These were my words at services on Shabbat morning.
I may have been the last adult in New York City to be aware that the attack on the World Trade Center towers had occurred. Laurie went to work in midtown, and I was home with two-and-a-half-year-old Alex getting ready for an upcoming trip to my parents, both to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday and to lead Rosh Hashanah services at our family’s small congregation. Alex and I were sitting in his room going through his long sleeve shirts from the previous winter to find something warm enough to take. At some point we were going to go out to Forest Hills High School and vote in the primary for Mayor Giuliani’s successor. The phone rang a few times in the other room, more than usual for a morning, but we were busy and I ignored it.
Around 11 the phone rang again and so I picked it up. It was Laurie, calling from her office in Midtown, and she said something like, “Did you hear what happened? It’s the biggest terrorist attack ever.” I assumed she meant some horrible thing happened in Israel; that’s what terrorism meant to me. But she told me the World Trade Center towers were gone.
With the two-year-old I didn’t want to be watching this on TV, so I waited for a minute when Alex was out of the den so I could turn it on. There was a view from a camera on top of the one of the TV stations, showing the smoke. Alex came into the room and said, “Helicopter” – and immediately I turned it off. My sister Ellen was also working in Manhattan, and after another call or two I knew they’d just have to walk home to Queens, for Laurie an eight-mile walk. I reached as much of our family as I could to tell them we were safe, and at some point it was hard to get a cell signal; the frequencies were taken over for security needs. Alex and I walked through the neighborhood to pass the time. It was a beautiful day, with F-16s flying across the sky.
A few days later we decided to fly to Minnesota – making the decision it was safe, very aware we were making a life-and-death decision for our toddler. At La Guardia, one of the military people at the security scanners confiscated the tiny nail clipper from our carry-on. We all knew the hijackers had gotten unlikely sharp weapons onto the plane and I felt a bit embarrassed for bringing one and tying up the soldier. Leaving New York seemed so strange – going away from what seemed like the only place anything was happening in the world, where God’s eyes even seemed to be riveted. It felt too like breaking faith. It was so quiet in St. Paul on a weekday afternoon. One of the first things I did when I got settled at my parents was to call the local mosque even though I didn’t know anyone there, to leave them a message of friendship on behalf of the Jewish community.
There are so many spiritual imperatives every 9/11 and especially on an anniversary of significance like this one twenty years later. First and foremost is to remember and honor those who were murdered.
The second to last name alphabetically on the 9/11 memorial is Andrew Steven Zucker. I didn’t realize I knew anyone in the towers until at some point the New York Times published their exhaustive list with photos. I saw his name and a familiar face. For one year Andrew was “Coach Zuck” at the Solomon Schechter school where I worked. He was in his late 20s, and he was the first young, big coach-y looking coach we had. Other than passing hellos, I think I only really talked to him when I had to tell him that one of my Jewish programs would be interfering with one of his practices. I learned since that he was a law associate at Harris Beach, on the 85th floor of the South Tower, and that seven people said he helped them escape down the stairs and saved their lives. He davened every morning before work there. A Torah scroll was written in his memory at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and it was read for the first time on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Monday morning minyan. May Andrew’s memory, and the memory of all who were murdered that day or who died as a result of the day be a blessing.
The second spiritual imperative is to call this what it was: a mass murder and an act of pure evil. Evilhas to be part of our vocabulary. Enemies has to be part of our vocabulary. We have prayed this morning already that we overcome evil -- our own for sure, and that evil in the world be destroyed beyond even our own ability to destroy it. We pray for safety from our enemies. We don’t like to apply words like evil and enemy too specifically; we distance ourselves from these words even as we say them in Hebrew. Yet the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon and who tried to fly Flight 93 into Washington were enemies of America, enemies of Jews, enemies of freedom and universal human dignity. Enemies of equality for women. They attacked and murdered innocent people, deliberately and with forethought and with satisfaction.
We should not be distracted from this by any reflection or regret we properly have over what followed, the wrongs of our own decisions and our own wars that went wrong and took many innocent lives.
The attackers chose deliberately not only to kill indiscriminately, but to attack centers of government, military, and finance. They attacked the things many Americans had come to lack confidence in, to make it harder for us to stand up for ourselves and see ourselves clearly. They dared us to look in the mirror. But our freedom, our strength, and our prosperity are so much more than any flaws in them. They are worth defending and strengthening and perfecting. They are a tremendous gift in the history of the world.
We have to look straight into the reality that small, disciplined groups can magnify evil and harm and death. There are parts of the human world beyond bargaining and incentives and change. We cannot strengthen what is good without acknowledging this.
The third spiritual imperative is awe at the goodness that sprang into action immediately. The Andrew Zuckers. The first responders who went back into buildings to look for more people to save, knowing very well they might not survive, as many did not. The people who retook Flight 93 and saved so many lives at the cost of their own. I remember the evening of 9/11 how the site of the Twin Towers had become a well-organized place for rescue and cleanup. In the face of the unthinkable, people did not miss a beat around their responsibilities, even as they improvised. There could have been chaos and pandemonium, or at the very least paralysis. Instead there was determined work to seek anyone who might still be alive.
We came to know stories like Gander, Newfoundland, where international flights back to the U.S. were diverted and a small town took care of strangers even in their homes – it’s the subject of the amazing musical “Come From Away.” President Bush came to the side of Muslims in our country to warn us against blaming the wrong people.
I had always been a reluctant New Yorker, living there because of rabbinical school and staying because of Laurie’s work and my own opportunities. The last five years we lived there, the rough city seemed transformed, toward a graciousness and helpfulness that hadn’t been there in the same measure. At least that was my experience.
We have to view this part of the story and the evil together, and think very hard about what it means. Margaret Mead said famously, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Nineteen hijackers committed mass murder. Twice a minyan, not even, that’s all. It is easier to destroy than to build. How many multiples of nineteen are there committed to good on an equal scale, on a lifesaving scale, a Gander, Newfoundland scale?
So the fourth spiritual imperative is to take responsibility for how we have responded as a nation and as Jews over the twenty years since. The instincts to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East were good, even though motives are always mixed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not looking down on people in a part of the world so unfamiliar to most of us, to the vast majority of Americans and Jews. We believed and still should believe that people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East deserve democracy and are capable of freedom and prosperity. I supported both wars when they started, in Afghanistan and even Iraq. Yet it was clear even to me from very early on that we were not willing to be accountable. For caring about the people in those countries, for bothering to learn about them or build connections with them commensurate with our interference in their world. Some people have done incredible work – some of our military, some of our NGOs -- and they have brought education and health and fierce friendship. As we go forward, leaving behind what we have left behind, we need to consider who is left whom we still owe.
And we still have an obligation to learn more about the Muslim world and about Islam itself. I said this ten years ago on this anniversary, and while I have learned more, it’s certainly not ten years worth of more. We all, myself surely included, let our leaders and elected representatives let themselves off the hook in terms of oversight and engagement. But at least we can learn and connect here in our local community. In fits and starts, some of us have tried to connect to the local mosque from the shul and through the Interfaith Council. Yesterday, Jeff (our Board president) and I sent a message of friendship to the Islamic Society of Greater Nashua, for day when surely it is more difficult than usual to be a Muslim in America.
We have drawn some wrong lessons from the aftermath of the two wars, and the collateral effects in Syria and other places. It’s becoming easier in the past twenty years to give up on the societies of the Middle East and to see the Palestinians in particular as fundamentally interwoven with terror. Yes, American power cannot do everything, and the destiny of faraway lands is not up to us primarily. But we have many powers and things to offer. And again our conviction that all people deserve freedom, that women’s rights and girls’ education are not only for some in this world -- those convictions are still right and we cannot run away from them.
There are people standing up to the Taliban, and people still learning how to do good work in Afghanistan. We owe them. I think the people who were architects of our bad decisions and those who supported them like me have a special obligation. I read the reflections of nearly twenty key American government and military leaders from the post-9/11 period in Politico the other day on what we did wrong, and truthfully what sickened me more than the mistakes they acknowledged was how many of them are now making their living as lobbyists and in the 1% sector, and how few are in public service and academia. They have run away from debts they still owe.
And my fifth spiritual imperative is for any of us who identify as religious people of any faith, to be a Kiddush Hashem, to do honor publicly to the Divine Name in what we do and what we say. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote about this in the days following 9/11. The hijackers are in a long line of mass murderers claiming divine sanction. They weaken the ability of any faith to be seen as a positive force and not a divisive one. To be religious and to identify publicly as religious after 9/11, we have to be far from even the first cousins, even the second cousins of the attackers and their ideology, in our own faiths. We need to publicly repudiate our own Kahanists – our Muslim-haters, our Arab-haters, our Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs.
So a lot of spiritual imperatives, not just one or two, on this anniversary. I remember that first Rosh Hashanah trying to find words in my small pulpit, thinking what a burden President Bush had taken on by declaring war on evil itself. How fortunate we were to have a place and a haven of time a week after the attacks -- to gather together, to take time out to think about good and evil, to humble ourselves about what we can do and briefly trust the work of fighting all evil back to God. Just for a couple days. So it’s fitting that we are remembering and reflecting now during the ten days of teshuvah. What will we learn, how will we change, how will we honor those who died on 9/11 and in everything that flowed from that day? The answers are not easy, but they will flow as everything does from love. Love of those whose memory is precious; love of the American ideals that made the attacks hurt even more; love of each other in this gathering today and in this country; love of those who responses over the past twenty years have uplifted and inspired us. May we find our way in teshuvah, through all of that love.