Eleven Days in September: Remembrance, Reflection, Renewal.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Eleven Days in September: Remembrance, Reflection, Renewal.

A new grant, some new ideas. A framework of Earth, Water, Air, Fire. I encourage you to print out this overview, reflect upon it (reflection is the main point; the medium is the message!), and write us what arises in your reflections. And PLEASE SHARE THIS LETTER WITH OTHERS. I will begin with a report on my discussions, and then proceed with the Earth/ Water/ Air/ Fire pattern. The basic proposal is that religious communities initate the taking of time in American society this September — either literally eleven days, or some focused time in which "Eleven Days" is symbolic — to discuss the meaning of the terror attacks of 9/11/01, their aftermath, and the implications for the future of America in world society. Drawing on discussions I had with a group of religious activists in Washington and on a number of other conversations, I am writing you where things stand in the "ELEVEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER" Project. Judging from Emails I have been getting, volunteer interest and willingness to cooperate and create are high. The New World Foundation has given the project a seed grant, and this week we at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal were notified by the Nathan Cummings Foundation of a grant that will make possible some serious staff involvement, not only here through The Shalom Center as the instrument for carrying out this ALEPH project, but also, we hope, in other centers of religious thought and action. There are many creative possibilities that have arisen. What times. places, and forms are invitations to reflection and to seeing the US as part of the world? The many ideas I have heard reach toward three crucial dimensions: (a) Crossing boundaries, affirming the compassion and sense of community that welled up on 9/11 and carrying them beyond the American border. (b) Reflecting on the role of religion. What aspects of religion and of the world call forth religiously-committed violence, and what aspects of religion and the world call forth religiously committed compassion? For any of our communities, what is the relation between the passionate adherence of its members to their/our own principles and practices that they/ we feel must be upheld either for the community's own sake or for the sake of healing the world, and their/ our longing for communally rooted universalism? What is "tribalist triumphalism"? What is "universalist community"? In what situations does either take up violence as a method? (c) Uplifting the role of reflection in society, of pausing not just as individuals but as a community, in a rhythm of life that includes but is not solely about rushing ahead to Do and to Make. How does taking time for reflection bear upon the content of action, includng action post 9/11? (Before going further, let me note and ask that you reflect on this: One thing I am aware of is that the way of going at it that I am abouit to suggest is rooted in the religious sensibility. What could/ should we doing with preparations for a Labor Day that will come as the anniversary of 9/11 is looming?) In thinking about actual plans for gathering, we had begun with the notion (which originated with Rabbi Daniel Siegel of ALEPH) of gathering at the waters of "Tashlich" or "Casting," the traditional Jewish service at riversides on Rosh Hashanah (which will fall this year on Friday night/ Saturday/ Sunday, September 7-8). In that service, pebbles or bread crumbs are cast into the waters to symbolize our effort to give new life from the waters of rebirthing to the energy within our misdeeds, turning that energy toward good. Many with whom I talked felt that our strongest need is to share the stories of our lives around the planet, just as we have shared the stories of the lives of those killed at the World Trade Center and as we have shared the stories of compassion and courage to protect and heal each other. Images of planting, light, and the earth of the Pit in New York, also arose. It occurred to me to organize these thoughts in a liturgical process or practice that would follow the classic four worlds of reality that rise up in many spiritual traditions: earth, water, air, and fire. So I am sharing a sketch of how this pattern might be applied. But I do not suggest that we be mechanical in applying it. Some communities may be able to create an entire day of Remembrance, Reflection, and Renewal during September, using the Earth/ Water/ Air/ Fire rubric. Others might take four evenings during September to explore, each evening, one of these four. Still others might decide to focus on one of these motifs. And some may find this pattern unsuitable for their community, but find a hint of possibility in what is gathered here, for their own way of doing this. Let me say again: This way of going at it is rooted in the religious sensibility. What could/ should we doing with preparations in the labor movement for a Labor Day that will come (Sept. 2) as the anniversary of 9/11 is looming? I welcome hearing your own thoughts and reflections on these themes. Shalom, Arthur Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director The Shalom Center

I. Earth

Bring together sacred earth. Earth from the site of the World Trade Center, earth from Afghanistan, from the two or three or more Jerusalems, from the cemeteries where the dead of 9/11 were buried and the cemeteries where Africans dead of AIDS and malnutrition are buried. Should there be a special cncern for earth from Mecca — the sacred earth that moved Al Qaeda to murder because they felt the presence of a foreign army polluted it? How could the energy beneath the murderous misdeed — energy that flowed from the sense of sacred earth — be turned toward good? If people of other religious traditions than Islam gathered with Muslims from their own American community to treat this earth of Mecca as venerable, would that show forth a loving affirmation of one of Islam's most sacred obligation — the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca? In the wake of 9/11, Americans have rediscovered (from the hidden place of secularized forgetfulness) the sense of "sacred ground," as we have debated the uses of Ground Zero. Can that rediscovery help us into empathy with a religious tradition in which sacred ground and pilgrimage are crucial? Could a multi-spiritual American community be led through a reenactment of the Hajj with US Muslims explaining, acting out the symbols? In each American community — or many of them — is there ground that is recognized as sacred? Earth from a beloved forest, a well-remembered graveyard, a children's playground? Could sacred earth from around the world and from the World Trade Centers be mixed with the local sacred earth? Could a tree of new life be planted in a central place, with such mixed earth scattered at its roots?

II. Water

Gathering at riversides on Sunday, September 8, would offer a strong time and place to share a sense of the shared waters of this planet. In some situations, people might actually bring water from the Ganges, the Red Sea, the Nile, the Amazon, the Euphrates, from the East River and the Hudson River that run past Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site, to pour into a local stream. Everywhere, the stories could be shared of how these waters are in fact intertwined. How they rise from God's great planetary aquifer, how they pour into a planetary sea, how they are troubled as the ice melts and the oceans rise. And of how their peoples are intertwined. What is happening in Iraq, home of the Tigris and Euphrates that are the staples of every elementary-school recital of the birth of civilization? How are the American and Iraqi peoples intertwined? If they go to war, what will be the results? Water as a mirror: In 1943, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the very midst of World War II and the Nazi murders of the Jewish people, asked us to reflect upon our own responsibility, to look into the mirror of history. He asked, "Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?" And he — the Polish Hassid just transplanted to America — answers as a Hassid might, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him." When the Baal Shem Tov said this, he almost certainly was focusing on the spiritual situation of an individual who in order to grow must take the world not as an external object but as a moral mirror — who must treat the discovery of evil as a spur to look inward, to examine what evil lurks in his/ her own heart. But Heschel takes this insight in a new direction. He applies it to a whole society, a whole people, when it sees political evil at a national level. Heschel writes: "We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? "Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man." By 1943, Heschel knew that members of his own family and already more than a million other Jews had already been savagely murdered. Yet he could draw on the depths of Hassidism to call Jews themselves, along with all of Western civilization and culture, to face their own share of responsibility for having let the disaster happen. And he could fuse questions that were conventionally seen as distinct — issues of economics and issues of religious and spiritual experience. For, he said, "the vision of the sacred" had been killed by "greed, envy, and the reckless will to power," by not addressing such economic problems as unemployment. Heschel did not take this unblinking look in the mirror as an excuse to back away from a radical condemnation of Nazism. He did not oppose the war on which the Allies were then engaged. Yet he could in the very midst of that war write, "Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. ... The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever." He could look deep into that war, beyond it and within it and beneath it, to ask not merely what were its causes, but what was its meaning? And he found spiritual meaning in taking responsibility upon himself, ourselves, for having helped create the world in which "the mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God." If Heschel could write in this way in 1943, what would it mean for an American to think this way in 2002? Contemplating water, can we look into its depths where we are mirrored and without condoning murder, ask ourselves the question, What is our own responsibility? This look into the water may be the place for such discussions: literally and directly, examining the role of American agencies in training and arming Al Qaeda; far less directly, assessing what role US military, economic, and cultural policy may have had in the emergence of anti-American rage and hatred in some Muslim communities; most indirect of all, trying to absorb and assess the history of Western religious attitudes and the impact of the West's sponsorship of Modernity upon different religious communities, including our own. And most important, asking what the "sacrifices of peace" that Heschel mentioned might now mean in our own generation, looking forward.

III. Air

Breath. The breath of Silence, the silence of breathing. We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. We breathe each other into life. Part of the reflective time of Eleven Days in September should be to take in this intertwining and to understand that the policy of the US government and the behavior of American society have profound effects on the world's air — and through it, on global scorching as it will damage North America and the rest of the planet as well. The breath of Words: Breathing, we shape conscious human meaning by shaping the way our tongues and lips breathe sound — words — out into the world. And not only breathe words out, but also breathe them in as we breathe in oxygen. Here is where the stories of other cultures and of the American interaction with them could be shared. Who can tell the stories of children dead of AIDS in Africa because drug companies charged high prices to secure high profits? The stories of the Latin American poor who were ordered to pay "user fees" for water because of the "structural adjustment" demands of the International Monetary Fund? Or the Senegalese workers whose unemployment rates went from 25% to 44% in five years of "structural adjustment"? Or the Burmese who opposed a pipeline placed by Unocal and were subjected to rape, torture, and forced labor when Burma's army enforced obedience to Unocal? Can these stories be told, perhaps in alternation, alongside the stories of "America the Beautiful," the America that does actually and already reach out in transformative compassion? To honor the "Eleven" in our memories, gatherings of Americans this September might frame for themselves Ten Questions and One Action they will take, to address these issues. Ten Questions they will bring to government and corporate officials, and One Action to change their own lives in a more compassionate direction.

IV. Fire

A candle. Light. Enlightenment. And at the heart of every candle-flame, if we look closely, the dark of Mystery. Not ignorance to be conquered but Mystery to celebrate. Light from fire. Fire as the blaze of destruction, as it became on 9/11. Oil. Oil fueled the fire that destroyed the Towers and 3,000 lives. Our own oil. The same oil for which our troops sit on Saudi soil, become the weapon of our own conflagration. But fire can also give the light that lets us see each other fully, see the rainbow of cultures, religions, societies, species that make the Rainbow into a symbol of renewed hope, renewed life. If we stare hard into a blaze of red, the color of the fires that destroyed the Towers, the color of blood, of death — stare hard and then for an instant blink — we see green. The color of the Garden, of grass and trees and fruitful life. During these Eleven Days in September, we must stare hard into the face of death, the fire of destruction, and then allow ourselves to blink. To "open" our eyes by closing them, not to forget death but also not to be mesmerized by it. We look to see the light of what we see with our eyes closed, the light of another possibility. Dreams of new possibility are what we see with our eyes closed. Mystery. Light to see each other with. During these Eleven Days we light candles to remember the individual dead, to stare at the face of death around our planet, to see within each candle the dark of Mystery, to see by candle-light the Rainbow in our varicolored faces, to blink and see new possibilities.

Again: I wlecome frank and serious comment arising from your own reflections on these suggestions. — Shalom, AW