Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

A Friend... To Values
by Arthur Silber

Certain stories, almost mythic in nature, connect to our deepest values. For this reason, our response to them reveals our sense of life in a manner that most other events do not. I know that many people who identify themselves as Objectivists, to one degree or another, may not understand why I view the following story -- a true one -- as inspiring, and profoundly moving.

Abe Zelmanowitz was an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, New York, who worked in the World Trade Center. Although he died in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, his remains were only recently identified. He was just buried in Jerusalem. Mr. Zelmanowitz worked on the 27th floor of 1 World Trade Center, the second tower to collapse -- which means that he probably could have lived, had he chosen to leave the burning building. But he didn't. Instead, he stayed behind to remain with a paraplegic colleague, who was also his friend. He even urged his friend's full-time nurse to save herself, while he himself chose to comfort, and protect, his friend with his continued presence.

At Mr. Zelmanowitz's funeral, the story was told that, a few days before the attack, he attended a Sabbath lesson. The rabbi talked about sacrificing oneself for the love of God. Mr. Zelmanowitz asked the rabbi how a simple man, like him, could show his love of God. Apparently, he was not satisfied with the answer, for he asked the same question a few more times. He remained dissatisfied with the answers he received. As the person telling this story commented: "A few days later, he got the reply." In a tribute, one of Mr. Zelmanowitz's relatives said: "Our Uncle Avremel was…thrown into a fiery furnace, but his supreme act proclaimed to the world, that his God was a God of kindness, and he would not forsake Him. He gave his life in a totally selfless way to help another person, and sanctified the Name of God before all mankind."

Yes, I did indeed say that I view this story as inspiring and moving. I wish I had known Mr. Zelmanowitz. If I believed in God, and could pray to Him, I would pray to Him for this extraordinarily good, and strong, man. I wish only the best for his family and friends, and I wish most of all that these poor words somehow could comfort them, insufficient as they are for the task.

I don't care that Mr. Zelmanowitz himself might have viewed his act as a "selfless" one, one that he undertook to show his love of God. I don't care that he may have thought he stayed with his friend in an act of "selfless" caring for another person. People often say things that do not accurately reflect what their actions communicate. And what do Mr. Zelmanowitz's actions communicate? One thing, above all: his loyalty to his values and, more particularly, his loyalty to his friend and colleague, who could not fend for himself, and who would have been alone if Mr. Zelmanowitz had left him in that building. Alone -- in what undoubtedly were the most terrifying moments of his life.

We do not know, and we will never know, if those two men knew they were about to die. But surely they knew they were in great, perilous danger. Think of the story in the alternative: your friend's nurse has left, to save herself. And then you leave, and live. And for the rest of your days, you are tortured by the memory of what those last minutes must have been like for your friend, unable to try to save himself, and doomed to a horrifying death as 1 World Trade Center collapsed -- and alone. And you ask yourself: in the moments when it mattered most, what was my friendship worth? What, in the end, were my friend, and whatever comfort I could give him, worth to me? I chose my physical survival over the solace my presence might have provided my friend -- the knowledge that another human being cared enough about him to remain behind, in the fading hope that rescue might still arrive, the knowledge that he mattered so much that I, his friend, would risk my own life to stay with him.

Would I judge someone negatively for having left the building, and saving his own life? Of course not; it was an extraordinary emergency, and the normal rules don't apply. In such a situation, I would be hesitant to judge any response a person might have. But I do think this: Mr. Zelmanowitz's act was not a selfless one. It was the most selfish act imaginable. By his actions, Mr. Zelmanowitz declared: these are my values, this is my friend, and I will not desert him in his, and my, hour of greatest need. When it truly matters, even if no one -- or only God -- knows what I do, I will try to live up to my own highest ideals, and I will offer my friendship, my companionship, my caring, and my protection to my friend. And that is how much I love myself, that I will do this, even when I know how high the price might be, and that it might be the highest price of all.

Of course, I do not know any of the details of the rest of Mr. Zelmanowitz's life. I do not know how he treated his family, or his other friends, or whether he did his job well or poorly. Am I reading too much into the details of this news story? Perhaps. But on the basis of those details that are available about what Mr. Zelmanowitz did in the final minutes of his life -- and why he took the actions he did -- I feel confident in saying that, in those minutes, he was a truly noble man, a man who acted out of the most profound loyalty to the values he had chosen.

And, quite honestly, as to those Objectivists who don't understand what I'm talking about, I probably wouldn't want to know them. And I certainly wouldn't want them as my friends. But I would have liked to have been friends with Abe Zelmanowitz. It would have been an honor.

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