim-Vayeilech

Shabbat Message from Rabbi Adam Bellows

This Shabbat is special for Jews and non-Jews alike, as we remember the events of September 11th, 2001.
The first shlish of this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim – Vayeilech, is
Deuteronomy 29:9-30:14.
I am about to date myself here. In 2001, I was a senior in high school. As I walked out of my first period class, I saw large groups of students gathered around the TVs in the main lobby. A skyscraper was on fire in New York. What is the World Trade Center?, I thought as people began discussing the images we watched. During second period, we watched in horror as a second plane crashed into the towers. It was not an accident. It was an attack. Everything changed after that moment.
Immediately, the world began to ask the question that we read in this week’s Torah portion: “Why would God do this? (Deut. 29:23), ” or why would God let this happen? In the Torah, the question comes from future generations of children after God had visited destruction upon Israel. Not only do we Jews still inquire as to why destruction has befallen our people, Americans still ask why the terrible events of 9/11 happened.
There are two ways we can honor this day on this Shabbat: we can remember those who died on that day, and we can remember those who stood up and helped on that day. September 11th, 2001 would have been infinitely worse had it not been for those who stood up. There were first responders who headed into Ground Zero to assist without hesitation. There were also the pilots of United Airlines Flight 93 who made the seemingly impossible decision to crash their plane in a field, rather than letting it fly into another building.
These brave people did what God calls upon Israel to do in this week’s parasha. God commands, “אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם…אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את,” “You stand this day, all of you . . . I make this Covenant [with you]” (Deut. 29:9, 13). Here, God calls upon us to stand and be part of the Covenant between God and Israel. God calls upon everyone to rise and to be called upon.
One such hero was Frank D’Aleo who was an emergency medical service (EMS) paramedic for St. Claire’s Hospital in New York City. In an interview in 2011, he recalled the chaos that ensued that morning. He did all he could to help as many people as he could amid the tumult of collapsing buildings. In the end, D’Aleo saved two dozen lives. He explained, “We carried the people in our coats and climbed over the mounds of debris. They were staged there to find their strength and walk north or wait until someone could get to them to take them away,” (Ducey, Kerry Anne. “An Interview with One of the First Responders on 9/11/2001.”).
D’Aleo is a hero, but he was not alone. So many others stood up and helped. God calls upon us and all humanity to stand and to be like those heroes. If, God forbid, a tragedy such as 9/11 were to happen again, and any of us could help, we are commanded to stand up and do something. In fact, God reminds us in this parasha that we do not need a special person to do great things. Each of us has the capability. God tells us, “[The Torah] is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:13-14). In other words, the teachings and commandments God gives us, such as the commandment to stand up and to be called upon, are fully accessible. We can each be a hero if need be.
For those heroes on that day, on September 11th, we are grateful. We honor the living and we remember the fallen from that day. Judaism teaches us that each life is precious and that whoever saves a life, it is as if they are saving the entire world. To those who strove to save others, we say “Thank you.”
This Shabbat is full of learning opportunities! Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. will be Torah Study. At 10:30 a.m., everyone is invited to celebrate virtually with Samantha Lips as she becomes Bat Mitzvah via livestream on our website. At 12:30 p.m., join Rabbi Rosenberg for Mussar for the Holy Days. We have a family Selichot program for those who have registered at 3:00 p.m. We then conclude Shabbat with our Selichot service, live-streamed and in-person for those who registered at 8:30 p.m. Of course, that marks the official start of our High Holy Day Season, continuing all the way through Simchat Torah!