The Destruction of an American Shrine
By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Rosh Hashanah 5762--September 18-19, 2001
L'shanah Tovah Tikateivu--It is really good to have everyone together today. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good New Year. When our people, the Israelites, were in Egypt, God brought upon Pharaoh and his household and the entire land of Egypt ten plagues. The tenth plague was the most serious and damaging of all the plagues, because it was the killing of the first born. There is a verse in the Torah which describes the devastation of that plague and it is this:
...there was not a household where there was not one dead (Exodus 12:30)
This year, this verse speaks to us and to our community in a very real way. For although the clear majority of people whom I spoke to did not suffer any casualties within their immediate family, still everyone seemed to know someone--a nephew, a cousin, a neighbor, a co-worker, or a business associate--who was hurt or killed or, as we say, missing. This past week we all talked to each other incessantly in order to find out who was where and at what time and whom did we know and where were they. We wanted to know--Who came late to work that day? Which floor was that person on? Who was covered with soot and ash? Who made an exodus from the city, by foot, over a bridge, a briefcase in hand? Did you have family in the building? So many questions and so many answers--and by the end of the day, there were still a far greater number of questions than answers.
...there was not a household where there was not one dead (Exodus 12:30)
The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11 affected us all, and as some commentators say, the world, and certainly America, may never be the same.
But in spite of this phrase from the book of Exodus which struck me as particularly fitting, the analogies stop there. America, unlike Egypt, is a world of freedom. Our government, unlike Pharaoh's, is a democracy. And the genesis of this terror was not the Lord, as in the Exodus story, but a new kind of enemy who is computer literate, filled with hatred, and committed to self-destruction.
Because they are believers in a radical Islamic fundamentalism, they characterize themselves as religious. And this designation is accepted by us with very little question or challenge. And yet, among mainstream religious groups within the western world--and this includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--no one sees their so-called religiosity as anything but a violation of everything sacred. They may say that they work in the name of Allah, which is just an Arabic name for the very same God that you and I worship [we would use the term Elo'ah], but this is a bold and transparent lie.
You know, I hate to project myself as an authority on anything, but let's say I know a thing or two about religion. I happen to be a specialist in Judaism, but religion is basically my business. When I consider the activities of these so-called religious terrorists, it seems to me that what defines them is not a commitment to prayer, to family, or to study--all central to monotheistic religious lifestyles--but to self-destruction and violence. At the risk of oversimplifying this, I nevertheless apply the rule of the duck to them which is this: If what you're examining does not look like a duck, or feel like a duck, or sound like a duck, then the possibility is great that you aren't looking at a duck. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, the new enemy is an idolater in monotheistic garb. He may think he worships Allah, but clearly he does not. He worships death, not life. He spreads violence, not peace. He does not die a martyr but simply self-destructs. His god is not our God. He claims to be religious. But he is either lying, or more generously, someone has deceived him into thinking that this sort of political radicalism and fanaticism is religious.
I watched this one woman from Queens, and she was clutching a photograph of her son. It was an 8.5 x 11 photo of a handsome young man, dark hair, an engaging smile, and she held the photo next to her heart. She says to the reporter, "He's missing." Then she goes on to say that several years ago, she lost one son to leukemia and she isn't ready to give up on this one. And yet, she is a religious person, and if this is "God's will" [those were her words], then she will soon find a way to accept the reality that her only other son is not going to be found.
Her faith, and probably her church community, will combine to help her through this horror and the tragedy of her losing her only other son. But I shudder to think that in order to make it through life, she has to regard her son's death as God's will. If she came to me, I would tell her that her son's death is not because of God's will, but rather because God's will was violated. But God is going to take care of this poor woman in Queens, I know. He is going to show up at her doorstep in a hundred different ways. She'll think it's a neighbor bringing her some soup, or a nephew calling to see how she is, or a parishioner calling her to go to church, or friends asking her to go to a movie. But it will be God. For wherever and whenever we fulfill the will of God--comforting a mourner, caring for a person who is wounded--that is where God is found.
When the Children of Israel were in the wilderness, and needed to build a mishkan or tabernacle, there was a building campaign. Everyone was asked to contribute something--linens, skins, oils, incense, precious stones, and so forth. The people wanted to create a home for God within their camp, so the outpouring of contributions was tremendous. Finally, the word comes to Moses:
...the people are bringing much more than is required for the work itself (Exodus 36:5)
And this too happened this past week. The call went out and New York City was inundated with bottles of water, flashlights, socks, and sweat shirts, etc. It was so overwhelming, eventually city officials had to ask people to stop contributing material goods. Mayor Giuliani, in an almost a prophetic manner, pointed to the extraordinary benevolence of so many. From the fire fighters, to the police, to the volunteers clearing debris, the counselors, the clergy, the doctors, the nurses, the people showing up with search dogs, the veterinarians, the people willing to donate their time-all of their hands were the hands of God. The pancaking collapse of the towers was a disaster of biblical proportions, but the inferno seemed to have ignited the good within the human spirit.
People could have run scared. Instead, they ran to volunteer, to help, to rescue, to repair. Last week began with evil and ended with the triumph of goodness over evil.
In all honesty, not all clergy are of one mind on how God was operating last week. I heard one Christian cleric claim that the attack was due to American arrogance and that God had thus brought about an act which would generate a period of introspection.
Another Christian cleric noted that God was angry with the unraveling moral fabric of America and had thus sent America a wake up call. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, in what I can only politely describe as the most creative theological speculation of this past week, blamed abortion rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, homosexuals, and feminists for forcing God to remove His protective shield from around America. These kinds of rationalizations are as bad as the Islamic apologists who claim that terror is the result of American support for Israel. This is not time for fantasies. Let's demand logic.
Terrorism is not due to American support for Israel and terrorism is not due to the American Civil Liberties Union. Terrorism is due to unscrupulous men who use violence for their own political objectives. And yet, there is room here for self-examination.
God tells us to be vigilant. God tells us to do everything within our power to protect the innocent because that is the only ethical way of life. The truth of the matter is that the simultaneous hijacking of four jets at the hands of close to 20 terrorists, represents a huge lapse in airport security as well as central intelligence. Over the years, we have consistently chosen freedom over security and thus placed restrictions on both the FBI and the CIA which have hampered the vigorous pursuit of criminals and terrorists. The country is reviewing its stance on wiretapping and political assassination on foreign territory, which has been prohibited, in an attempt to strengthen the hands of law enforcement. Does this mean that our civil liberties may be compromised? Perhaps, temporarily. But there is a saying in the Talmud:
Better to violate one Shabbat so as to observe many other Shabbatot (Yoma 85b)
Our civil liberties are sacred, but we may be asked to temporarily suspend certain freedoms in order to gain victory over an unscrupulous enemy for whom civil liberties means nothing.
The tragedy of this past week must force us to review our understanding of the tensions in the MidEast. We must admit that our read on the MidEast conflict has been off base. We have watched Israel attacked repeatedly and called for restraint. We have watched from afar the Israeli policy of targeting and assassinating known terrorists and criticized it as only contributing to MidEast tensions. We have naively construed this MidEast conflict as a war between Palestinians and Israelis. But it is much more than that.
Samuel Huntington, the Harvard Professor of International Relations wrote a book entitled "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order." In it, he posits that global tensions in the future will center around the clash of western versus non-western cultures. So, for example, the problem with the Mid-East is not that Moslems hate Jews, but rather that Israel is a western import in a decidedly non-western world. What does he mean when he says western? He means that Israel is a country with values similar to Europe or America's, a country that espouses universal human rights, equality, women's liberation, separation of church and state, the secular rule of law, democracy, free markets, or in other words, the civil state.
This is completely at odds with Arab culture. The Israeli columnist Ari Shavit wrote in Ha'aretz, which is the Israeli equivalent the New York Times, an observation about the Palestinian terrorists. He writes: "They hit the Sbarro pizza parlor, the Netanya shopping mall, the Dolphinarium disco. They hit the yuppie Israel, not the yeshiva Israel." Why? Because the Islamic fundamentalists do not fear traditional Judaism. Rather, they fear the implications of Jewish modernity. Our democracy will bring their dictators to ruin. Our free markets will challenge their oil cartels. And the most subversive aspect of our society which they fear are the freedoms we have granted to women.
We might also add, just to drive home the point, that the last Middle Eastern country to flirt with western modernity was Lebanon. For decades after World War II, Lebanon was a working democracy, with a more or less free press, a free economy, a strong currency, free trade unions, competitive elections and a rather prosperous population. Then Syria moved in and all was lost.
In short, as Americans, we have been sucked into this idea that the MidEast conflict exists because the Jews and the Arabs are merely fighting over land and boundaries. But as Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister dramatically proved, there was no amount of land great enough to return to the Palestinians which would be satisfactory. The problem is neither land nor boundaries. The problem is that Jews represent western modernity, a particular conception of life and the universe which is a threat to everything the Arab world holds dear. We can no longer look at this conflict narrowly. The world of Islamic fundamentalists see the west as the enemy, and therefore see the greatest exponent of the west, America, as the enemy.
This Thursday, I will be attending a memorial service for one such American enemy. His name was Lee Adler. Lee worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. I remember when he first got the job and we both thought it was so cool that he was going to have an office on the 103rd floor of one of the towers. He and his wife Alice lived in Northport for a number of years and they loved Long Island, but they always complained about not being able to find a synagogue that they were comfortable in. Eventually, they moved back to Lee's hometown, in Springfield, NJ, joined the synagogue where I was the rabbi, and then a couple years later, I moved to Long Island. And such is life. He had a very dry sense of humor. He actually had a PhD in Nuclear Physics. I once asked him if he could build a nuclear bomb and he said, yes if I could get him the parts. His daughter, Lauren, will become a Bat Mitzvah this November.
The statistics suggest that there were over 5,000 Lees that were murdered last Tuesday, and when you think about that, it's very easy to slip into a hatred mode. The deaths of so many make us angry. We want to lash out. Hate is a very powerful feeling and it has a way of bringing people together. Just about every demagogue in history has understood its power and resorted to it to accomplish his own ends. But I am grateful, as I hope you are, that as Jews, we are taught not to hate:
You shall love the stranger, for you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19)
I hope that none of us fall into a blind hatred of the Islamic community. That would be a terrible injustice. Moslems also died in the World Trade Center. Moslems also fear for their lives. Moslems are also humiliated and shocked when the actions of a few color the entire community in a negative light. Mayor Giulinai has cautioned the community against taking bigoted actions against our Islamic neighbors who are good citizens, hard workers, and assets to the community. And we, better than most, ought to understand the hurt that prejudice and bigotry can cause.
The other day I was thinking about how many small discussions after a Shabbat evening service or among a group of friends began with a specific speculation about the genesis of World War III. And it always typically began with a small band of radical Jews deciding to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for the time had come to reestablish the Temple. I can never recall any such discussion with speculation about the downing of the World Trade Center.
But one thing is true. This new war, if that's what it is--its execution will probably assume many unconventional forms, unlike the wars we have ever seen-has begun with the destruction of a shrine. The Twin Towers did represent capitalism, free market economy, and the civil liberties that typically accompany those economic structures. The two of them stood proudly at the tip of Manhattan without any need of protection because who would want to attack such monuments to freedom and prosperity? But now we know that this question itself is a measure of our naivet�.
We read a portion from the Torah over Rosh Hashanah known as Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac. In this portion, God asks Abraham to make a supreme sacrifice, to give up his only son, the most beloved son, to God. And so Abraham, without hesitation, travels with Isaac to the sacrificial altar.
And Abraham took wood for the offering and had Isaac carry it... (Genesis 22:6)
So here is poor Isaac carrying the wood that supposedly would be used as fuel in a burnt offering, in which he himself is the offering. The good news, as we all know, is that Isaac is not sacrificed. God stops the sacrifice before it happens, but the scene is a stark reminder to us that those who are most vulnerable are the ones who carry the seeds of their own destruction in their hands.
We have to divest ourselves of a few illusions. Not everyone shares our passion for freedom. Not everyone welcomes the prosperity we enjoy. Not everyone is happy that women are free. We have to begin looking at the world with grater clarity, and take those precautions that will guard our persons and the persons of our families and friends, lest we walk to an altar of sacrifice carrying the fuel of our own destruction.
I don't believe that the terrorists can bring an end to western civilization. They are clearly intelligent, but they are zealots and their zeal will cause them to err. And however flawed our own society may be, it is a fundamentally decent society and a brutally honest society. In America, truth is important, and the truth always prevails. The destruction of the ancient temple marked a turning point for Judaism. Its destruction unleashed some of the most creative thinking among scholars and rabbis who restructured a devastated Jewish people and allowed them to live a spiritual life for the next two thousand years. The pivotal nature of that catastrophe is forever remembered with the smashing of the glass at a wedding. We remember the destruction to forever keep Jerusalem in our hearts and to know that destruction is not forever, not for a people that always looks to make the most of life.
There is no doubt that the tragedy of this past week marks a critical juncture in American History. War is on the horizon, but something wonderful must also be on the horizon. I'm not sure what, but our faith in God, our faith in the superior nature of truth and decency, our faith in a messianic age must necessarily lead us to believe that today we welcome not only a new year, but a new world. May our vigilance lead to greater freedoms for all. May our zero tolerance for terrorists lead to greater international security. May our new understanding of geopolitical tensions lead us to promote civil liberties more aggressively.
Turn my mourning into dancing.
Exchange my rags for robes of joy.
I want to sing Your praises and not be silent.
I want to thank You, Lord my God, forever.
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