The “high place,” in the Hebrew Bible, was a source of constant vexation to the “orthodox.” Scholars have long puzzled over what was meant by the term, the assumption early on being that they were geographically the highest points around. Although that interpretation no longer holds the sway that it once did, the concept of the high place has remained. I suspect that’s because there’s something mystical about being at the highest point around. July 3 was a rare holiday for everyone in the family, so this year we headed to High Point State Park. High Point is the geographical highest point in the state of New Jersey, up near the New York border. It’s not as high as the mountains you might see in the western part of the country, but at the top there is a panorama that gives unbroken visibility in 360 degrees. Except for the tower.
Towers are just as biblical as high places. They are very human and always contain at least a small element of hubris. Nature may have said thus far and no further, but we can go higher. And those of us with the inexorable will to climb, must go up. The view from the top isn’t very good since the windows are steamy and the mildew makes you a little leery of getting too close, but the climb is intensive, even for those used to stairs. Nevertheless, a kind of light-headed giddiness attends standing at a point higher than which you cannot go. I pulled out my altimeter to discover we were 1690 feet above sea level. In New Jersey you can’t get any higher. Were there angels up here? How close to Heaven were we? Towers are irresistible as the mythical builders of mythical Babel knew. And although we couldn’t see Manhattan from here, I knew that just across the river taller towers stand.
One World Trade Center stands at a symbolic 1776 feet, higher than we were at the moment. It was, after all, the requisite holiday to celebrate independence that brought us here in the first place. The vistas that we could see, however, were relatively undeveloped, a rarity for the state of New Jersey. If we had the time, we might have been able to get out into nature itself instead of these structures that humans build to mask the fact of our own limitations. Maybe that’s what high places were all about in the first place. Every day I walk past the Empire State Building on my way to work. I can see it if I find an office with windows. Over my head up here, on the very top of New Jersey, I see a bird soaring. I think of Melville, and Ahab, and Manhattan. Slowly I begin my walk down to lower places.
September 11, 2001 is on America’s collective consciousness. A decade ago thousands lost their lives in a religiously motivated and misguided attack on what some see as a wicked culture. Those who hate America have never come to know it. What a sad commentary it is that religious belief lends its strength of conviction to those whom it has convinced that evil is righteousness and that terror is divine. It is somber to experience this tenth anniversary so close to New York City. When I ride in to work now every day I see the new World Trade Center rising, literally, from the ashes. It is a monument to what America tries to embody.
Twin towers, 13 years old.
Our nation is not perfect. None is. Too easily we accept the casual relegation of various minority groups to poverty. Too easily we allow the obscenely wealthy to escape all sense of social obligation. Too easily we focus on our selves rather than our community. No, we cannot claim to be perfect. Nevertheless, we strive for an ideal that will not die.
Some have boldly claimed twentieth century notables as “the greatest generation.” I believe that praise, although deserved in a sense, to be misplaced. The greatest generation was that rag-tag group of colonial citizens who’d fled from cesspools of oppression to find freedom in a new world. They were not perfect. They oppressed and displaced Native Americans who still suffer under repressive policies that ensure the great embarrassment of their treatment will remain out of sight. The greatest generation I envision is those who, at the risk of their own lives, decreed that the world should, must contain a haven for those who cannot live without a free conscience. A place where religion, or even the very words you say or write, cannot be dictated by the government. A place where people could go on to become the putative “greatest generation”s of the future.
When I first heard about the attacks on 9/11 I was at Nashotah House. Those first moments of confusion were terrifying—our daughter had just started school and was not close enough to hold. My wife and I watched the television in sheer unbelief, tears on our faces, our lives being forever wrenched and twisted in new directions. In was a day that sobered up an entire country.