YK Sermon II 2020
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
On Sept. 23, 2001, a most unusual event took place in Yankee Stadium in New York City. There was a five hour long memorial service with Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones serving as co-hosts, with the participation of rabbis, ministers, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop, the Imam of the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, as well as Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders. New York’s then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, spoke, as did the then-Governor George Pataki. Placido Domingo, Bette Midler, and Lee Greenwood sang. The service was broadcast in its entirety on what were then considered the “four major TV networks”: CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It was originally planned to be held in Central Park but so soon after 9/11, the security implications of an event that might be attended by a million or more people quickly led to the service being moved to the more-controlled environs of Yankee Stadium, and tickets were given primarily to the families of those who were killed or missing. Contemporaneous news coverage of the service refers to the 6,000 people presumed dead or missing, which was what was believed to be the number at the time; it was not until much later that we learned that the true number of those killed was actually just under 3,000, including those who died at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA.
Today we are in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 people in the United States so far with no end in sight. To put this in terms of the 9/11 death toll, this is 67 9/11s and we add another 9/11 every four days. When the death toll reached 100,000 many newspapers ran feature sections with the stories of some of those who had died, but the 200,000 milestone which was reached this week received much less attention. There are many reasons for this, of course; the presidential election, the passing of Justice Ginsburg, tropical storms, and other stories competed for attention. There is also a large element of fatigue -- we are all tired of the virus, but unfortunately the virus is not tired of us.
When I went back to read the coverage of the interfaith memorial service at Yankee Stadium, it was jarring to read the estimates of 6,000 dead in the 9/11 attacks. Some of those who were assumed dead were later found elsewhere; others had not come to work that day, were waiting for elevators in the lobbies of the Twin Towers when the first plane struck, or were otherwise not present and didn’t even realize that they were among those assumed to be killed. Why was there a rush to hold a memorial service before the number of dead was even known and while rescue and recovery work continued at Ground Zero?
But the need to ritualize mourning is, I think, if not quite universal then almost so. When my mother died three years ago, she wanted no funeral or memorial service of any kind. But neither my brother, who is an active Unitarian, nor I, found ourselves able to fully comply with her wishes. I said Kaddish for 11 months and held a shiva minyan at the synagogue. My brother arranged for a memorial service at his Unitarian congregation after scattering her ashes at the New Jersey shore. I am sure that in specifying that there be no services, my mother was trying to relieve us from the burden of arranging them. But she unwittingly left us with a different type of burden; a circle of grief that was not fully closed.
We are of course all aware of the terrible toll of this pandemic. Not only 200,000 plus lives lost but millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in economic activity, businesses closed, lifecycle events cancelled, and years of education lost. And many of the millions who have been sickened by the virus but did not die from it have had and will continue to have all kinds of medical issues known and unknown.
We can calculate losses in numbers of deaths and in dollars but there are other losses, less tangible but no less real. For many of us, the fear of dying alone is one of the greatest fears we have. And yet, because of coronavirus restrictions which are quite necessary and proper, thousands of people have died alone, without their loved ones nearby to hold their hand and just be with them as they face the unknown.
Because of the pandemic, travel is restricted -- sometimes by law, other times by the precautions that people quite naturally take in the face of a highly contagious and deadly disease. In our mobile society, many of us have relatives all over the country if not the globe. When a parent dies and is going to be buried several hundred miles away, should their adult child risk their own health and that of the rest of their family to fly there for the funeral? Do they stay home and participate at a distance on Zoom? Will there even be a Zoom? I officiated at a Zoom funeral towards the beginning of the pandemic, and the spotty data coverage at the cemetery combined with the high winds that created background noise, made the Zoom feed almost useless for the friends and family who were not permitted to be at the cemetery.
One of the virtues of traditional Jewish mourning rituals is that they give us a roadmap and a schedule. From the time the death occurs until the funeral you are exempt from all ritual requirements and don’t even count for a minyan -- which means you don’t yet say Kaddish, for example. From the time of the funeral for seven days you don’t leave your house, you don’t go to work, the minyan comes to you. But what do you do if the funeral is delayed for several days, a week, or even longer -- as was quite common at the beginning of the pandemic? What significance does it have to stay in your house for seven days when you haven’t left your house for months? What does it mean for the minyan to come to you when it’s been coming to you over Zoom since mid-March?
Our individual mourning has become so complicated because much of what we would normally do either cannot be done, or ironically enough, is precisely what we are doing already as part of our day-to-day lives in this time period. Our national mourning is even more complicated.
While I was struck by the fact that we had what was to all intents and purposes a national memorial service for 9/11 even before all the victims were found and the number of dead known, 9/11 was a discrete event. It happened, it was over, and we knew who was responsible. We had a president who understood that one of their most important roles is to serve as “consoler in chief,” to bring our country together and unify us in times of trouble. We do not have unity today. Everything about this pandemic has become politicized and partisan-- whether to wear a mask or not, whether to observe physical distancing or not, whether children get the disease and spread it to others, whether we can trust that the vaccine which does not yet exist will be safe and effective once it is distributed.
The same Jewish tradition that provides us a roadmap for mourning also recognizes that sometimes that roadmap needs to be adjusted due to circumstances we can’t control. If a funeral has to be delayed, we begin shiva when the body is given over to the custody of those who will perform the burial. If we did not learn of a death until 30 days or more has passed, we sit shiva for only one hour. While at times I have given congregants advice based on these specific rulings, the point is, the tradition recognizes that we do what we can and that is sufficient in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those we have lost.
God asks us on Yom Kippur what we are going to do now. How will we move forward? We are left mourning national losses to COVID, and left mourning the life we had before COVID. Mourning a life of social interaction, travel, and interpersonal supports. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to acknowledge those losses, as well as associated personal regrets, by refraining from such activities as bathing, eating or drinking. Just like with the restrictions we face during COVID, our body is uncomfortable during Yom Kippur; by feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain. And we can seek comfort in the fact that God has faith in us that we can indeed move forward through tragedies such as 9/11 and the Pandemic.
May the memory of those we have lost inspire us to live always by our highest ideals.