Looking Back, Walking Forward

(It was suggested that I post my sermon from this past Friday night . Though it was originally written in note form, here is the gist of it as best as I can reconstruct it.)

It’s great to be back. With Labor Day past it’s exhilarating to see activity picking up around the synagogue and community. And my schedule of coffee conversations is also picking up, which I am thrilled it about. (It’s not too late to set up a time – email me at egurvis@templeshalom.org to set a time and place.) The new school year has begun, and all around there is excitement, nervousness and the full range of emotions.

At the same time, this has been a very heavy week with the approach of September 11th. The TV, radio, and newspaper have made the approach of 9/11 inescapable. And on Sunday there will be a myriad of events, including the one which I helped to organize here in Newton (which will take place at 6 pm Sunday evening at 6 pm outside of Newton City Hall – Sunday 6 pm – please join me!)

There has been a lot of asking – what have we learned? To be sure there are many lessons. On one level, I’m not sure how much we have really learned or internalized the lesson we’d thought we learned ten years ago. Today I often find that we live in a more frightened world, and too be sure, I often feel we live in an angrier world.

I remember speaking on Yom Kippur 10 years ago about opening my eyes on a new world I couldn’t recognize. At the time I said: “According to our Hebrew calendar, fourteen years ago yesterday morning I became a father. Our oldest son, Benjamin was born just hours before my first Kol Nidre service at my congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. Laura and I had gone to bed the night before Benjamin’s birth, already a couple of days past her due-date, fully expecting that he (or she – we didn’t know) would join us after the Holy Day. Rather, he decided to begin his entrance some 30 minutes after sleep arrived, thus keeping us up all night and then finally arriving shortly before noon the next day. By the time I stepped onto the pulpit later that evening I was truly running on an incredible burst of adrenalin. I took a deep breath as I fought to contain my emotions, opened my prayer book and announced the page. It was surely not the first Yom Kippur service wherein I led a congregation in prayer from our Gates of Repentance. But as I looked down at the page, my eyes set upon words that appeared wholly unfamiliar to me. That feeling persisted throughout that long Yom Kippur eve as well the entirety of the next day. As the hours went by, I realized that I was seeing the world, and experiencing it with a different set of eyes – all because of an everyday, yet miraculous event called birth. Benjamin’s arrival forced me to look upon life, the world, people and so much more differently.”

The same was certainly true on the morning of September 12, 2001, and it continues to be true. The arrival this week of the tenth 9/11 has us asking:
What lessons have we learned? What images have stayed with us? What has changed? How have I changed? How have we changed? What yet needs to change?

On the PBS series Frontline earlier this week the network re-aired a program entitled, FAITH AND DOUBT AT GROUND ZERO. I was told about it by a friend and went and watched portions of it online at PBS.org. The program, which had originally aired at the first anniversary of the events of 9-11-01 was centered around questions and interviews with people of varying backgrounds and faith, and of no faith at all around the role of religion, God, and so forth in the events just a year earlier. Even at the tenth 9-11, the program is haunting and powerful.

Towards the end of the nearly two-hour documentary, participants were asked to share their most vivid image from that horrifying day, now almost ten years ago. Several of the participants, who come from all walks of life and from a variety of faith traditions respond to the question. For me, it’s the last two voices that strike me most powerfully.

The first is from Brian Doyle, the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon, who wrote an essay entitled, Leap, from which he reads a brief except towards the end of the PBS piece: He writes:, “A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.
It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.”

His words are followed by those of a Catholic priest, Monsignor Lorenzo Alabacete who says: “To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what September 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and of death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It’s a choice? It’s the choice of September 11.”

What’s your enduring image? And how can that image inform your words, your deeds, your life as you not only look back, but also walk forward.

One last note: in our Torah portion this Shabbat, Ki Teitzei, we read 72 mitzvotof the 613 our tradition sees as coming from Torah. Most of the passages in this week’s portion deal with we should live with one another in a civil society. To me, it is no small irony that the message of living together, with civility, is a core message from the Torah portion we read and study as we mark this tenth September 11th. In addition, at the very end of the portion, we read the command to “remember Amalek.” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In our tradition Amalek is a powerful symbol. Amalek is the collective symbol of those who attack the weak and the unaware. And with each Amalek our people has known, we are taught to remember and not forget. At the same time, as we remember and do not forget, this commandment comes along with a compendium of laws which instruct about how to walk forward! May we use these days to remember – and to re-gather and recommit ourselves to walking forward together towards a world that will become and be more peaceful, more just, and more whole.

(Following my sermon, we joined as a congregation in the following prayer which has been read in congregations throughout Newton this weekend and which will be a part of our commemoration outside of Newton City Hall at 6:00 pm this evening — PLEASE JOIN ME and OUR COMMUNITY TONIGHT AT CITY HALL!)

A Prayer for our Nation

Merciful One, we gather today with vivid memories of a bright morning ten years ago.

As we gather, we recall loved ones lost, and honor those heroes struck down as they rushed to save others.

O God we offer you our broken hearts as we navigate our mixed emotions, which sometimes overwhelm us, leaving us numb and confused.

May our hearts remain open to hope and compassion, even in the face of fear and hatred.

Even in the confused aftermath of tragedy, we recall acts of kindness, proclamations of love, comfort shared in the midst of tragedy and uncertainty.

We know that our shared humanity can be the seed-bed of common ground and common purpose.

May we offer and accept friendship from neighbors far and near. Though we are many and miraculously diverse, we each receive life by our Creator, and our lives are meant to be shared.

We share our loss with people of good will around the world.

As we remember the past, let us maintain hope for the future and share the work of building our community. May our yearning for security never eclipse our zeal for justice or our defense of liberty.

We pray that our resolve be strong, but that it never make us hard. O God grant us such courage that terror has no meaning.

O God, as we recall the tragic loss of life in New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania ten years ago this day we pray that the bereaved might know comfort, the wounded might know healing, and that we each might discover resolve, inspiration and wisdom by examining the past and honoring the fallen. May we be enlightened by the past even as we face the future with courage, hope and purpose in a world without end.



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