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Four Things I Learned on 9/11



Four Things We Learned on 9/11\
In Commemoration of the Tenth Anniversary
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation, Columbia, Maryland


Shabbat Shalom


            The story is told about two small boys who were constantly disruptive in Sunday school. Their parents did nothing to correct the children. The teacher, at his wits end, appealed to the pastor who agreed to have the boys brought to his office if the boys were again disruptive. 

            Sure enough the boys showed up to class, laughing and pushing and making paper planes out of their assignment sheets. As agreed, the teacher brought the boys to the office outside the pastor’s study. 

            The pastor called the first boy into his study. “Billy,” he said kindly,” Do you know where God is?” Billy uncharacteristically held his hands politely in his lap and remained silent. Wanting the boy to realize that he was in God’s house and should behave accordingly, the pastor asked again, “Tell me, Billy, do you know where God is?” Billy kept his eyes fixed on his shoes and did not answer. The pastor sighed and said, “Billy, I’m going to ask you one more time, do you know…” 

            At that, Billy jumped up, ran out the door, grabbed his brother and yelled, “Let’s get out of here!” They ran all the way home and up the stairs to their bedroom. Billy locked their door before Billy’s brother got out, “What happened? What did the pastor say?” A winded Billy replied, “Quick let’s hide! God is missing and the pastor thinks we hid Him!”  


Sometimes it does feel like God is missing. Ten years ago on 9/11 was one of those days. It was a day which seemed to grant evil a brief triumph. 2,819 people were killed in the Twin Towers, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. An estimated 1,600 people lost a spouse; 3,000 children were left without a parent. Hundreds of thousands are still suffering from complications contracted that day and during the search and rescue that followed. Rescuers continue to die from the poisons they breathed in, one just the other week. I know because I receive my father’s New York City Fire department email, including its funeral notices.

We may have wondered that morning why God didn’t stop the terrorists that day. My friends, God doesn’t work like that. At least God hasn’t worked like that since the Israelites left the wilderness to enter the Promised Land. Since then, God has worked through us.

Where was God on 9/11? God was in the feet of all those individuals who stopped running for their own lives to help the people around them also get to safety. God was in the hands of every individual who rushed to the Towers that day to save others. God was in all the quirky things that limited casualties to a horrific 2,819 rather than the thousands more victims initially estimated when the Towers first fell, the Pentagon was hit and the plane went down in a Pennsylvania field. God was in the hearts of all those who volunteered their time to search and rescue, all those who supported and counseled them and the survivors, and all those who immediately wrote checks without first figuring out whether or not they could afford to.

 We are God’s hands in the world. My friends, God is present when we make God present in how we help each other.


            So how do we make the most of being God’s hands in the world? I would suggest that the answer is found in four simple things we learned on 9/11. Four things we promised ourselves we would never forget, yet despite our best intentions, faded from our minds and hearts as the months and years passed. I think it is worthwhile, therefore, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, that we spend a few moments, considering not the grand theological questions raised by this tragedy, but the things we learned and promised we would never forget.      


            The first thing we learned on 9/11 was to hold our loved ones close and not take them for granted. That night we hugged our children tighter, kissed our spouses in a way we perhaps had not for years, reached out to our parents, our siblings, our closest friends, our fellow congregants. We realized we never know what tomorrow may bring so we should not waste the time we have today on petty squabbles or fleeting concerns that undermine our relationships with those we love.  

The second thing we learned on 9/11 was that we are all Israelis. The same Islamist fundamentalists who want to destroy Israel want to destroy America. Terrorism knows no borders. The Arab Spring and Summer does not change that.

            The third thing we learned on 9/11 was that personal choices carry international implications. Oil money funded the Saudi schools that taught (and continue to teach) the kind of radical, fundamentalist Islam that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his ilk. As my firefighter father says, every light we turn off when we leave a room, every gallon of gas we save helps fight terrorism. 

            The fourth thing we learned on 9/11 is that so many of the things we spend our days being upset about are really not important. 9/11 reminded us not to sweat the small stuff, not because everything is small stuff but because the small stuff should not get in the way of the stuff that really matters: our family, our faith, our nation, our People. We also learned that one never knows when a little inconvenience can turn out to be a small miracle in disguise. 

            Listen to this poem, “Lessons from 9/11: The ‘Little’ Things,” by that famous poet, Anonymous: 


As you might know, the head of a major company survived the tragedy of “9/11” in New York because his son started kindergarten.

Another fellow was alive because it was his turn to bring donuts.

One woman was late because her alarm clock didn’t go off in time.

One was late because of being stuck on the NJ Turnpike because of an auto accident.

One of them missed his bus.

One spilled food on her clothes and had to take time to change.

One’s car wouldn’t start.

One went back to answer the telephone.

One had a child that dawdled and didn’t get ready as soon as he should have.

One couldn’t get a taxi.

The one that struck me was the man who put on a new pair of shoes that morning, took the various means to get to work but before he got there, he developed a blister on his foot. He stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid. That is why he is alive today.

Now when I am stuck in traffic…
miss an elevator…
turn back to answer a ringing telephone…
all the little things that annoy me…
I think to myself…
this is exactly where God wants me to be at this very moment.

The next time your morning seems to be going wrong,
the children are slow getting dressed,
you can’t seem to find the car keys,
you hit every traffic light…
don’t get mad or frustrated;
God is at work watching over you.

May God continue to bless you with all those annoying little things – and may you remember and appreciate their possible purpose.


            “Don’t get mad or frustrated; God is at work watching over you.” It is not great, or even, good theology. But it is a good lesson for living a life that matters. God works through us in how we help others and in how we help ourselves by remembering to hold our precious loved ones close, to stand united against evil as a nation and in the little things we can do, and by not letting the small stuff get in the way of appreciating the blessings a dawdling child or a traffic jam can hold.  

            These are the things we learned on 9/11. These are the things we swore we would never forget. On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, let us remember these lessons. Let us live our lives more richly and meaningfully because of them, every day, not just today or tomorrow. And let us do everything we can to build the kind of world in which we never have to face another 9/11 again. And let us say, Amen