Twin Towers of Smoke

Within the Bible, we are presented with twin towers--one of destruction and violence, the other of justice.

BY: Rabbi Barry Freundel

The rabbi at Joseph Lieberman's synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation of the Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, D.C., delivered this sermon on Friday September 14 (Shabbat Parshat Netzavim 5761).

Tuesday night after Maariv, many of us gathered to recite Tehillim and other appropriate prayers. I said that evening that we were in a time of Aninut. That is the period defined in halachah as the time between the death of a close relative and burial. During that period, the shock is so new and so great that the focus is only on getting through the next minute, the next hour, the next day, trying to make the arrangements necessary to get to the burial. The consolations, and the questions of moving forward, are simply irrelevant. It is what is described in halachah as, "Meito mutal lefanav"--"his dead lies before him", and there is nothing else except that reality. For many people--for example, those we see on our television screens carrying pictures of loved ones, searching desperately to find them--that period continues and may continue for many months. For others of us, we have begun to move past the period of Aninut ever so slowly, and I would like, today, to help in that process in some small measure.

One of the ways that I deal with difficult times, times that are so overwhelming that I cannot grasp their magnitude, is to latch on to a symbol of the events and to search out that symbol in our sources and in our tradition. That is what I propose to do this morning.

As I was watching the scene in New York, from approximately half an hour after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center an image was seared into my mind. It became even stronger after the two buildings collapsed. Interestingly, the image finds echo in our tradition, not from this time of year. It is not from Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur or Succot, it is rather from halfway around the year, from Pesach. Somehow, that seemed appropriate. The world turned upside-down this week and grasping for an image from half a year away just seems like the right thing to do given the circumstances in which we are living.

The image appears in a verse from Yoel (3:3) that we recite in the Haggadah. The verse reads: "Venatati moftim bashamayim uva'aretz"--I, G-d, will place unbelievable signs in the sky and on earth, "Dam", blood, "Va'esh," and fire, "Vetimrot Ashan", and towers of smoke. Of these three symbols, the one that stood out most for me was the last--the tower of smoke. That is the symbol which I have been dealing with in trying to get a hold of the enormity of what has occurred. In fact, if you go back and look at the original text in Yoel, the prophet also continues with the tower of smoke image. "Hashemesh yeihafech lechoshech"--The sun will be turned to darkness (and you will remember that Tuesday was a very sunny day, suddenly overshadowed by the tower of smoke) "Vehayareiach ledam"--and the moon will turn blood red. Surprisingly, I saw some pictures on network television that showed what one could see of the moon through the smoke, and there clearly was a reddish tinge to it.

As I thought about the image of the tower of smoke, I came to realize how often in our history a tower of smoke has marked life-changing tragedies. On investigating those moments in history, I discovered that there is at least some consolation in how often Rabbinic discussions surrounding those events parallel the emotions we all felt this week.

The first event that I thought of turns out, actually, not to be the earliest. We will get back to the earliest event a little later. Nonetheless, the first event that I thought of was the destruction of the first Temple. It, too, went up in fire and in a tower of smoke. There is a remarkable Midrash in Pesikta Rabati (ch. 26) that I want to share with you. It sounds remarkably like something I heard on television over and over again this past week.

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