Trauma is a narrowing experience, tightening the focus down to one, as self-preservation gobbles up all psychic and mental energy. But there are some exceptional people who, even in the face of the unimaginable, maintain a broad pipeline of flowing love.
When Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Shimmy Biegeleisen was four floors above. A fire stood between him and exit to life. Shimmy called his wife, Miriam, to tell her he loved her, and charged a friend with taking care of his family. In the one hour that the tower still stood, Shimmy did everything he could to prolong his life, but also prepared for his death. “I’m not going to make it,” he told his friend. He discussed financial arrangements for his family and wishes for his children. In a voice hoarse from smoke inhalation, he recited the 24th Psalm which tells of G-d’s majesty and mastery of the world. The last words his family heard from Shimmy were, “Oh, G-d!”
In Jewish law, an agunah is a woman who is separated from her husband but cannot remarry, either because he won’t grant her a divorce or because it’s unknown whether he is alive or dead. Without a body, a rabbinic court must rule whether death can be assumed. Shimmy knew that if he didn’t call, no one would ever know for sure. In fact, in one of his phone calls during the brief hour he had to prepare for his death, Shimmy asked a friend to be his proxy in giving Miriam a divorce if his body wasn’t found.
These selfless acts of love are not the result of measured quiet moments, but of the true essence of Shimmy Biegeleisen shining through the smoke. Even confronting his own death, he turned his focus outward, to his wife and children. “Who will ascend upon the Lord's mount and who will stand in His Holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” At the top of World Trade Center, Shimmy’s heart was wholly with his family.
Mourning brings with it feelings of vulnerability and fear. We try to protect ourselves by building walls around our heart and soul. Sometimes these tight enclosures lead to bitterness and cynicism, and us off from G-d. Even mourning the loss of his own life, of the future he would not have as a husband and a father, Shimmy’s heart was open and facing G-d.
Based on the phone log, the rabbis were able to establish that Shimmy’s last words were uttered as the South Tower fell. His wife was declared a widow, and she and their children were able to gain the comfort of observing shiva.
"You gates, lift your heads, and lift up, you everlasting portals, so that the King of Glory may enter." As I sing the joyous concluding verse of Psalm 24 this Rosh Hashanah, I will think of Shimmy Biegeleisen, and turn to face G-d.