September 11, 2001. For me, the day began with brilliant sunshine in a crystal clear blue sky, anticipating my children’s first day of pre-school in our new community in Livingston, New Jersey.
I was excited as I dressed for work at my new job at Temple Emanu-El. The High Holy Days were just a week away, and the congregation and I were busy getting ready for the celebration of the New Year, and a new chapter in all of our lives.
But as the calamities unfolded, and the Towers collapsed, the day dissolved into heartbreak, grief, anguish, and tears, and inscribed itself in gashes on my soul that in some ways have yet to heal.
Tonight is Shabbat Shuva – the Sabbath of return. Forever this Shabbat will ask us to return to the attacks on 9/11. Even twenty years later, we still hear the echo of 3,000 screams, voices suddenly silenced amidst the gruesome crush.
And Shabbat Shuva, like all anniversaries are occasions to consider how far we’ve come since that day, how we’ve changed, how we’ve grown, what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost, where we’ve been, and where we are.
Every year on September 11, I return to that day. My heart breaks for the terrible and tragic loss of life. My heart bounds at the courage of the first responders who rushed downtown as thousands ran uptown, who ran into burning buildings while others ran out, who dashed up the stairs as others hurried down, who spent days and weeks and months on the pile, looking for any possible signs of life. My heart fills with awe at the resolve of the passengers on United flight 93 who struggled to wrest control of their doomed aircraft from the hands of their murderers.
And at the same time, my heart still finds hope from the simple stories of how we turned to one another on that fateful day, and in the days that followed – how we held each other, supported each other, and sustained each other.
Every year on Yom Kippur, we remember the admonition of Moses to our people: “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
This is the fundamental project of life. Our purpose is to choose life, to sanctify our existence – to make the experience of life more sacred for ourselves, and all humanity.
We make life holy by cultivating awe and wonder for the extraordinary gift of creation; appreciation and gratitude and for the grandeur of the mosaic of human life. We sanctify life with holy acts that repair our broken world – sacred deeds that foster wisdom, knowledge, and awareness, compassion, justice, and freedom.
Throughout the ages, that is how our people responds to tragedy. From the destruction of the Temple, through exile and wandering, through Crusades and Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms, wars and Holocaust – we choose life.
Twenty years ago on this day, twenty men who spent months planning, calculating, preparing, and practicing set off and chose death – their deaths, and the deaths of thousands – men, women, and children.
In these first days of the New Year, on this solemn anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 – on this Sabbath of remembrance and return – what will we choose?
Will we choose to be a people fractured and divided, angry and resentful, consumed with self-righteous certitude and partisan chauvinism to the point that we detest and cancel anyone whose orientation or perspective differs from ours?
Will we be a people who retreat from the world, closing our eyes and our hearts to the plight of our fellow citizens in our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation and our planet?
Or will we choose instead to be a people who practice kindness, decency and generosity? Will we choose instead to be a people who promote the values of America – freedom, equality, shared sacrifice and opportunity, justice and fairness throughout the world? Will we be a people who welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who want a shot at the American dream? Will we choose instead to remember our nation’s motto – E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, We Are One.
We as a nation are not perfect. On this Shabbat Shuva we can echo the words we will utter on Yom Kippur: “We are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before you Adonai our God and God of our ancestors we are perfect and have not sinned. Rather we confess, we have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed.”
But in these Days of Awe, on this Shabbat Shuva and on this solemn anniversary, let each of us individually, and all of us collectively, recommit to sanctifying the experience of human life, and to working to build a more perfect Union. Let September 11 be a day that calls us to hearken to our better angels, and to choose lives of holiness, purpose, goodness, and peace.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”