Days of Awe
On the anniversary of September 11, I often rerun the column that I posted here in September 2001, after my visit to the City, a week later. Like many people, I’d felt shattered by the attack on Manhattan, which is my home town.
This week, however, that sad anniversary overlaps what are called in Jewish experience the ten Days of Awe. They run from Rosh ha Shana, New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the world’s creation 5782 years ago — I know, I know, let’s call it a metaphor — to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That’s the single holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It’s when you ask forgivenesss from anyone you may have harmed or offended – a forgiveness that your victim has an obligation to grant, if you show that you understand the nature of the injury and resolve not to do it again. Insofar as you have offended God, on that day you ask forgiveness from God directly. If God sees that your petition is sincere, there is mercy from On High as well.
It’s impossible for me to overlook this odd fact: these two anniversaries overlap and therefore ought to be acknowledged together. But I can’t see how in the world to do this. Perhaps my father can help. He was Henry M. Rosenthal (1906-1977), a rabbi in his youth, though later he became a philosophy professor. In January 1945, HMR wrote an essay titled “Prayer and Its Power”. Maybe it can provide some guidance. It begins like this:
“Man has been defined as a tool-making creature, and by some as the creature that speaks. He could also be defined as the creature that prays. Prayer is one of the activities that give man a status in the natural order that is incommensurate with the rest of it. … But prayer is a faculty that goes to the heart of the matter. If it is a faculty at all, it is one that touches the innermost reality of things, the secret stuff out of which the universe is built.”
HMR then lifts out three distinctive features belonging to prayer. First, prayer discovers us to be alive in the wide setting of the universe, “as the stage or the battle-ground on which the issues of life and death, of joy and sorrow, of truth and falsehood, of love and hate, of victory and defeat are fought out.” In this setting, prayer allows us to “enter a plea or an argument or to lend a hand to one or another of the contestants in these great issues.” So we pray to live, in order that we may take a hand in this contest, even though we know that “the law of average is, in the long run or the short run, against us. … Nevertheless, in peacetime, as in war, men have prayed for life. They have not had any sense of absurdity about it either. Life still seemed to them a good thing, whatever happened.”
In my column, I wrote this: I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled.
Beyond prayer’s being a petition for life, HMR sees sincerity as its second feature. “For sincerity, in the deeper sense, is one of the fundamental things, that one does not carry in one’s pocket. Sincerity, in this deeper sense, is a quality of the universe, as accuracy is a quality of a watch. We may go so far as to say that sincerity is the ‘purpose’ of the universe, as telling the time is the purpose of a watch. … This is perhaps the only true sense in which the universe is properly analogous to a watch: the moral direction of the universe is absolutely irreversible in the same way that time is. The sincerity of the universe consists in the fact that, morally speaking, it points in one direction only; and that is the direction of more life and greater love.
“Now, when we say prayer has to do with sincerity, what we mean is that when we pray we are seeking the direction of the universe. We are seeking the direction in which more life and greater love truly lie. That is what we are trying to do when we pray sincerely. In the deeper sense, we are making the effort to be sincere; we are seeking sincerity.”
I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. … But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.… Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street … the air was acrid, even inside the station. … Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off … National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work … without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone.
“The third principle of prayer is concentration.
“We are a very scattered people, on the whole; and the thing to do when we pray is to concentrate. Reality is a fragmentation bomb, is continuous detonation, and the present (and constant) state of our souls is the result. We are pretty much fragmentized. There is a fragment of suffering, a fragment of anxiety, a fragment of courage, and a fragment of hope; besides many other fragments, too numerous to mention; and some of them unmentionable in their own right. What we try to do when we pray is to concentrate. For ordinary human beings this is a very hard thing to do. We say, for ordinary human beings, because for fanatics it may be relatively easy. ‘Their minds are but a single thought.’ If it comes to that, the same may be true of the devil: his mind is but a single thought to do evil, but most of us are compounded of good and bad impulses. We are even compounded of different selves: there is the hopeful self, and the fearful self, the anxious self, the generous self, the mean self, the hateful self, and the loving self. They are at war with one another. With which one of these selves shall we pray? Which shall rule over the others?
“A man’s prayer will thus reflect his ‘dominant self,’ the part of him which is really ‘at the controls’ in the attempted take-off and flight of his spirit. It is a matter of coordination, but it is a matter of subordination too; and this double principle of co-ordination and subordination is what is called concentration.”
On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives. … The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.
I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.
“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV. … I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.”
I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”
The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.
The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.
Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.
On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.
So much for my day in the Big City.
Thank you, Johan.
A beautiful meditation, Abigail. The father and the daughter in communion. He was a very wise and perceptive man, that much is immediately clear, and that his spirit endures in you is clear as well. This dialogue across the years, encompassing the transcendent and the all too terribly earthly, is very poignant.