This past Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, America woke to a beautiful late summer day. By lunchtime, it had turned into a day of national tragedy that surpasses any single incident in our history. Our morning time had been turned into a time of mourning. Our national innocence was burning on two pyres some 80 stories above the earth, the first tragic victim in a well-coordinated terrorist attack. Countless thousands have perished, and even more victims will suffer the loss of parents, spouses, siblings, and children for years to come.
This week's Torah reading eerily anticipated our headlines. Words that we have seen for centuries take on new significance. "Re'eh natati lefanechah hayom et hachayim v'et ha-tov; v'et ha-mavet v'et ha-ra"...I have set before you this day life and goodness; death and evil. (Deut. 30:15) "Ha-odoti bachem hayom et hashamayim v'et ha-aretz hachayim v'ha'mavet natati lefanecha, habrachah v'ha'klallah; uvacharta bachayim l'ma'an tichyeh atah uvanechah." I call heaven and earth as witness this day that life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse; therefore you must choose life in order to live, you and your children. (Deut. 30:19)
We are conflicted with emotions right now. We are numbed by the sheer numbers of missing and presumed dead. And when we can move beyond the numbers and consider the unique individual losses, we are paralyzed. It could have been any of us in the air that Tuesday. It could have been any of us who went to work at some office job in the Pentagon or the World Trade Center like normal, on a normal-looking day. We cannot even begin to guess how many children have been made orphans, how many spouses have been made widows or widowers. We grieve deeply, not for the loss of strangers. No. We grieve deeply at the loss of people who but for an accident of geography, could well have been us.
We are angry, angry beyond belief. We are angry at the rejection of the standards of civilized behavior that leaves us feeling so violated and victimized. How dare civilians be considered a legitimate military target! How dare someone decree that innocent children of God, of all races, creeds, colors, beliefs, and religions, need to be slaughtered so that "America can be punished!" We are angry that the blessings and openness of this country, unique among the nations of the world, be subsumed and subverted in a way that not only makes these attacks possible, but ultimately threatens the continued existence of these very blessings and openness.
We are afraid, and on so many levels. We are afraid for whatever might come next. We are afraid of what this portends for the world our children might inherit. We are afraid of the sheer hatred that has unleashed this attack. When we look to the television and encounter reports of celebrations in certain corners of the world, celebration prompted by nothing more or less than the fact that America has suffered a terrible tragedy, we feel the fear borne of the thought that somehow there are people who actually approve of this viciousness. We are afraid that the chaos unleashed means that God is not in control of this world. In particular I have heard a number of people express their fears that somehow this attack is a sign that Jews are not safe in this country. I have even heard rabbis try and suggest that this attack on America was somehow something other, as though it were specifically an attack on Jews.
Yes, we feel these emotions and countless others. Dear friends, all of these emotions are understandable, and even reasonable. Yet, I suggest to you that they need not be our main response to this tragedy. Yes, we need to grieve. Our grief is nothing less than a show of love and support for the victims and their families. We need to be angry. We need to appreciate that not every society, not every country, indeed few societies and nations, could have been the target of such an attack, all for the simple reason that no other place in the world is so under-policed, so under-regulated, so open and absent restrictions. Part of what makes America so special was taken and used against America, to our own harm. We have a right to be angry when we are betrayed by a perversion of our values. Finally we have a right to be afraid. No longer can we afford the naivete that has been the hallmark of the American, along with Levi's jeans, chocolate bars and infectious smiles, for the last hundred plus years.
Yet friends, this is not all the answer. First and foremost, we should not be afraid as Jews. While many Jews did die in this terrible attack, it was not targeted against Jews. It was targeted against America and what this country uniquely stands for among the families of nations. We were targeted because of our values. The fundamentalist Moslem sees the liberal democratic state as an existential threat to the idealized theocracy of a strict Moslem society. This liberal modern state encourages free dialogue in the market-place of ideas. This liberal democratic state offers its opportunities to all, not to the scions of the ruling elite. This liberal, democratic state professes no allegiance to any one religion and thereby all religions can prosper while all their adherents can both benefit from and contribute to the common wealth of our country. If often these American values can be conflated with Jewish values, it simply points to the contributions to western thought that Judaism has made over the last 5000 years. No friends, we were not attacked as Jews, nor should we be afraid as Jews. If our history makes us more tuned into threats against our survival, so be it. At the same time, let us not try and particularize this attack as a Jewish experience. It simply isn't appropriate.
Second, we are due our outrage. Yet, let's keep in mind that "outrage" is different than plain "rage." Rage is simply uncontrollable, furious, and destructive anger. Rage has no redeeming element to it. Outrage is different. Outrage is the righteous anger that stems from witnessing an injustice. So yes, we are right to be angry. We are even right to be outraged. But let's make sure that our righteous sense of outrage does not devolve into senseless rage and hate. Just four days before this heinous attack, this congregation was brave enough to invite Mr. Farooq Hussaini, a leader from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, to visit and speak with us. The words we heard on our pulpit last Shabbat were enlightening, and I dare say encouraging. We heard with our own ears that Islam is not a religion designed to hate Jews and Judaism. We heard with our own ears that no Muslim should look to the Koran to find a justification for hate. We heard with our own ears that in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity, God is a god of love, of compassion, of mercy, of righteousness. We heard with our own ears that most Muslims do not countenance violence towards Jews and Judaism. And yet. A mere four days later we feel the hatred of fundamentalist Muslims against our country. We need to note that every major Islamic political action group in this country has condemned this horrendous attack. Today even in Tehran, Iran a minute of silence was observed in respect for America's loss in advance of a World Cup Soccer qualifying match. We can and should be outraged that the lives of innocents could so cavalierly be disregarded by terrorists. At the same time we need to make sure that we do not let our outrage devolve to rage and in turn see other Americans unfairly victimized because of their religion or ethnicity or their country of origin. We as Jews are the people most able to be sympathetic to what Americans who are Moslem or of Arab descent must be feeling right now. We above all should make sure that the evil perpetrated by a few does not come to besmirch others who are innocent.
Finally, we have a right to our grief. Our country suffered a horrible lesson last Tuesday; we have learned that absolute security and absolute freedom cannot coexist. We are a young country, and if our naivete and innocence is a victim of this attack, it can only mean that we will mature in the wake of our experience. America learned the lesson of the Kishinev pogrom of the early 1900's. As Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote in the wake of that pogrom in his famous poem "The Slaughtered City," in the wake of a slaughter, the sun will still shine, the wind will still blow, flowers will still bloom, and the birds will still sing. We will and do feel the sense of disconnect between the horrible, man-made tragedy, and the beautiful late summer sunshine. It is our grief that affirms to us what nature cannot: America has suffered this week, suffered something terribly. Yet, despite our grief, we know we have but one option. It is set in front of us for us to choose. We need to choose life.