This changes everything

“Any yahrzeits this morning?” I inquired as we prepared to return the Torah to the Ark this past Monday morning.  Since nobody present had any, we continued with the service.  It was only as we concluded, that the date dawned on me.  Yes, of course, it was September 11 and nearly 3,000 people lost there lives on this day just sixteen short years ago.  A combination of present urgencies and the passage of time cause slippage in the prominence of the unforgettable trauma our nation endured on that crisp, clear day back in 2001.  Still, I regret forgetting to pray in their collective memory.

This year’s September 11 observances were faithfully honored and attended.  But the collective interest in pausing to re-enter that painful period seemed to have waned.  Perhaps one additional reason is particularly sobering.  We look back to the aftermath of that attack on America and we realize, sixteen years hence, how little progress we’ve made.  Back then the most common response to the suddenness and scope of the loss was,“This changes everything.”  Well, how much or how little has changed since then?

What changes us is related to why we change.  Do we change because of fear or because of love?  Within this week’s portions of Torah we find an appreciation for the difference.  Change that is caused by fear dissipates with the receding of the danger. The same is true of conditional love, evoking our Sages maxim: “If love depends upon a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the love” (Pirke Avot 5:19).  Conversely, change that is stirred by unconditional love is more likely to endure long after temporary urgencies and distractions.  This is why the Torah urges, “you shall return to your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 30:10).  Love-generated repentance also transcends self-interest.  Fear naturally focuses on the self, on the human urge for safety and self-preservation.  But love displaces self-transfixed trepidation by vectoring outward toward someone else. 

I vividly recall trying to offer pastoral care to a grief-stricken husband at Boston’s Logan Airport just hours after his wife’s plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  An official knocked on the door, “Sorry to interrupt, but the President is about to address the nation, would you like to come watch?”  The mourner quietly declined.  His terrible loss was not interested in history or leadership, it was immersed in love.  I imagine that those who personally lost loved ones sixteen years ago continue undiminished to vividly honor their yahrzeits with each passing year.

Tomorrow is my dear mother Betty Hamilton’s first yahrzeit.   Her gentle smile, her glowing heart, and her good soul, continue to warm within me and my family.  May her memory bless as her life blessed, for her life has taught just how true the Torah’s wisdom for love-motivated change really is.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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