Where was God when … ? We ask this question through the most difficult times in our history. Rabbi Neil Gillman (z”l) of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, would ask this question of us as students on our first day of rabbinical school. Where is God in a cancer ward of a hospital? Where was God during the Holocaust? And in 2001, he added another question: “Where was God on 9/11?”
Each one of us has a unique perspective of that tragic day. I was a sophomore at Columbia University, a pre-med student studying biology, when murmurings spread through the classroom that there had been a plane crash just miles away. Minutes later, the towers came down, and our world changed forever. Just days before Rosh Hashanah, we again asked, “Where was God?”
Three days later, I took a bus to my home in Syracuse, N.Y., while all airports remained closed. The bus exited the Lincoln Tunnel, and I turned around to witness a plume of smoke billowing overhead, representing so many lives lost.
This summer, I read the book “On My Watch,” a memoir of Virginia Buckingham, head of Boston’s Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, where two of the four hijacked planes originated. Buckingham addressed our Sinai Temple community last week, discussing her experiences of faith, blame, forgiveness and resilience during 9/11. She was blamed for one of the worst days in U.S. history. Although eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, her life changed as she struggled to live with the blame others thrust upon her.
Hours after the planes hit, Buckingham’s mother called her to say, “God does not do anything without a reason.” Buckingham replied, “God would never let this happen. I refuse to believe in that kind of God. How could God stand by and let hijackers murder thousands of people?”
In an instant, her staunch faith was shattered. After many therapy sessions, her therapist told her the way she would get back to herself is through God. “Go home and write God a letter.” It was not until Buckingham entered a synagogue for a bar mitzvah more than a decade later, when the rabbi spoke about Sodom and Gomorrah, did she think about God again. That morning, the rabbi taught, “Perhaps Abraham was trying to teach God. Abraham challenged God. Perhaps we learn from God, but God learns from us.” It was then that she understood. Maybe, on 9/11, just as we were crying, so, too, was God. God was learning from us.
Resilience is not simply moving on with strength. Rather, resilience is moving forward while carrying the broken parts and the joyful parts of our lives in the same basket.
Over the years, Buckingham understood that scapegoating and blaming others are convenient ways to avoid the truth. Blame leads to more tragedy; resilience leads to peace. Yet, resilience is not the common societal adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Resilience is not simply moving on with strength. Rather, resilience is moving forward while carrying the broken parts and the joyful parts of our lives in the same basket. We may be broken, unrecognizable to what and who we were before, but we still are capable of living a life of joy.
We live in unprecedented times. It’s hard to see a way out. We’ll never forget this period of our lives. We’ll live with it, but we once again will find joy with our brokenness. We will find that God was crying with us, and that God was learning from us.
Each day as Buckingham would head to work, she would utter this prayer:
“Dear God, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I cannot handle.” A prayer of resilience, a prayer of strength, a prayer that we can make it through this together.
May the call of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah enable us to be resilient. The sound of the tekiah is the same but we have changed. We may look different, we may feel different, but our souls remain pure, ready for us to cleanse in the days ahead. A soul that gives us the answer to that question: “Where is God?”
God is in me … and God is in you.
Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.