Friday, September 11, 2015

"Standing Together" (Reflections on 9/11) - D'var Torah for Parashat Nitzvaim - September 11, 2015

It was a Tuesday morning in early September 2001.  I was at Temple, continuing my preparations for the coming High Holy Days.  Rhonda called from the Child Care she directed to tell me to turn on the television quickly, back in the days when there was still an analog signal to watch.  The scenes of fire and smoke coming from the twin towers of the World Trade Center were chilling. I knew I was one of many people in the United States and around the world with my eyes glued to the screen.   The towers collapsed, and reports soon came in about the attack on the Pentagon and the hijacking and loss of all lives on a fourth plane.  That night, perhaps the next two nights, I remember staying up late to watch the rescue efforts as the details about the perpetrators and the victims began to unfold.  
     The following Monday night was Rosh Hashanah.  That day, a staff member in the office of Senator Sam Brownback asked if the Senator could join us for services to show solidarity with us at that time, given the implications of the events for the Middle East, the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  I said yes, and when I told Rhonda about that conversation, she said I should call back to ask if the Senator would like to say a few words.  Senator Brownback did attend and did address our congregation that evening when our nation was still, very much, standing together.   The attacks fueled by hatred for who we are united us in ways we couldn't have imagined.   People in New York City, who usually would never look each other in the eye, began to exchange supportive glances on 9/11 and on the days that followed.  No matter where we were, we felt solidarity with New York City, Washington, D.C. and the family members of the victims who died on those planes, including loved ones of the passengers of United Flight 93 who gave their lives to prevent a fourth deadly attack on our country.   My brother Steve later told me the story about one of his congregants who had missed American Airlines flight 11 at Logan Airport that morning, arriving too late to be allowed onto the plane.   That man's business associates died when Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers crashed the jet into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
     The following week, the local imam, Omar Hazim, and I were called to the office of the deputy attorney general of the state of Kansas.   State officials promised us that law enforcement personnel would offer protection to our communities, given the types of accusations that were swirling in the air by that time in late September.   During a discussion on Yom Kippur afternoon at my Temple, a few congregants wondered out loud if the relationship between the United States and Israel had been a cause for the tragic events.  Then, and to this day, I said no, that the sole cause was the choice of the terrorists who masterminded and carried out the attacks.  Still, people around the world began, at that time, to develop theories that members of the Israeli Mossad impersonated the accused hijackers, a nonsensical notion that persists until today, even among some people in our country.    There was a local convenience store run by a family from India that was attacked by people who thought they were Muslim.  Some male members of the Sikh religion around the country who wear turbans as part of their personal practice were harassed and bullied by people who had no idea about their beliefs.   All the while, many voices from across the political ideological spectrum called on Americans to end the hatred and prejudice directed towards any fellow citizens so that we, as a nation, could focus on doing whatever we could to defeat terrorism once and for all.    Many leaders were urging us all to continue to stand together at a time of challenge not just for our country, but for the entire world.
     One consequence of the "coming together" after 9/11 caught my eye several months later.  On September 23, 2001, there was a memorial service at Yankee Stadium which featured clergy and spiritual leaders from a wide range of faith groups.   One of the participants in that service was Pastor David Benke, who was a leader of a church in Brooklyn in the Missouri Synod Lutheran denomination, a group that has very strict standards about making common cause with those who have not achieved the Christian salvation in which they believe.  During the service, Pastor Benke addressed everyone present as his ''brothers and sisters,'' saying, ''The strength we have is the power of love.'' He called on those assembled, ''Take the hand of the one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer.”  That was too much for some members of his denomination. They demanded that Benke be suspended for praying with, in their terminology, pagans, a term which they applied to the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who were present at the Yankee Stadium service.  Benke was suspended in 2002.  One Missouri Synod Lutheran leader said, at that time, ''To participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God, is an extremely serious offense."    The Missouri Synod Lutheran denomination did reinstate Benke in 2003, and he remained unapologetic for taking part in a memorial service that was intended to heal a nation.
     On this anniversary of 9/11, it is appropriate that the Torah reading envisions Moses, in his last days of leadership, telling the Israelites, "You are standing together, all of you, this day, before the Eternal your God."   This passage, which we also read on Yom Kippur morning along with many other Reform congregations, reminds us that God's teachings are not far away from us: they are in our mouths and our hearts, so that we can do them.   And finally, it declares that God has set before us life and good, death and evil, and we should always choose life. 
      That choice is before us now as it was in centuries past. Today, we can choose life by standing together.  We can choose life by learning from each other.  We can choose life and good by performing acts of kindness in our congregation and in the community.  We can choose life and good by finding the views we hold in common, and by calmly discussing our differences, without name calling, without threats, without contempt, and by remembering that reaching compromise through negotiation is part and parcel of the strength of any community.  This applies to discussions in the context of personal relationships and even public policy.  
     Mainly, standing together means that we need to realize that God's teachings can be in our mouths, our minds and our hearts, and that God is not a distant force in the universe.  When we recite the Shema, we declare that God is one, and we recognize that there is a Oneness that bring us all together, directing us to stand by each other when we need help.   Disagreements and conflict need to fall away if we expect to truly offer each other support and hope.   That is what Moses wanted for the Israelites, a people who had complained at every turn, a multitude that he knew needed to be united under their new leader, Joshua, if they were to thrive in their promised land. We, just as much, need that unity in our own time.  And so, may we find ways to reach out to each other in understanding, in gratitude for the gifts we all give, and in love in the spirit of the teachings of our heritage.   That will assure that we will be able to stand together, now, and in the years to come.   

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