A Fullest Emptiness

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Late morning, May 11, 2005, lower Manhattan. Rachel and Debbie are inside Century 21, shopping for deep discount designer clothing. I’m across the street standing in front of the World Trade Center, or what once was the World Trade Center. I weep and davven there, praying and gripping the metal fence like a caged wolf on the outside wanting in. I want in – to walk the halls of this vast empty, urban canyon. I want in – to walk between what remains of the substructure and foundation descending three, four, five stories below ground level. I want to walk, if it is possible, within the essence of memory itself – to the very place where heaven meets hell on earth.

The cavern left by the removal of debris from the Twin Towers is the fullest emptiness I have ever experienced. Years ago at the Grand Canyon I was awed by the emptiness that defines the span between the majestic canyon walls. But the site of the Twin Towers is different. This is not majestic. It is not an empty emptiness like the Canyon, but, rather an emptiness filled with ghosts, memories of steel, concrete, and glass that once was, no longer is, and yet somehow remains. The air itself, the sky itself, seems to remember what was once there. The Towers remain – they remain and live in memory, catastrophic memory. They remain in the empty chairs in thousands of homes where children who call the name of a dead parent are answered only by memory, family stories, legends, home videos, CNN reports, and scrapbooks. And if I listen, listen between the voices of life on the streets around me now, I can hear, actually hear the emptiness itself.

A few nights earlier, I was in a Brooklyn bar listening to some great live jazz when I realized how much good living, holy living, really is like the needle of a record sitting in the groove. But what I hadn’t realized until I arrived at the site of the Twin Towers was that as a record in a record player turns, the needle is perfectly still. To be in the groove means to stand in total stillness while the record around you spins. The turntable turns, the record revolves, but the point of contact requires total stillness. To be in the groove requires a complete balance between stillness and movement, between diamond and vinyl. For the needle to do its work of reading the engraved cuts within the grooves, it must be still.

Just like us. To read what Hashem has engraved in nature, in our own lives, or in the emptiness of what once was the Twin Towers, we can’t be turning. We can’t be moving to get out of the way, or to get somewhere else. We have to remain in place. Totally in place. Perfectly in place. It is difficult to be still when I want to weep for those whose lives were lost. It is difficult to be still when I want to pray for a future free of terror. So I say my prayers, chant the Amidah, say kaddish, and then enter the silence. Silence in lower Manhattan is not an oxymoron. It is an honor.

I’m sure there are other great canyons, but there is something singular about the Grand Canyon. I’m sure there are many places of great emptiness where life has been destroyed, but there is something singular about the Twin Towers. Each of us contains within us something singular as well. Our fate is to find out what it is, and then face it with thanksgiving and hope, and then stand before ourselves and our God in silence.

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