Today marks the 19th anniversary of the horrible events of 9/11, the terrorist attacks that took the lives of more Americans in a single day than died at Pearl Harbor. At the time the changes 9/11 brought transformed our world—not for the better—more than anything in our lifetimes. Our American sense of safety and security from the outside world was damaged, more or less permanently. We promised never to forget that awful morning, and the aftershocks of it reverberated through our society and throughout our world. New York would never be quite the same, but neither would the Middle East, or indeed anywhere on our planet.
On this day of memory, we must recall those who died that day, and those whose lives were permanently damaged by loss, including first-responders and rescue workers who contracted illnesses from their noble work, and all whose lives were touched by tragedy. May the memory of those who died be a blessing. May the disabilities that some contracted from their rescue work find healing. And may we never truly forget that day.
A month after 9/11 members of the Tucson religious community gathered on the pulpit of my synagogue to remember. It was an incredibly diverse group, and a powerful one. I will never forget the words of an Evangelical preacher, who said, “We all came to this country on different boats. But we are all in the same boat now.” There were many terrible impacts of 9/11. But there was one hugely positive one: we pulled together. People in America, at least, treated one another with a level of respect and kindness that hadn’t been seen in quite a while. We came together. On the streets of New York City—New York City!--people were polite and generous to visitors and tourists. Something profound had changed. We drew together as a nation, sought healing and unity and kindness in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy.
For many years after 9/11, I had the privilege of chairing the multi-faith commemorations that remembered the lost, and sought to emphasize the wholeness and humanity that we all share. It was impossible not to notice that over time the response to these efforts diminished. At our first 9/11 commemoration we filled the large sanctuary where I served at the time, and brought together representatives of 24 different local faith communities of every denomination and creed. As time went on we continued to have deep and diverse religious representation at an outstanding level, but the crowds grew smaller. For the 10th anniversary we planned many meaningful commemorations, but realized that the annual events were now less compelling to people.
New tragedies intruded on our consciousness. The world moved on.
And now, of course, on this 9/11/20 we are in the midst of a pandemic. And that has changed most of our worlds more than 9/11 ever did. Our focus today is on COVID-19, on vaccines and social distancing, on masks and safety and economic challenge. We aren’t much thinking about 9/11.
But if the martyrs of 9/11 have something more to teach us today, it is this: at times of great challenge and tragedy, Americans have an innate capacity to unite, to pull together. We can, when threatened, show the best angels of our nature and demonstrate respect and care for one another. We have the ability to be a great country, a nation that unites all of its people.
We are, in this Coronavirus crisis, once again all in the same boat. It’s an even bigger boat this time, one that encompasses our entire planet. But we can again learn that lesson: we are so much better and stronger when we pull together on those oars…
At this time of memory and reflection, may we remember the most important positive impact of that tragic day: that when we are challenged, we can and must come together. For then we can serve those who died with honor. And then we can heal.