In a small, makeshift synagogue not far from the Twin Towers, Orthodox Jewish professionals regularly meet early each morning for daily prayer services. Usually there is no problem rounding up a minyan (quorum of ten men required to pray) and the cramped quarters often overflow with worshipers. But on the morning of September 11th, there was an uncommon dearth of available men. Perhaps they had decided to remain that morning at their resident shuls for the important selichos services that precede the High Holidays. Or, perhaps, they were participating in the shloshim (one month anniversary) memorial services for the Jews who had been killed in the Grand Canyon helicopter crash. Two hundred men who worked in the World Trade Center, were, in fact, late to work that morning because of their participation in the shloshim service. But whatever the reason, the congregants were faced with a problem: only nine men were present, and time was marching on. These were serious men, professionals, and all had to be at their desks at the World Trade Center well before 9:00 a.m.
"What should we do?" they asked each other, impatiently tapping their wrist watches, as they paced the floors. "This situation hasn't happened in ages! Where is everybody?"
"I'm sure a tenth man will come along soon," someone else soothed. "We have to be patient."
The men waited, restless and tense. Some of them were already running late. Finally, when they had all but given up and were going to resort to individual prayer (instead of the preferred communal one), an old man whom nobody had ever seen before shuffled in the door.
"Did you daven (pray) yet?" he asked, looking at he group.
"No, sir!" one shouted jubilantly. "We've been waiting for you!"
Under normal circumstances, the men would have asked the gentleman polite questions: what was his name, where was he from, how did he come to their obscure shul? By now, however, they were frantic to start and decided to bypass protocol. They hastily handed the man a siddur (prayer book), hoping he would prove himself to be the Speedy Gonzales of daveners (prayers). The old man proved to be anything but.
He seemed to rifle the pages of the siddur in agonizingly slow motion. Indeed, every gesture and movement that the man made seemed deliberately unhurried, protracted, and prolonged. The worshipers were respectful but definitely on shpilkes (pins and needles) to get to work.
"Oy!" someone smacked his forehead in frustration. "Are we going to be late!"
That's when they heard the first explosion: the horrible blast that would forever shake their souls. They ran outside and saw the smoke, the chaos, the screaming crowds, the apocalypse that lay before them.
It should have been us. After the initial shock and horror, consciousness dawned on them quickly. They realized they had been rescued from the jaws of death. Each and every one of them worked in the Twin Towers. Each and every one of them was supposed to be there before nine. Had it not been for the elderly man and his slow-motion schacharis (morning services), they probably would have been killed.
They turned to thank him, this mystery man who had saved their lives. They wanted to hug him in effusive gratitude and find out his name and where he had come from on that fateful morning.
But they'll never know the answers to these questions that nag at them to this day-when they turned around to embrace him, the man was gone, his identity forever a mystery.