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The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is a day not only to remember all of the precious souls who died that day, but also to take a longer view of the impact—both positive and negative–of that awful day on our lives and our country.
I will never forget that day. I was leading my congregation in prayer that morning at the exact moment we first heard the sounds of fire engine sirens racing down the streets of New York City’s Henry Hudson Parkway. Never did I imagine how much we would all need to pray in the coming days.
As a rabbi I am especially sensitive to the way that the terrorist attackers misused and abused religion and God’s name in perpetrating their attacks.
When we look back at that event 10 years later, one of the most comforting things to see is how the American Muslim community has overwhelmingly denounced the attackers as not speaking in their name or in the name of Islam.
Furthermore, I think that the American Jewish and American Muslim communities have come closer in response to that attack. I can only speak from my own personal experience, but I know that since 9/11, I have gone out of my way to foster more relationships with the American Muslim community, and I feel that that has been equally reciprocated by my Muslim neighbors.
However, 10 years later there is also cause for concern.
In the Bible, the archenemy of the Israelites is the evil nation of Amalek. The Israelites are commanded to always be wary of Amalek. The rabbis explain that the sin of Amalek was that they literally “cooled off” the Israelites. What this means is that the rabbis teach that when the Israelites departed from Egypt the whole world was in awe of the miracles of the plagues and the splitting of the sea. The world respected and admired the Israelite nation.
But then along came Amalek and attacked the Israelites. In doing so, they cooled them off. They did so in two ways. First they showed that the Israelites were vulnerable to an attack. And second, they introduced a horrible cynicism into the narrative of the Israelites’ miracles. They said we are not impressed with the miracles that God did for you and therefore we can and will attack you.
And you know what it worked. The attack of the Amalekites caused the Israelites to believe less in their own destiny.
Cynicism spreads, even when it is spread by our enemies.
Looking back at 9/11, I think that al-Qaeda fostered an increase in cynicism in our country. For many of us it was the first time we experienced a major attack on our own country. Until that moment we were living in blissful ignorance of the dangers around us. There is something very positive about blissful ignorance. It allows us to believe in the impossible. It allows us to think we are capable of things that a rational person wouldn’t think are possible.
And after all, isn’t this the story of America? We have always been the nation that believed we are capable of great miracles and works of genius. We declared that we would put a man on the moon and we did it.
But now I worry that we have lost some of our confidence. Al-Qaeda punctured our belief in ourselves and we need to remember to ignore them. Al-Qaeda’s greatest threat is not the physical, but the attack on our belief in our own destiny; they have spread disbelief and cynicism throughout our land.
But they are wrong. We are a great country and we are capable of doing great things.
So this 9/11 let us remember the dead. But let us also remember the great things we have accomplished in our history and promise ourselves that despite the evil intentions of al-Qaeda we will continue to soar for greatness.
Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C.