Anticipating the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on our country, I began to look back through pieces I had written in the first days and weeks after that tragedy. I have reproduced below remarks that I offered at a memorial service on 9/14/01.
“In Jewish tradition, the rhythm of our scriptural calendar brought us this week to the portion of the Torah called Nitzavim: Chapters 29 and 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses speaks to the Israelites at the very end of their forty years of wandering, preparing them for what will follow their crossing over into the Promised Land. They, like us, are poised on the threshold of a new world, radically different than what they have known before. They do not know what to expect, how they will cope with a new reality. Through Moses, God says to them:
See, I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life– that you and your children may live––by loving Adonai your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deut. 3O:19-20)
It always comes down to making choices, every day, every hour, every minute of our lives. On September 11, innocent choices…to leave for work early, to catch a later flight…meant the difference between life and death. Those who masterminded and executed this horrific act of terror made choices as well, consciously and callously choosing evil. The selfless individuals who pursued careers in the fire, police, or emergency services departments made choices which were life-affirming and life-saving. We honor their sacrifices, pray for the recovery of those who were injured and mourn with the loved ones of those who perished trying to save others. We are diminished by their deaths but heartened by the legacy of courage they have left behind.
We who stand at a remove from this disaster, who have felt the shock waves wash over us as we begin to hear more and more stories of victims connected to people we know…we have choices to make as well. Will we choose to succumb to anger, fear, and anxiety? Or will we choose the response which affirms life–holding fast to God–as we strive to create a world established firmly on justice, a world in which scape-goating and suspicion have no role to play, in which innocent choices will not become deadly choices.
A story is told of a rabbi who had a student who felt that he had been humiliated. Seeking to embarrass the rabbi in front of his fellow students, he took a small bird and hid it cupped in his hands. Confronting the rabbi he said, “Tell me, rabbi…if you are so wise, is this bird alive or dead?” Had the rabbi said “Alive”, the student would have crushed it; had he said “Dead”, the student planned to open his hands and release the bird. Either way, he felt he would have succeeded in humiliating his teacher.
“So tell me, rabbi,” said the student. “Is the bird alive or dead?”
“That, my son, is in your hands to decide.”
The choice to move forward, to courageously confront a world forever altered by this week’s events, is in our hands. May we choose wisely.”
The intervening decade that has elapsed since I wrote those words has not given me much cause for hope. Our nation is still engaged in two deadly, costly wars whose ostensible purpose is to keep us safe from Islamic terror; the recent slaughter of innocents in Oslo, fueled by anti-Muslim fanaticism, suggests that the legacy of 9/11 is still yielding the most bitter of fruits.
As I anticipate the arrival of 9/11/11, the tenth anniversary of a day seared in our collective memory, I retain the very same anxieties I experienced ten tears ago…that our desire to honor the lives lost in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA will be subsumed by a call to a “patriotism” that shields us from complex realities; that the long-smoldering fires of vengeance, only partly-appeased by the death of Osama bin Laden, will be stoked again into white-hot flame; that the infinitely complex lives of the thousands who died will, once again, be manipulated in the name of something that is the very antithesis of sacred memory.
We will, as a congregation, have an opportunity to commemorate 9/11 on Sunday, September 11th at 10:00 A.M. While the nature of that gathering is still being finalized, one thing is certain: it will incorporate time for what may be the most appropriate of all responses to 9/11 and its legacy….silence.