by Rabbi Ben Spratt, Senior Rabbi
As we turn tonight to Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of turning and returning, we hold these days of awe for reflection. This year, Shabbat Shuvah beckons us to remembrance as well, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11th. Tomorrow marks the 20 years since the most lethal attack on American soil in our country’s history. We mourn the 2,977 people killed when terrorists used four commercial planes to bring death to New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
My first worship experience at Congregation Rodeph Sholom was with a congregation weeping and afraid, gathering to face the horrors wrought on our City. Never before had I experienced such necessity of community, nor the solidarity and purpose we would forge together. For many of us, it was our first personal experience with evil, the skies scorched in smoke and shadow, a skyline forever altered, so many lives and families shattered.
I will forever remember sitting with the teens of our congregation, robbed of an innocence and forced into grief. I will forever remember our own community members whose lives were taken. And I will forever remember the love, the courage, and hope that we created together.
In our Torah, as Jacob wrestles with the angel, he turns to the angel and asks, “Tell me, what is your name?” Our sages of old, however, imagine this was not an angelic being of goodness, but perhaps instead a malevolence seeking to eradicate the very foundations of Jacob’s being. They imagine this bearer of destruction replying, “You want to know my name. Do you not know that evil has no fixed name? Our names always change in accordance with the times.”
Over these two decades, we learned that evil exists in this world, known by many names. 800,000 American service members served in Afghanistan since October 2001, nearly 3,000 of whom died trying to root out evil halfway across the globe. Even as we sit in the complicated legacy of the war against terror and in the controversy of our current withdrawal, we honor those who fought against evil and sought to protect our democracy. And we celebrate the firefighters, the police officers, and the emergency medical professionals who risked, and gave their lives here in New York City in the face of this evil.
And over these same years we have learned that the name of evil lurks domestically as well. We see within our own country the forces that would justify the harming of innocent lives for the sake of upending our democracy. We see incivility, damning division, and intolerance taking root. We witness an unwillingness to see change as both necessary and inevitable. For all the solidarity and unity that many felt following September 11, 2001, 20 years later we see how much work remains to bring our nation together.
Returning to Genesis, as daybreak arrives, Jacob is given a new name: Israel – one who wrestles with things both divine and human. One who sees a world of both evil and goodness, and chooses to engage. One who grapples with a world of complexity and reaches towards a better day. Limping from the injuries of the attack, amidst the remaining rubble at his feet, Jacob consecrates the place of his struggle. It would become a reminder, for him and for all generations, both of the danger faced, and the resilience raised.
Hannah Arendt wisely stated, “Action without a name, a who attached to it, is meaningless.” In our remembrance of September 11th, we claim our own name, a name that calls us to action, a name that knits our own belonging into a larger story of nation and globe. As Rodeph Sholom, we claim our mantle as pursuers of peace and wellbeing, for ourselves and for all. We remember all that has been lost, and in the same breath reach with purpose. We honor the dead by speaking their names, and infusing their legacies into our own lives. We raise our eyes to a skyline forever changed, yet still rising with new signs of possibility. We make hope our most precious responsibility.
Join us tonight, Friday September 10, for Erev Shabbat Services at 6:00 PM as we remember, mourn, pray, and hope together. You can register to join us in-person or stream online through our website or Facebook page. We will be joined by firefighters from Ladder 3 and Ladder 74 to help honor the heroism and sacrifice of so many twenty years ago. In worship and commemoration, we will mourn the losses within our own congregation and across our country. On this Shabbat Shuvah, we recount these 20 years even as we turn to shape a new year and new chapter together.
SHABBAT SHUVAH | Marking the 20th anniversary of September 11