A Field of Memory and Prayer

From Seth

We break our radio silence after our four-day reteat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, during which time we disconnected from our devices (for the most part). And, since we were taking a break from road tripping as well, we took a break from the blog.

The retreat was in two parts: one part spent in prayer, meditation, yoga and silence to support our own spiritual practice, and the other part was spent in study and training. Yohanna and I spent the week with eight other rabbis and cantors studying about prayer.

As part of this, we investigated the process of hitbodedut, a Hasidic practice which is essentially “freely talking to God.” Made popular by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov, one engaging in this practice would put aside the prayerbook, find a private place, and open up their heart to God, saying whatever came to mind.

More on this at another time, maybe even another blog, but for now, you could just know that in one of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on the subject he speaks about going out to the fields to engage in this practice. And this reminded me of another field that we saw right before the retreat.

One of the nice things about road tripping is that you can make a stop or change direction on a whim. In our original itinerary for the trip, we had planned to do a long day of driving from Ypsilanti, MI to my parents in Bethesda, MD. (The kids were going to be spending a few days with their grandparents while we went to the retreat.) However, since we had done some long days, we decided to break up the trip and picked a spot along the way to pull over for the night. After exploring Pittsburgh for part of the afternoon, we stopped in Somerset, PA.

This was just an overnight pitstop until I looked up Somerset on Wikipedia to learn more about the area. It was then that I discovered that we would be just 20 miles away from Shanksville, PA where, on September 11, 2001, the fourth hijacked plane–United 93–crashed in a field after the passengers confronted the hijackers. Because of this, it never reached its intended target somewhere in Washington, DC.

For a generation 9/11 is a key event, one of those events you remember where you were when you heard about it. I had visited the memorial in lower Manhattan with its cascading waterfalls at the footprint of the World Trade Center. Now we would have the chance to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial, which is formally a part of the US National Park Service.

The memorial was very powerful. The museum in the visitor’s center was informative and thoughtfully done, including details of the day and the aftermath, focusing on the story of the plane, the investigation, and the local community (including recordings of phone calls from passengers to loved ones.) But beyond the museum, the memorial’s design succeeds in being just that–a memorial. From the parking lot, one walks down a long black granite walkway to a platform overlooking the field in which the plane crashed. The power of this walk is that the walkway is constructed along the flight path, so one literally walks the exact path and direction the plane was travelling until arriving to see the actual crash site.

At the end of the walkway at the overlook, engraved in glass, is the phrase, “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.” It is interesting to think how the events of 9/11 and Flight 93 did turn this ordinary place–a beautiful, pastoral field in rural Pennsylvania–into first a site of terrorism and a crime scene, then to a gravesite for the victims and a focal point of national memory and history. The ordinary can become extraordinary.

Which is the other takeaway of the visit. We don’t know actually what happened aboard that plane, the specific sequence of events, but it seems pretty clear that the passengers (who had heard about what happened at the World Trade Center) organized to disrupt the hijackers plan. Whether the passengers were able to wrest control or the hijackers grounded the plane or both, for example, we do not know. What we do know is that they did act.

Here, too, the ordinary became extraordinary. Ordinary people on a flight to San Francisco faced with a difficult situation rose up to take extraordinary action. I thought to myself, what would I have done if I was on that plane? Its a question that we often ask ourselves when thinking about historical events: what would I have done if I was there? But it is not just an exercise in history–this is the question we need to ask ourselves right now. It is the perennial question when it comes to the social justice issues of our day: will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it?

And it is not just about major isolated events. We know that 9/11 also led to increased Islamophobia and distrust of Muslims in this country, leading up to our current president’s Muslim travel ban. Will we rise up to take action when the situation demands it? Will we stand up for the oppressed, the targeted, the unjustly hated? Will we oppose a climate that fuels the flames of xenophobia, links the actions of some to an entire group, excludes rather than includes?

Looking out at that field in Shanksville, it was my prayer that we recognize our human imperative to answer “yes.”

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