History demonstrates that major traumas in a nation's history can be a turning point for a generation, reshaping its view of the world.
In America, for example, the elders of our society recall the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor as the catalyst for World War II. The next generation witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, all within a span of five years in the mid-'60s.
Each time people reveal a wide spectrum of emotions such as profound fear, anger and revenge, as well as sacrifice, compassion, empathy and unity -- all of these wrapped inside the blanket of mourning and grief. Now we come to the current generation experiencing the same pattern of emotions as America commemorates the 10th anniversary of the attack against our country on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ten years is long enough to ask ourselves the question of whether we are emerging from this catastrophe a wiser and better nation. The question reaches beyond the events themselves, but, instead, encompasses the long-term effects upon our national psyche. My own view of the answer is that the jury is still out deliberating on this question.
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First and foremost, the commemoration of the 10th anniversary should be about paying tribute to the memory of everyone who perished that day. It should also acknowledge the ripple effects on families, friends and first-responders who live with that never-ending feeling of loss and emptiness. America must reassure those who lost someone that their loved ones are enshrined in the nation's memory.
One could think that level of thought would be enough mourning and reflection for everyone. However, 9/11 has bequeathed America two wars, thousands of soldiers who have given their lives for their country, the creation of a new front in the culture wars regarding whether or not the influence of Islam in our country is a good thing, and on top of that, an economic tsunami with which we are still contending. The handprint of 9/11 might be directly felt or indirectly present in these events. All of these events have forced us to question our security in the world and have compelled us to ask: Just what does it mean to be an American today?
The world also has considered these issues as well. But fundamentally we are the ones who must decide whether we are a family that can heal itself or one that will never learn how to cope with the grief and follow a pathway of self-destruction. We talk a lot about leadership, but, what we need our politicians, religious leaders and business community to do is take the moral high ground in their deliberations. It is time to face the underlying problems that surfaced out of 9/11 and that have afflicted us since that fateful day.
Our task is to prove that oft-quoted term "American exceptionalism," is not about success in the business community or simply reflective of American political or military prowess, either. Instead, American exceptionalism is about proving to ourselves and to the world that America has the moral fortitude, vision and spiritual calling to not indulge the temptation to hate our neighbor, or be seduced by false prophets in our culture who peddle their egomania in the form of doctrines of deliverance and false grandeur.
From my reading of history, America represented itself as the one country in the world where people had a second chance at a better life. To be an American means to embrace a history of struggle for equal rights, as well as to accept the responsibility to live peacefully and respectfully with fellow citizens who do not look like us or pray like us or vote like us.
The world needs to see we will not turn away from these values, especially the value many people dream about -- coming to and respecting this country as a land where anyone can succeed through hard work and discipline. That is my view of American exceptionalism. This is what we must cherish and protect most about our society, and this is what is at stake and why I believe the jury is still out on our prospects to heal our wounds from 9/11.
Preserving the best of ourselves in maintaining a civil and moral society that values every citizen is the best weapon to deter the despots of hatred and the terrorists who seek to discredit America and seek our demise. These values flow out of the great religious traditions that make up the tapestry of American culture.
An example from American Jewish history that makes this point clear is a letter that President George Washington wrote on Aug. 17th, 1790, to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote, "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it in all occasions their affective support."
Every religion, ethnic group, race and gender must have the same protection and ultimately feel they have that protection not just under the law, but in the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. The world needs us to rededicate ourselves to the faith that America will struggle yet prevail in the long run to be that country with the value system others only dream about, where anyone can make it and be free with hard work and respect for our neighbors.
Sept. 11 cannot be defined by any one place or person. It is a date and a moment of time that lingers on inside us, speaking to us of our unique destiny in history and of the hope that we will, in fact, emerge a wiser and better country.
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.