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God Squad: 9/11 and belief in the enduring triumph of freedom

I try not to think about 9/11 until it comes around each year. Thinking about it too much is both frightening and numbing to my soul. It's still too big and too evil to sit comfortably among my remembrances of things past.

Even in the days just after the attacks, I found myself turning off the television after just a few minutes because the images of 9/11 were like staring at the sun. They burned my ability to see anything else. Still, every 9/11, I force myself to stare at them again.

The deepest truth that's remained with me during the past 13 years is that Americans can be killed, but America cannot be defeated by terrorism. This is not because America is the greatest country, whatever that might mean, but because America is founded on the greatest idea -- the idea that all people are created by God to be free.

No force on Earth can defeat that idea because it's true and because it's the only idea that people will fight and die for with all their strength. I do not believe that people will die endlessly to create a worldwide caliphate or to crucify and behead those they don't understand or respect.

The only idea that holds its power, no matter the sacrifice, is that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. No force on Earth can defeat those who know that freedom will always triumph over fanaticism. This month is also the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Even on that September day when Hitler invaded Poland, it was clear that his forces of fascism eventually would be defeated.

Today, I have the same certainty about ISIS. Freedom will win again. It may win in blood, sweat and tears again, but it will win.

In this 13th year since the 9/11 attacks, I also remain in awe of the way ordinary people will respond to the call of duty during bleak times. The first responders were the most dutiful and the most sacrificial. They did what they were trained to do, but they and many others also did what duty compelled them to do. Think about the support of so many for the families of the victims, the patience of so many who were burdened by the reconstruction of the attack sites, and the unified political support that put aside trivial differences for the sake of the common good.

I know that much of this dutifulness and virtue has faded since 9/11, but just knowing that it's there and will certainly reappear when needed most constitutes a reservoir of hope in America and Americans that fills me with pride and patriotism.

Thirteen years ago, I spoke at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 24 at the first memorial service as president of the New York Board of Rabbis. On that day, we thought that 3,000 people had been killed. But, 3,000 people did not die. One person died 3,000 times. The real horror of that day lies not in its bigness but in its smallness, in the small, searing death of each person. That one person was not a number, but our father or our mother, our son or daughter, our grandpa or grandma, our brother or sister, our cousin or uncle or aunt, our friend or our lover, our neighbor or our co-worker, the gal who delivered our mail, or the guy who put out our fires or arrested the bad guys in our town.

The death of each and every one of them alone would be worthy of such a gathering and such grief. Our sages taught that when one kills a single person, it is like killing the whole world altogether, and when one saves a single person, it is like saving the whole world altogether.

At the end of my words at the memorial service, I quoted Job (14:7): "For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant." I've learned and forgotten many lessons in the past 13 years, but I still believe the words I spoke on that day. I still believe in God's wisdom through Job, and I still believe in America and the triumphal and true idea that freedom will win.

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