Where were you on September 11?

If you’re 21 years old and older, you probably remember exactly where you were on that dreadful day. Whether you were in New York or on the other side of the world, that moment in time stands frozen. But why? Why is this day, and that moment, etched in our memories?

Some may tell you it is because you lived a part of history. Others may say that it is because every one who wasn’t there, feels as if their life has been saved. And evidently, survivors who escape death, remember their miracle forever.

Yet, perhaps, there’s another, more profound, reason. September 11 did not just attack the tallest towers of the outside world, but it also threatened the innermost towers of inner being. Suddenly, life seemed so vulnerable. The achievements and ‘towers’ of our lives appeared so fragile. The creations and ‘buildings’ of our years on earth seemed so shatterable.

Interestingly, on the week of September 11, 2001, we read the Torah portion which speaks of the special mitzvah of “the first fruits”: If you owned land in Israel, and it was blessed with sweet fruits, you had to pick your first-ripened fruits, put them in a basket, and offer them to priests in the Holy Temple, to express your gratitude to G-d. But what did the landowners do with their basket? Did it go to the priest together with the fruit, or did they take it back home with them? It depends, the Talmud reveals. If the baskets were cheap and inexpensive, they were left in the Temple. If they were made of gold and silver, the landowners would keep them. But why? Isn’t a valuable basket a worthy offering too?

The lesson is profound: Baskets may be nice and flashy. But at the end of the day, baskets are only baskets. They come and go. And they certainly cannot substitute the fruit-offering itself.

Same with life. Our physical and conceptual baskets, our cars, our homes and our jobs, our buildings and towers, can be deceptive. They may be made of gold and silver, and can give us the sense that we are on top of the world, safe and secure. But we dare not loose sight of the fruits that we ought to plant, of the goodness that we ought to bring, of the sweetness that we ought to spread. For after all said and done, it is that fruit-offering that lives forever. In the words of Winston Churchill, “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” And as opposed to the fleeting baskets of life, these fruits of giving, can never be destroyed.

When we ask ourselves, “Where were we on September 11,” we ought to ask:

Where were we, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, on September 11? Where were our instincts and feelings on September 11? What did they awaken in us? Did they shake our perspective on the meaning — and vulnerability — of life? And did we change in any way?

18 years have passed, but the same questions remain: Have we developed? Have we rebuilt our ruins with towers of goodness and kindness? Have we produced real, lasting fruits?

The state of our nation, and our world, may have forever changed on that fateful day. But the direction of that change depends on you and me. Let us make it productive, “fruit-full”, and eternal.