Tuesday night after Maariv, many of us gathered to recite Tehillim andother appropriate prayers. I said that evening that we were in a time ofAninut. That is the period defined in halachah as the time between the deathof a close relative and burial. During that period, the shock is so new andso great that the focus is only on getting through the next minute, the nexthour, the next day, trying to make the arrangements necessary to get to theburial. The consolations, and the questions of moving forward, are simplyirrelevant. It is what is described in halachah as, "Meito mutallefanav"--"his dead lies before him", and there is nothing else except thatreality. For many people--for example, those we see on our television screenscarrying pictures of loved ones, searching desperately to find them--thatperiod continues and may continue for many months. For others of us, we havebegun 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 sooverwhelming that I cannot grasp their magnitude, is to latch on to a symbolof the events and to search out that symbol in our sources and in ourtradition. That is what I propose to do this morning.
As I was watching the scene in New York, from approximately half an hourafter the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center an image wasseared into my mind. It became even stronger after the two buildingscollapsed. Interestingly, the image finds echo in our tradition, not fromthis time of year. It is not from Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur or Succot, itis rather from halfway around the year, from Pesach. Somehow, that seemedappropriate. The world turned upside-down this week and grasping for an imagefrom half a year away just seems like the right thing to do given thecircumstances in which we are living.
The image appears in a verse from Yoel (3:3) that we recite in theHaggadah. 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 isthe symbol which I have been dealing with in trying to get a hold of theenormity of what has occurred. In fact, if you go back and look at theoriginal text in Yoel, the prophet also continues with the tower of smokeimage. "Hashemesh yeihafech lechoshech"--The sun will be turned to darkness(and you will remember that Tuesday was a very sunny day, suddenlyovershadowed by the tower of smoke) "Vehayareiach ledam"--and the moon willturn blood red. Surprisingly, I saw some pictures on network television thatshowed what one could see of the moon through the smoke, and there clearlywas a reddish tinge to it.
As I thought about the image of the tower of smoke, I came to realize howoften in our history a tower of smoke has marked life-changing tragedies. Oninvestigating those moments in history, I discovered that there is at leastsome consolation in how often Rabbinic discussions surrounding those eventsparallel the emotions we all felt this week.
The first event that I thought of turns out, actually, not to be theearliest. We will get back to the earliest event a little later.Nonetheless, the first event that I thought of was the destruction of thefirst Temple. It, too, went up in fire and in a tower of smoke. There is aremarkable 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 againthis past week.
The Midrash reads: "Yirmiyahu hanavi yatzah mei'anatot lavohliyerushalayim"--Jeremiah the prophet, who lived in a suburb of Jerusalemcalled Anatot, was making his morning commute. He was out on I-95 in Virginiaor the West Side Highway in New York riding on his donkey, and he wastraveling from Anatot to Jerusalem to go about his day's prophecy, orperhaps, since he was a cohen, his day's work at the Temple. "Natal einavvera'ah ashan beit hamikdash oleh"--He raised his eyes, and he saw the towerof smoke rising from the just destroyed Temple. "Amar belibo"--He said in hisheart, "Shemah chazra yisrael bitshuva lehakriv karbanot"--"Perhaps the smokereflects the fact that the Jews have repented and therefore, that they haveoffered many sacrifices." Like so many people, seeing the smoke for the firsttime, there was denial. It cannot be what it appears to be. It cannot be whatI am hearing on the radio or seeing on television and being told by thecommentators has occurred. It cannot be. It must be something else.