Last night, I co-led Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Beth David of San Gabriel Valley with Cantor Orly Campbell. We tried to hold space for the spiritual meaning of both the Shabbat of Return in the midst of the High Holy Days and the twentieth anniversary of the terror attack on the United States.
Shabbat is not a time of mourning
Jewish tradition tells us to set aside our mourning on Shabbat. That the holiness of the day takes precedence over our personal grief. It is why we do not bury people on Shabbat (or any Jewish holiday). And it is why mourners are asked to leave their homes and attend services at synagogue.
Yet, even though we elevate Shabbat, we do not ignore the reality of death. The Mourner’s Kaddish is included in all Jewish services. Some holidays include a special service in remembrance of the dead, known as Yizkor. We make a point of remembering people on the anniversary of their death, their yarzheit. So, it is meaningful to hold space today to honor the anniversary of the passing of so many of our fellow citizens. 2,977 souls lost their lives that day. As Steve Buscemi elevated, we are approaching the same number losing their lives to cancer caused by helping to sort through the debris from those horrific events.
Attack on United States soil
One thing that can get lost in the discussion of the twenty years since that attack, is the fundamental reason for its significance: we were not in a major war and the United States was attacked by an enemy. While Pearl Harbor has its own place in the history of the U.S. officially entering the Second World War, that was a military target. The 9/11 terrorists were targeting the centers of American capitalism, military, and government. At no other time in our history have we come so close to seeing devastation to the symbols of our institutional coherence.
Flight 93 aimed at the White House. But the 40 brave passengers on board fought back and ultimately took down the plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Twenty years is a long time. I remember watching the World Trade Center Twin Towers burn and collapse on the Today Show. But the details are fuzzy. The Washington Post republished their coverage of the surreal day.
Not about a victim count
On Twitter, folks are quick to point out 656,318 Americans died from COVID-19, yet we have not united to tackle the pandemic. So why should the anniversary of people dying in a terrorist attack evoke more collective mourning than the deaths we are currently living through?
This is not only about the 2,977 people who lost their lives to terrorist attacks twenty years ago. This anniversary is about reflecting on the moment when our collective identity fundamentally shifted.
Deuteronomy 25:17 demands that Jews remember (zachor) Amalek, the one who attacked us from behind. It is elevated beyond its place in Parshat Ki Teitzei and is read again on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance before Purim. Haman is described as a descendant of Amalek. The Hebrew Bible connects all of our enemies in the same clan of people.
This is why 9/11 is so important. It clarified for a generation who their enemy is: terrorists. Not simply people with different beliefs, who choose to make women second-class citizens and disparage representative democracy and free market capitalism. These people make it their mission to murder us and encourage individuals to instigate terrorist attacks on civilian targets throughout the world. These terrorists are Amalek.
Islamophobia and the War on Terror
In the past, I was quite reticent to fully acknowledge how life altering this attack was to the American spirit. It was hard to hold space for the depth of pain felt by the families of the victims. Instead, I turned my energy to fighting Islamophobia and challenging the War on Terror.
Ten years ago, I wrote a resolution for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, calling on Congress to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to bring the money home for the needs of our cities. It was the culmination of my activist career. I wrote the resolution in such a way that it was debated by the Metro Economies committee, rather than the International Affairs committee. The resolution became the lens through which the media covered the annual mayors’ meeting.
I chose to step aside from activism because having that as my core identity meant that I never stopped fighting. My goal has always been to help the world become a place that is open to the breadth of human experience and to prioritize life-affirming activities. Now, I tackle those issues from a spiritual perspective.
Honor Difference, Turn Inward, Challenge Amalek
This Shabbat Shuvah, this Ten Days of Return and Renewal, I choose to honor our differences. My Judaism is quite different from other people’s Judaism. I choose not to disparage them. Our disagreements are for the sake of Heaven. My core beliefs are distinct from Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and countless other spiritual seekers. At the end of the day, my path is not about proclaiming that my way is the only way to be good and experience holiness. We each have a spark of the Divine within us. Our souls connect us across our differences.
My soul cries out for all that we’ve lost. I graduated college in 2000. I am one of the last people who did not experience terror during my childhood or formative years. My international relations courses at Wellesley College posited the end of history and the peaceful future of globalization.
I reflect on how difficult it is for me to physically be around other people. My fear of the Delta variant and my concern for the health of my unvaccinated children is more disorienting than collective memories of a terrorist attack.
Amalek: people motivated by evil intentions, still exist. My patriotism and love of the United States is built on my belief in representative democracy and our collective power to support human flourishing in our country and throughout the world. May we honor the souls around us and gird ourselves for the continuing fight.