Michael Bernstein

Lights Pointed Upward: A Rabbi’s Reflections on September 11th and Psalm 27


Twin beams of light once more point into the sky above Lower Manhattan.  The eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th comes with a renewed focus on those who perpetrate violence in the name of Islam.  While most Americans were unaware of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden on September 10th, 2001, the terrorist organization claiming the name Islamic State has already made sure to burn its image into the consciousness of our country and most of the world.  It is hard to find words to convey the atrocities  committed by IS. At the same time, it is genuinely difficult to measure how much the depth of their cruelty translates into a direct threat to the United States, Israel or other targets outside of their regional hegemony.   The upshot is a feeling very similar to those fall days thirteen years ago: Fear.

Fear that as devastating an assault as occurred on that Tuesday in September, as heartbreaking the murder of nearly 3000 people and the countless lives upended, it could be just the beginning.  Fear that something fundamental to our lives as Americans could be lost.  Fear that a relentless and cruel enemy, one that particularly despises Jews, would continue to wreak havoc.   And now, in the wake of IS’s murders of journalists and inflicting of widespread terror, the same questions return to the fore.

Of course, these are also the days of Elul, the days leading to the New Year and the Season of Awe.  During this time, the words of Psalm 27 are repeated daily.  “Adonai, the LORD, is my light and my sustenance, Whom shall I fear?” While read often as a rhetorical question — we shall fear no one.  We have G*d to sustain us — the Psalm touches on distressing and poignant images of real fears.  Enemies coming to devour us, lies being spread by malicious forces, feeling abandoned and alone.  How are these fears transformed to hope?

The answer comes along with a reminder of the most powerful images from that terrible day when so much was lost. As my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula wrote recently, the last words recorded from those doomed to die in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or aboard the four hijacked flights “heroically witnessed a yearning to love and the faith that love ultimately swallows up death.” (And CLICK TO HEAR these set to the haunting melody of Lamentations)  So too does the Psalmist, though he speaks of G*d’s shelter and protection, makes his “one request from Adonai: to live in the House of Adonai gazing upon the beauty of Adonai, being at home in G*d’s Holy Place… all the days of my life.”

The power of seeking love, knowing that one has something to live for, does not counter every threat or prevent fear, but allows me to lift myself out of fear’s grip and, in the final words of the Psalm, “strengthen [my] heart with courage, direct hope toward Adonai.”  Just as the twin beams of light, so too may our “light and sustenance” be pointed to a higher place so that despair can be overcome by hope and fear swallowed by love.

Chazak V’Amatz Libecha, Kaveh El Adonai

Strengthen Your Heart and Hope in Adonai

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.