Heroes and Defining Moments: Rosh Hashanah and 9/11

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who shall live, and who shall die…
Who shall live out the full measure of their days,
and who shall not…
		
                                From the High Holy Day prayer book
	
I know we’re going to die. Some of us are going to do something about it.
 
		Tom Burnett, a passenger of United Flight 93 
		on September 11, 2001, speaking to his wife on
		the telephone from the airplane
 
Are you guys ready?  Let’s roll...
 
		Todd Beamer, another passenger on Flight 93
 

 

IN THE JEWISH YEAR, AT NO TIME IS OUR FATE MORE ON OUR MINDS than during the Days of Awe. The High Holy Days take note of life’s uncertainty. The words we recite in prayer echo age-old concerns.

From earliest times, man turned to religion in his quest to overcome the fear of such uncertainty, inventing rituals to stave off the dread of things beyond his control. For their own seeming ability to triumph over uncertainty, elite athletes have long been held in high esteem, the rare breed among us achieving that elusive victory. In the world of sport one confronts an uncertain outcome, and in victory, the best of competitors seem to defy fate. Is there a more compelling image than Michael Jordan releasing the shot that clinched the 1999 NBA Championship and closed his professional career (or so we believed at the time, picturing our hero riding off into the sunset), the epitome of the athlete imposing his will on life’s uncertain stage? Larger than life, such heroes seem to lend to all of us a feeling of being in control, if only for the briefest moment.

But every once in a while, reality supersedes symbolism, and real heroes, performing real tasks, take center stage. And while real-life heroes may not always defy fate and walk away with trophies, they truly stand up to it in a manner that compels our attention. It happened one fall Tuesday, when events changed a country in ways beyond our imagination. In its burden of grief, a people found heroes more important than athletes. It found them in smoke-filled stairwells of the World Trade Center. And it found them in the air at 30,000 feet. Actually, there were athletes involved. We just didn’t know it at the time.

On one of the hijacked planes, it turns out, there was a two-time NCAA rugby champ, a college baseball player, a national collegiate judo champion, and a former high school football star. And there were others who were pretty serious in their own recreational athletic pursuits.

 

In his book Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back, New York Times reporter Jere Longman wrote that “upon conducting more than 300 interviews, I came to realize that the passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93 were…people who were on top of their game, who kept score in their lives and who became successful precisely because they…knew how to make a plan and carry it out.”

 

There were people, noted Longman, who could assess a situation and work in teams. People who were fiercely competitive and hated to lose. People who knew how to exercise patience and think ahead. Unflappable people who had learned to stay calm under pressure, people who didn’t submit meekly to anything. People with a keen sense of planning and preparation, undaunted by a challenge and ready to face adversity, even when it presented a threat to their security. Qualities one would expect to find among seasoned athletes.

 

One passenger “had a special ability to make you rise above yourself and be the best part of what you could be,” a friend told Longman. The husband of another passenger reflected on the democracy of it all: “They gathered information, they did reconnaissance, they submitted their plan to a vote. They were ordinary citizens thrown into a combat situation. They said, ‘We’re probably not going to make it, but let’s save others.’”

 

“At times like this, sports are trivial,” Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly observed some days later. “But what the best athletes can do – keep their composure amid chaos, form a plan when all seems lost and find the guts to carry it out – may be why the Capitol isn’t a charcoal pit.”

 

Up until September 11, says Longman, “passengers were (discouraged from assisting) the crew in the rare case of an airplane hijacking. That all changed with the brave insurrection of the passengers and crew members aboard United Flight 93…. Many crucial questions about the final minutes of the flight remain unanswered, but it is clear the passengers and crew acted with heroic defiance. They accomplished what security guards and military pilots and government officials could not – they impeded the terrorists, giving their lives and allowing hundreds or thousands of others to live.”

With the hijackers at the controls as the Newark-to-San Francisco flight took a sharp turn southward somewhere near Cleveland, a plan was being hatched. “We’re going to throw (boiling) water on (the terrorists) and try to take the airplane back,” flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw relayed to her husband back home. “We just had breakfast and we have our butter knives,” Jeremy Glick said to his wife, Lyz, apparently rising to the moment with his wit intact as well as his courage. These brave people had decided to take charge, to wrest control back from the terrorists, or at the very least to prevent them from succeeding in their diabolical scheme.

The Philistines had taken Samson captive, and put him in shackles, and gouged out his eyes. And the princes of the Philistines gathered to offer sacrifices to their gods and to rejoice, saying, “Our gods have given Samson the enemy into our hands.” And as it pleased them, they called for Samson to be brought from the prison to amuse them. There were some 3,000 people on the roof, waiting to laugh at Samson. And Samson grasped the two middle pillars upon which the building rested, and prayed, “O Lord, give me strength this one last time to avenge myself upon the Philistines.” And Samson toppled the columns, saying, “Let me die with the Philistines,” and the house fell upon all who were in it.

                                                         (Judges 16:21-30)

Speaking at a memorial for the crew and passengers of Flight 93 at the site of the crash three days later, Pennsylvania Governor (and later Director of Homeland Security) Tom Ridge said that by fighting back, these courageous people had “undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in the process….They sacrificed themselves for others – the ultimate sacrifice. What appears to be a charred smoldering hole in the ground is truly and really a monument to heroism.”

 

Although there is no way to know exactly what happened, says Longman, “what does appear certain is that the passengers and crew acted with heroic purpose. The hijackers attempted to scare the passengers into docility by warning that they had a bomb on the plane. In the end, though, it was the passengers who unnerved the hijackers.”

When the German army began its annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto, some Jews, despite enormous odds, took up arms. On the first evening of Passover, April 19, 1943, more than 2,000 well-armed German troops broke through into the Ghetto with tanks. Armed only with light weapons, a few hundred Jews fought back, inflicting sizeable losses upon the Nazis. The Jews proved to the entire world that it was possible to resist with pride and courage.

During those days, Warsaw Ghetto uprising leader Mordechai Anilewicz wrote to a friend: “Something has happened that is beyond our wildest dreams….The Germans ran away from the ghetto twice. I cannot describe to you the conditions under which the Jews are living. All will perish sooner or later. Our fate is sealed….but I have been fortunate enough to see the Jewish defense of the ghetto in all its grandeur.

                                         (Lionhearts: Heroes of Israel)

 

 

Adds Longman: “They set out that morning as businessmen and businesswomen, students, vacationers….In the final desperate minutes, they were all trying to get home safely to their families….They were scared, but they did not let fear overwhelm them. They knew the odds were slim, but they retaliated with valor and prevented the terrorists from reaching their target. At a time…when the United States appeared defenseless against an unfamiliar foe, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 provided the solace of defiance. They fought back, bringing a measure of victory to unthinkable defeat.”

Practice the way you want to play

“The thing holding me together is knowing the person Todd was on his easy days was the person he was on his hardest day,” said Lisa Beamer of her husband, a passenger of Flight 93. Many Americans learned that the same thing is true of the fire fighters and other first responders who rise to the occasion day after day, as so many of them did on that fateful morning. It is a quality shared by the best in all walks of life. Michael Jordan, the consummate athlete and as fierce a competitor as there is, was known for showing as much intensity in practice as on game day. How different the attitude shown by someone like Allen Iverson, a gifted athlete, but one who sneers at practice as something for other people.

 

How different the attitude of the corporate leaders who, like Iverson, scoff at the rules they consider beneath them. Leaders of Enron, Tyco, Worldcom – pampered executives cashing in on millions in stock options to build luxury homes and indulge their fancies while their own employees saw their retirement savings vanish. Different, indeed, from the spirit of self-sacrifice that moved firefighters to rush into the burning towers of downtown Manhattan to save lives while all about them were rushing out of those same buildings. Unlike some over-indulged athletes and captains of industry, these modestly paid civil servants embodied the loftiest qualities of the human spirit. These were America’s heroes on September 11 and in the days that followed.

The experience of (concentration) camp life shows that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples of…men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

                             Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl,

                             psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor

“Time to step up to the plate,” is how Todd Beamer had put it.

In 1995, Aaron Feuerstein stepped up to the plate when the largest fire in Massachusetts history destroyed his textile mill. At age 70, he could have accepted $300 million in insurance money and retired to a comfortable life, or rebuilt overseas, where labor costs are far cheaper. But he spent the $300 million and borrowed another $100 million to rebuild the mill, insuring that his 3,400 employees would keep their livelihood. Taking the additional step of paying his workers their salaries for two months after the fire, to the tune of $25 million, Feuerstein came to be known as The Mensch of Malden Mills. “I think it was a wise business decision, but that isn’t why I did it,” he told Sixty Minutes’ Morley Safer. “I did it because it was the right thing to do. And what would I do with the money? Eat more? Buy another suit?” Quoting the Torah in Hebrew (“Lo ta’ashok sakhir – You shall not take advantage of the laborer in need” Deuteronomy 24:14), he explained. “You are not permitted to oppress the working man because he’s poor and needy, amongst your brethren and amongst the non-Jew in your community.”

In his introduction to the book Lionhearts: Heroes of Israel, a profile of fighters who gave their lives in service to Israel and the Zionist cause, editor Michael Bar-Zohar dedicated the book

…to the spirit of the fighters, to the qualities of volunteering, self-sacrifice for one’s fellow man, utmost courage and nobility, without which a nation cannot exist. In these present days, characterized by the pursuit of material wealth, the preference of private interests over public ones…we should remember that terms like “patriotism,” “sacrifice” and “courage” are not just empty slogans but the expression of noble qualities and feelings of which one should be proud.

In a speech he gave to the employees of his company shortly before his death, Tom Burnett, one of the heroes of Flight 93, said: “What we accomplish in life, our pursuits, our passions, echo in posterity through our children, our neighbors, and in our souls.”

 

One visitor to the crash site of Flight 93 remarked: “Just the thought of people on an airplane saying, ‘We’re not going to let these guys get away with this,’ makes you want to live your life better than you had been.”

To want to live your life better than you have been, to leave a legacy in your own lifetime, to step up to the plate when it matters – this is not only the message of these sacred autumn days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and 9/11 – but carried on the clear, piercing blasts of the shofar, cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a Jew.