After returning a few weeks ago from a trip that included some artful dodging of hurricane-turned- tropical storm Hermine, we woke up the next morning to a chilling report about the unfortunate demise of a small piece of the natural world. It wasn't caused by an act of nature - not by a hurricane, not by a tornado, not by torrential rain, and not by an earthquake. I am referring to the toppling of the Duck Bill natural rock formation in a cordoned-off area at Cape Kiwanda State Park near Pacific City, Oregon. That photogenic site had stood mostly unchanged for millions of years. State officials who heard of the collapse attributed it, at first, to erosion. However, within a couple of days, David Kalas of Portland, Oregon, came forward to authorities. He had taken a video of a group of visitors to the site who were not there just to look and enjoy. The images clearly showed some of these individuals vigorously pushing on the rock structure until it fell to the ground in a heap. When Kalas confronted them, they said that one of their friends had previously broken his leg because of that formation. They decided to eliminate what they saw as a safety hazard. Kalas said it was like they were "taking revenge" on the rock structure for hurting their friend. A natural spot that had intrigued and attracted so many people over the course of many years was gone because a few people thought they could assert control over something that did not belong to them.
This incident illustrates the unfortunate human capacity for disregard of nature and disrespect towards the property of other people. We see a similar motive in the case of individuals who heartlessly start wildfires that ultimately destroy animal habitats and nearby homes. We have witnessed the Islamic State, along with many other atrocities, ruthlessly demolish a string of worship and heritage sites which they deem unacceptable because of their narrow beliefs.
And there have been human tragedies perpetrated over the course of the last year that have elicited a strong response from communities around our country.
During the last several months, a number of us have participated in local vigils, one for the victims of the fatal shootings at a club in Orlando in June and another for the tragic deaths of citizens in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota and the deaths of police officers in Dallas, Texas. In response to the second of those gatherings here in Las Cruces, one local community member wrote: “Nearly 200 people attended a vigil tonight in Las Cruces to mourn the continuing loss of precious life due to hatred, ignorance and…violence. Speakers included clergy representing a diverse spectrum from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions as well as public servants dedicated to community safety and well-being. In conclusion, all sang together: 'Peace will come; let it begin with me.'"
Jews around the world have mourned the victims of what has become known as the "stabbing intifada" and those who have died in other attacks that continue in and around Israel. Especially sudden and tragic were the shootings at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv on June 9 in which four Israelis were killed and six were wounded.
On September 11 this year, I attended the Las Cruces Patriot Day commemoration, the first official event held at Plaza de Las Cruces downtown. That program marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The keynote speaker had been in the Pentagon on the day of the attacks. His recollections connected everyone present to the effects and results of the terrorism perpetrated on that tragic day, acts which altered the way in which we see our safety and our need for security.
Besides attending that event, I found myself watching more than my share of programs on television about 9/11 as a way of engaging in my own personal remembrance. This year, one story from 9/11 stood out for me. It offered a striking contrast to the tales of destruction and violence that have been on our minds all too much in recent months.
Even ESPN carried a report about the “Man in the Red Bandana” who saved at least twelve people from certain death due to his courageous assistance in the south tower of the World Trade Center. Welles Crowther was raised in Nyack, New York by his parents, Jefferson and Allison Crowther. When Welles was six years old, his mother and father gave him a red bandana that he carried around with him all the time. He wore it under his sports uniforms in high school. He had it with him when he was a junior firefighter at age 16 with the Empire Hook and Ladder Company, where he served along with his father. When Crwother attended Boston College, he wore the bandana when he played on the lacrosse team. After he graduated in 1999 from Boston College with a degree in Economics, Welles Crowther worked for Sandler O'Neill and Partners on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower. After United Airlines Flight 175 struck between the 78th and 85th floors on September 11, 2001, Welles called his parents to let them know he was all right. Then he sprang into action. He guided a number of workers in the tower down to the lower floors of the skyscraper so that they could find safety on the ground below. He immediately went back up the stairs to floors where he thought he might find more people who needed help. Ling Young, who had been on the 86th floor and had suffered extensive burns, and Judy Wein, who had worked on the 103rd floor, both later identified Welles Crowther, with his red bandanna, as their rescuer. Judy Wien recalled Crowther putting out fires on the 78th floor and then telling anyone who could hear him, "Everyone who can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so." It is likely that at the time of the building's collapse at 9:59 am that day, Crowther was working with New York firefighters at their command station in the South Tower lobby. Judy Wien commented, "People can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did."
On this birthday of the world, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year, this is what we are called to be: people who have the wherewithal to help and save fellow human beings in need of our assistance, people who are willing to search deep inside of ourselves to find the compassion that will enable us to reach out to all of humanity and to the entire world with a sense of reverence, commitment, unity, and hope. Welles Crowther was one of many whose acts of bravery and heroism saved lives on that day. How do we know that we won't be required to exhibit the same type of courage, care and tenacity in difficult circumstances, when we least expect it? The High Holy Days direct us to ascend to our highest potential, encouraging us to always strive for perfection. These Days of Awe call upon us to see ourselves as so connected to all of humanity and all of creation that we would choose to follow the example of Welles Crowther without hesitation.
And we are intricately connected to other people and to the entire universe much more than we might imagine. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson asserted that such notions about our interdependent existence are essential to being Jewish in his book, Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit.
Artson explored the relationship between scientific discoveries and fundamental values of Judaism through the lens of Process Theology. Within that perspective, God is embedded in the connections that unite all creation. God can be found within in all of the processes that renew our world and the universe in aspects both large and small. This way of looking at our place in the world defines our role as being co-creators with God, the Creator. Our decisions, our actions, and our choices are real and significant. They have an effect and make a difference in the composition of creation. During one of his sermons that I remember from 50 years ago, my home rabbi, William B. Silverman, passed his hand through the air. He then declared with great resolve and confidence, "I have just changed the order of the universe." So was he speaking the truth? If we view all existence as an interconnected unity, then Rabbi Silverman did, in fact, speak a scientific truth. And that vision of Unity is echoed in the faith-based declaration that we call the Shema. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad could be translated, "Listen Israel - Our God- YUD HAY VAV HAY, the One who always exists and causes everything to exist, IS a Unity, a Oneness that encompasses us and unites everything everywhere." Our differences in the realms of physical characteristics and personal qualities do not make anyone better than anyone else when we are all part of a greater Unity.
With our respective strengths, each of us has a specific role in making the Universe more whole. Whatever we do in our lives, in fact, each individual action, has the potential to change the order of everything. Creation has been moving for billions of years towards greater complexity and deeper connection. Throughout our lives, we have the freedom to act upon our own creativity in our own little corner of the universe and to reach higher in order to improve our character so that we can help all of creation to grow and change in positive ways. Rabbi Artson asserted in his book, "I need creation as the garden in which to exult, grow, play, work, struggle, learn and sing. As a part of creation, there is a sense in which creation needs me, but only to the degree that I am a willing participant of that creation, an expression of its vitality, and a partner in its process....We are a part of the world, not apart from it, and our lives join the shimmering waves of an endless sea. We flow from it, and return to it, and in that cycle of tide and tow, of ebb and flow, we leave a mark precisely to the degree that the sea continues, unimpeded, on its way." Every one of us has a role in assuring the persistence of life for eons to come.
We can only accomplish this goal, this human role, if we do it together. We are co-creators with God and with each other. We are partners. Attempts to control others that rob them of their freedom to create constitutes a move towards destruction. The well-known Talmudic declaration from tractate Sanhedrin still resonates with us and with all that we do: “For this reason, humanity was first created as a single individual: to teach you that anyone who destroys one life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed the entire world. And one who saves one life is considered by the Torah to have saved the entire world. And [another reason why humanity was created as a single individual was] because of [the nature of] people: That one person shouldn’t declare to another: “My ancestors were greater than your ancestors.” Being creators in this world points to our fundamental responsibility to foster kindness, justice, and outward respect that affirms the inner connections that bind us together. Judaism teaches us to think of every person as being worthy of saving if at all possible, even if it means convincing those who may doubt that view to take on a new perspective, and to divert them from conflict towards cooperation, from fear to mutual concern, from hatred towards love, and from indifference to generously extending a helping hand to people in need.
I was recently visiting a patient at the Rehabilitation Hospital of New Mexico on Lohman Avenue. After I completed my visit, I walked towards the exit doors from the patient unit on my way to the main entrance. As I opened the door, I came upon two lines of staff members, enthusiastically applauding for a patient who had accomplished her goals and tasks of healing, enough to be able to go home. That ritual of encouragement, kindness and connection was a joy to behold as the former patient's departure was treated as a landmark occasion. The gathering of that moment established a touching bond between dedicated helpers and the one who was grateful for their assistance.
During our recent trip, there was a medical emergency on the plane as we were flying home. One of the flight attendants announced the need for a doctor. A volunteer immediately came forward. The physician and all of the flight attendants gathered together and diligently treated the passenger in distress with dedication, commitment and caring. They suspended service to the rest of us while making sure there was room enough to diagnose the passenger and to keep her comfortable until we landed. It was quite a sight, one that we don't see very often, fortunately. It demonstrated to me the deep sense of responsibility that the flight attendants feel for travelers with whom they only come into contact for a short time.
Law enforcement officials worked quickly to arrest Ahmad Khan Rahami, who had planted bombs in New York City and New Jersey two weeks ago. It wasn't only through the efforts of those officials that all of the explosive devices were discovered. They couldn't have completed their task without the help of two homeless men who were rummaging through the trash in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They found a backpack containing five bombs and immediately reported what they saw to the local police. Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage quickly declared to the community and to the world that these two men likely saved hundreds of lives because of what they did. Many people in that New Jersey neighborhood are deeply grateful that these two men demonstrated a strong sense of communal connection that should offer an example to all of us.
We have opportunities every day to perform such acts of responsibility and concern, and of love and kindness, what our tradition calls G'MILUT CHASADIM. If we acknowledge and believe in the ties that hold us together within the very fabric of creation, how could we not care about each other? How could we not reach out to one another with a sense of help and hope? How could we not be welcoming? And how could we not approach one another in humility as equal partners who can enable our families, our congregation, our community and the world to reach for our highest potential for goodness that will ultimately draw us closer together? As we begin this new year of 5777, may we see the coming months as holding the possibility for countless opportunities to practice the best of who we are, to bridge the chasms that divide us, and to truly understand the many ways in which we are part of a universe and an existence that is amazing and mysterious. And may that feeling of wonder lead us to moments that are meaningful and holy as we continue to move forward, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, stepping into the future of this incredible existence in which we are all privileged to live together. So may it be - and let us say amen.