Ground Zero

Ground Zero
On the end of Monuments

. . .Abbaye said, “there is not less than thirty six righteous persons in each generation who receive the Shekhinah [the inner presence of Godliness] . . .

Is this so? Has not Rava said that the row before the Holy One is comprised of eighteen thousand, as it is said, “surrounding are eighteen thousand?”
— Sanhedrin 97b

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would enter the Holy of Holies where he would perform the rituals of ketoret or mixing of the spices.

— from Ketoret, the Neve Shalom Machzor

These are some of the rituals at Ground Zero.

I saw them first in New York City when I attended a conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, discussing the aftermath of 9/11 as a mental health disaster. It was not a part of the conference schedule to visit Ground Zero. I had to see it. I asked my friend who lives downtown if he would take me there. It was November 11, 2001.

We took the subway down to Fulton Street. It was almost midnight. They were still cleaning out the subway and fortifying its walls. It was dusty in the subway corridors and overhead I could discern the reinforcements in the ceiling and on the walls.

We walked up out onto Fulton Street and a short distance to the site. Though it was past midnight, there were quite a few people in the area. On the site itself, we could see the iron workers finishing up their welding for the night, but the lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center.

From a distance, I could see the crude natural memorial of the terrible disaster: the piece left of the aboveground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers calling “the potato chip.” It didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and it looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned, all at the same time.

It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both the horrific destruction and the heroic aftermath of inspiration and courage. It embodied both ruin and reach.

I was drawn to get a clearer look at this beautiful terrible remnant. We walked 360 degrees around the site, and on the west side, facing New Jersey, we stopped in front of one of the spontaneous shrines that appeared all around what once was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

There was an old man kneeling in front of this particular shrine, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up the altar on a wooden fence. We stood there next to him for a while, all of us reading the stories given in pictures and words, prayers from children to their parents, letters from parents to their children, lovers to lovers, friend to friend, each story an entire world.

It was then, that moment, in front of one of many spontaneous shrines, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of three thousand broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a set of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.

All of a sudden, next to the shrine where we stood, opened a section of the wooden fence, and out rolled one of the trucks laden with debris from the site. The gates remained open and we were granted one of the few clear visions into the Ground Zero ruin. We were all standing now, looking past the shrine, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks lumbering out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then the old man now standing next to me said, “so began the age of fear.”

My friend and I continued to circle the site, walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both heroic and horrific that loomed over us, reflecting the stadium lights that shined after dark, the truest symbol I had seen of the now altered sense of the world, the Age of Fear, a remnant in metal of what it feels like in the aftermath of disaster.

There were still dozens of people walking with us. No one was sightseeing. I felt like we were all on a holy pilgrimage, praying with our feet, circling the ruin that rose in the distance, the last remnant of the skeleton, a totem in the massive graveyard that the World Trade Center had become. It stuck in the site like a tombstone, a monument inspiring in me not vengeance, but awe, respect, quietude, determination, endurance, and hope.

It was close to three AM by the time we headed back. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air then; what was that smell? Was it acrid, was it sweet, was it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Was it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption, was that the feeling — descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful not in opposition, but bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy — symbolized by the broken cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building?

I recognized the feeling, it was a form of mourning. It was the quality of brokenness when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure. It was the deep knowledge of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.

jsg, usa