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Service of Remembrance – A Decade Later

September 11, 2011

“A day of darkness and gloom; a day of cloud and shadows, spread like soot over the hills…their vanguard a consuming fire, in their wake a devouring flame” {Joel 2:2-3}. Those are the words of Joel, a Hebrew prophet from the 9th century BCE, describing a plague of locusts followed by drought in the land of Israel. His words are an apt description of what befell our country ten years ago today: “darkness and gloom…cloud and shadows…soot…consuming fire…a devouring flame.”

On the 10th anniversary of the ‘Attack Upon America,’ we endure the hard and painful remembrance of things past: about a day that forever changed the lives of those whose loved ones were consumed in flames in Twin Towers of destruction, in the citadel called the Pentagon, and on planes that became instruments of death. Our lives were changed as well. The concerns we had about the world our children and grandchildren would inherit from us were dramatically and forever altered in ways we could not have fathomed.

2,753 people were killed in New York, 184 people at the Pentagon, and 40 people on Flight 93. Three thousand children lost one or more of their parents that day. The numbers are staggering and only begin to hint at the pain that assaulted loved ones in the wake of their sudden deaths. A collective wail of anguish was heard throughout our country. We struggled to comprehend what the next few days and weeks would bring. As the day of destruction lengthened, bringing with it waves of horror in intervals of just 22, 34 and 26 minutes beyond the first strike at 8:46 that morning, we understood that September 11th would once again define “before” and “after” in our nation’s history.

Throughout our country, a decade removed from that horrible day, a month-long series of commemorative events have brought us to this day: art exhibits; books; music and dance performances; theatrical presentations; radio and television documentaries. Towering above them all – over the art, literature, music, dance and documentaries – are searing images conveyed through film and photographs of the fatally wounded Twin Towers that finally fell to the ground, and still have the power to render us silent and bring us to tears.

This morning, as 8:46, 9:03, 9:37 and 10:03 a.m. arrived, we observed a minute of silence to commemorate the impact of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower, United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93 – targeting the United States Capitol, but commandeered by heroic passengers to divert its destructive path – into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Today, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is being dedicated in the presence of victims’ families, the first time in ten years that the public is able to step inside the World Trade Center site. Tomorrow, the site will open to all Americans. Two cascading pools are the footprints of the Twin Towers, symbolizing the title of the memorial theme, “Reflecting Absence.”

The Pentagon Memorial, dedicated three years ago today {September 11, 2008}, and The Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, dedicated yesterday {September 10, 2011}, have become hallowed ground for visitors across our country and from around the world. Those three sites – in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania – bear the scars of unspeakable horror, reminders of evil that was unleashed upon us.

In the words of David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, Osama bin Laden “did more to slash the fabric of American life than anyone since the Second World War” {Remnick, David. “Exit Bin Laden.” The New Yorker, May 16, 2008: page 35}. The attack that he masterminded heralded an abrupt change in American foreign policy, in national politics of retribution, a surge of intolerance directed against fellow citizens, the ferocious rise of Islamic fundamentalism, an epidemic of suicide bombings that sees no cessation, and regional wars.

Yet that day of horror did not lack for heroes. This is what Joseph Dittmar, a survivor of Two World Trade Center, remembers: “It was not until [we descended on foot to] the 35th floor [of the World Trade Center] that we finally got a good sense of what was going on because that was the first chance we had to run into the firefighters, the police, and the paramedics. It’s hard to talk about because we realized, after the fact, the looks on their faces. They knew exactly what was going on…and they knew they were not going to get out. They knew, and yet here they are, going up those steps…I thank them for saving all those lives that day…thousands and thousands of people were saved. We owe those guys. We owe them not to ever forget” {The StoryCorps Project. Listening Is an Act of Love, New York: 2007, pages 222-223}

A year later, in 2002, Bruce Springsteen released his 12th studio album called ‘The Rising.’ It centers on his reflections about September 11, 2001. In the song “You’re Missing” he gives voice to deeply felt emotions in the wake of the deaths of parents, mates, siblings, children and friends: a searing tableau of loss that touched everyone –

“Your house is waiting for you to walk in

But you’re missing;

You’re missing when I shut out the lights

You’re missing when I close my eyes

You’re missing when I see the sun rise

You’re missing.

Children are asking if it’s alright

Will you be in our arms tonight?

I have too much room in my bed, too many phone calls

How’s everything?

You’re missing.

God’s drifting in heaven…

I got dust on my shoes,

Nothing but teardrops.”

There still are tears for fellow Americans who were here, then suddenly gone. Cell phones rang in the rubble until their batteries wore down. There are tears for families and friends who were suddenly bereft. There are tears for our nation. It seems at times that we have no more tears to shed, and yet still they pour forth.

From the midst of our shock came resolve born of the need to remember. Every day of every week for months on end, newspapers throughout our country carried a full page or two of the names of twenty or thirty of those who fell on September 11th, and next to each name was a small photograph provided by his or her family. Below the photo was a brief description about his or her life, family, profession and interests, as well as a person or community project to which she or he had been particularly devoted. Anecdotes offered brief descriptions of what brought that person to live and work in New York City, or why native New Yorkers were so enamored of their town, and it made the loss feel even greater because of what had been wrenched from them. Sometimes you would read a recollection that began, “I remember when he…” or “She was one of the most…” Reading the paper came to feel like an endless secular recitation of kaddish for names given meaning through their photos, history, and the expression of their hopes and dreams. The snapshots of their lives fleshed out the enormity of our loss.

We weave their memories into the tapestry of our lives: their devotion to family, their love of country, and their dreams of a better world. We recall the words of poet Robert Nathan {1894-1985}:

“Where the northern ocean darkens,

where the rolling rivers run

past the cold and empty headlands

toward the slow and westering sun;

there our fathers, long before us

armed with freedom, faced the deep,

what they won with love and labor,

let their children watch and keep.

by our dark and dreaming forests

by our free and shining skies

by our green and ripening prairies,

where the western mountains rise;

God Who gave our fathers freedom,

God who made our fathers brave,

what they built with love and anguish,

let their children watch and save.”

God, instill in us a resurgence of devotion to our country.

Rekindle in us the spark that will become a flame of commitment to the civility and compassion that we felt for our fellow Americans in the days and weeks following the attack.

Bless everyone who serves our nation on land, sea and sky to protect us. God, protect them.

Bless us, our children and grandchildren. Shield us from harm. Fortify us with hope.

In the words of Isaiah, the most quoted of all Hebrew prophets, “Take comfort, take comfort, O my people” {Isaiah 40:1}.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin