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.
Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
Assignment: Choose an artifact that to you represents America, American society, or American culture. Feel free to share an image and/or explanation in the comments here or in your own post.
When I began co-teaching the course, the artifact I chose was the book and album “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s a 1972 project created by Marlo Thomas. For the younger people here, that’s Rachel’s mother from “Friends”, and this project is one reason why that casting is so amazing in a counter-to-type way (read on).
“Free to Be You and Me” was a series of songs and stories for kids aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. What a boy and a girl has to be like, want to be when they grow up, etc.
I chose this as my artifact for three reasons.
This last point in particular is what I want to interrogate through the course of this year. That assumption, and whatever knowledge I need to gain and reflect on in order to assess how far it is.
That's me right after a conversation of about half an hour last night with a few members of the Proud Boys, who have become an unfortunate fixture around meetings of Nashua's Board of Education. Knowing they would be there I could not stay home. This is my family's school, and my community, and people I know who are being harassed by them.
A few thoughts:
I was prepared, if the controversy about "critical race theory" was brought up in the Board of Ed meeting, to make a speech based on what I think democratic education is about. I have a pretty good speech, if I say so myself -- it's not the usual stuff, I think it's original, and I'll publish that at some point or maybe use it at the next Board of Ed meeting. I left the meeting inside pretty quickly because I'm not ready to be inside with a group that way. So I don't know what happened after I left, and I have to catch up.
Why did I bother with this? I wasn't going to change anyone's mind. But more and more, I think that when a group like the Proud Boys projects themselves, the important thing is to meet them not just as protestors, but as "I am the reality here." I can feel a change here in town; I could feel it in my body. My heart was not in any way pounding, as it usually is in these situations. That's because of this coalition that is coming together here in Nashua with confidence and dare I say love. It's the early days and it's not a uniform coalition who agree on everything when it comes to justice. Usually, the handful of times I've talked to activists like the Proud Boys I leave feeling frustrated and like I didn't come close to doing my part well. This time I knew I had the better of the argument, and they were far more tired of talking to me than vice versa.
Why did I bother? This makes me stronger and sharper. It tells me that the time I have spent slowly getting to know more people from religious and cultural groups outside my own is in fact making a difference. There are answers to some of the divisive questions today that are not just compromises or safety valves. I am proud to be in the mix, which is all that I am, and I would be proud to bring any of you who are local along with me.
I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.
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