Out of the depths I call You, O Lord.
O Lord, listen to my cry;
let Your ears be attentive
to my plea for mercy. (Psalm 130, JPS)
On this Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, we read Moses’ song in Ha’azinu, which coincides with the commemoration of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a day that lives in infamy. This is the Shabbat where words spoken find meaning in the context of death: in Moses’ song, in the final words of victims in burning buildings and hijacked planes, and in our words, yet to be spoken – as if they were spoken one day before our deaths (Pirke Avot 2:10-11).
When I read Moses’ song, the grand poem of parasha Ha’azinu, I also listen. I think that these last few chapters of Deuteronomy are as powerful as Torah gets because of their context. The dying Moses demands: “Ha’azinu! Give ear, heavens!” “Tishma! Listen, earth!” Moses does not offer confession of his shortcomings or ask for apologies and forgiveness. Moses does not waste words on self-pity as his death nears. Rather, Moses exhorts heaven and earth to bear witness to his penultimate speech to Israel during which he offers his witness to Israelite history and a rocky yet assured relationship with God. From the depths, Moses professes to Israel his faith in God through words he hopes reach nature, humanity and God. I hear not only Moses’ words, but also feel the sounds that make his words vibrate through his skeleton, sounds that could only flow from his soul.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Kenneth Cosgrove was on the 105th floor of Tower 2 at the World Trade Center when the planes struck. “Tell God to blow the wind from the west,” he said in a call to 911. “It’s really bad. It’s black. It’s arid. Does anyone else wanna chime in here? We’re young men. We’re not ready to die.”
Chilled by his conversation with a 911 operator who gave hollow assurances that help was on the way, I listened to Cosgrove’s voice grow in intensity, although he was increasingly struggling to breathe. He did not have enough breath to sound his words forcefully. Instead the sounds that would have vibrated through his skeleton, had he expressed them in safety, were muted by the choking smoke. Still, without that vibration, Mr. Cosgrove’s voice came from “out of the depths” and addressed man and God when we hear him say to the operator, “Tell God….” It was not one day before his death and the deaths of nearly 3,000 others murdered that day.
I do not know about Mr. Cosgrove’s faith, but while he had lost hope in the efficacy of human intervention, I would guess he no longer believed God could or would hear him in his desperation. We do hear the operator continue to assure him that the fire department was doing its best to rescue him. Whether these words from Psalm 146 occurred to Mr. Cosgrove, he knew their truth:
Put not your trust in the great,
in mortal man who cannot save.
His breath departs;
he returns to the dust;
on that day his plans come to nothing. (Psalm 146, JPS)
It is then that Mr. Cosgrove instructs the operator, “Tell God to blow the wind from the west….” Somehow in that confusion, he had calculated that a west wind would save him and his partner. I wondered again about Mr. Cosgrove’s faith and whether a passage from Jonah occurred to him: “And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, ‘I would rather die than live (Jonah 4:8).'”
Cosgrove’s words: “We’re young men. We’re not ready to die.” Mr. Cosgrove asked God to blow the wind from the west, not from the east. Was this his way of saying he would rather live than die?
This Shabbat Shuva we hear Hosea’s prophesy: “Take words with you; and return to the Lord. Say to Him: ‘Forgive all guilt. And accept what is good….'”
We do not know what will be with us; we cannot identify the one day before our death, nor could Moses or Mr. Cosgrove. In his diminishing days, Moses delivered his words admonishing Israel but also welcoming Israel’s return to God. In Mr. Cosgrove’s final moments, he desperately wants God’s compassion. He wants his words to let God know that he wants to live.
I suggest that the concurrence of Shabbat Shuvah, Moses’ song in Ha’azinu, and the commemoration of 9/11 is an unusual opportunity to plan our teshuva. With what intensity will we approach teshuva? We do not have to be aware of our final days, be in a burning building, or descend to watery depths before we translate what is inside our souls into words. The keys to our souls do not have to be other peoples’ stories. Our own stories and voices can unlock our souls – but only if we urge ourselves to listen. When we pray from the mahzor or offer personal prayers, may our words “resonate” and rattle within us sufficiently to call on heaven and earth to “forgive all guilt. And accept what is good.”
Shabbat shalom and g’mar hatima tovah!