I have many feelings and thoughts as we mark this tenth anniversary of 9-11. They are mostly feelings of pain and loss. I continue to believe that things will never be the same. I also carry with me the searing memory of driving my children home from school after having to pick them up early. As I drove on the LIE I kept looking in the rear view mirror at their faces. I continue to hear their questions, “Abba, what happened? I don’t understand. Someone drove a plane into a building?” I hear as well my inadequate answers. Ten years later here are my still, partial answers.
I wish to address three points. 1. About our enemies. 2. The proper response to our enemies. And 3. Our lingering, incomplete feelings.
1. Let’s say this clearly. We indeed have enemies. This truth seems to evade us. We still appear unwilling to speak these words. There are people who are bent on our destruction. And they are Islamic fundamentalists.
We are so afraid of offending or being labeled politically incorrect that we shy away from this awful truth. I have no quarrel with Islam. We should have no quarrel with Islam. We should however have quarrel with the far too many Muslims who stand silent before what their co-religionists do in their name, and the countless Muslims who celebrate these murders committed in their tradition’s name.
We are as well unable to say loudly how many of our so-called allies support these enemies of ours. Our continued dependence on Mideast oil defames the memory of 9-11. Say what you will about the science of global warming, although I find the evidence inescapable, but it should be a matter of national security that we wean ourselves of oil.
2. In the course of these past ten years we have also lost our way in fighting our enemies. We have resorted to torture. We have shipped suspects to Libya and Syria so that they might be tortured outside of the protections of our democracy. We have contorted our most cherished laws in the name of security. We cannot, we must not ever lose our way again. Terror and fear are insidious. But they need not make us into cowards who forget what makes us really great. It is not shopping! It is democracy.
Terror and fear worm their way into our hearts and souls. They distort our vision. We must always see clearly what this country means. We must always proudly declare the values our country stands for. Moreover we should celebrate exactly what our enemies most hate because it is these very values that have made this nation great.
We live in a country that revels in difference, that is moreover strengthened by difference. We are an overwhelmingly religious people, but never a people where one religion must be chosen over another. The fact that our congregation meets and prays in a church, as frustrating as it might continue to be at times, is cause for celebration on this day.
Our enemies want a world that is only like them, that is absent of Jews and Christians and homosexuals, a world where women are veiled and science is labeled as blasphemy. I want none of that. I want a world where science and religion can learn from each other, where differences are celebrated and cause for new learning. Ten years later my resolve is only stronger. I pray, let my resolve never grow weaker. Let terror and fear never find their way into my soul.
And finally 3. For this point let us return to the Torah portion. I am thinking again about the bird’s nest. We are commanded to shoo the mother bird away before taking the young. We cannot have everything. Even that which is permitted must be regulated. Our freedoms are always framed by compassion. That is the plain meaning of the Torah’s command.
But I am thinking as well about the bird’s nest as a metaphor. Hatchlings are of course blind. They are hidden and shielded from the dangers of the world by their parents. It seems obvious but let’s be clear. Staying in their nest these young birds will never learn to fly. When they fly they may very well succumb to other, greater dangers.
We have learned from 9-11 that staying in the nest does not shield us from all harm. Many died, many were murdered, for the simple act of going to work or walking down the street, or going on vacation, or getting a cup of coffee.
Leon Wieseltier writes: “… Shopping is not the highest expression of the will to live. We are fighting wars abroad that show almost no traces at home, except among the limited segment of the population whose children are fighting them, and we have been differently encouraged in this disconnection by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When the financial cataclysm occurred, and the hardship in America became unconscionably widespread, we redirected our gaze almost entirely upon ourselves. First materialism, and then a crisis of materialism, turned us inward. After we were attacked, we were wearied. I worry that the insularity of America, which is its natural condition, and also its lasting temptation, is gathering a renewed prestige among Americans. Our insularity is a kind of safety and a kind of blindness. The attacks of September 11 punctured that safety and that blindness: we gained—at what cost!—a broader sense of historical possibility and a broader sense of historical agency. But we are listing. We want the safety back, of course, but I fear that we want the blindness back, too.” (The New Republic, September 15, 2011)
So we can choose to be blind like the hatchlings in this bird’s nest. Or we can choose to fly. 9-11 should have taught us that blindness is no safer than flying. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the insecurity of freedom in his book of the same name. He taught that there is an inherent insecurity in the blessing of freedom. The more freedom, the more insecurity. The more freedoms, the greater responsibilities.
I continue to believe that the greatest danger of terrorism is not external but internal. We can let it seep into our hearts or we can shut it out and continue flying. Insularity will not protect us. It serves no noble purpose. And those purposes are all I am really interested in.
The message of this week’s Torah portion is even more true on this tenth anniversary of 9-11. The concern of our tradition is improving our world. We begin with the small and seemingly insignificant. We begin with a bird’s nest. And from there reach out to the world at large.
No nest is forever safe. And so my only choice is to reach out to the world, and to struggle to better and improve the world. My life is made better, and yes more assured and even more secure, by my reaching to the world. And that is the only response we should focus on.