Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis
Congregation Kol Ami
Flower Mound, TX
And after the fire, a small still voice (I Kings 19)
The German Philosopher Ludwig Wittenstein declared, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” So what are we to make of something that leaves us speechless? Something so incomprehensible, so alien, that words fail us? Such an otherworldly event seems to have overtaken America on Tuesday when, in coordinated attacks, suicide terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, crashed airplanes filled with travelers, and massacred as yet untold numbers of innocent people. And to add to the horror (is it possible at this point?) is to realize how the killers actually used, not only themselves, but also many of their victims as weapons to kill others. It seems otherworldly in its evil, truly diabolical in the root sense of the word – the work of demonic forces.
On reflection, However, these actions are all too human. When my wife said to me, “It’s like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie,” I was shaken out my dumb horror. Of course, as Hollywood shows us in movie after movie, human imagination can conjure up such a plan, and human ingenuity can make it real. The sobering truth is, infernal fires burn brightest in the human heart. Alas, poor humanity.
This truth is never far from the minds of Jews. We have known, have witnessed, and as often as not, have suffered by such humanly diabolical invention throughout the millennia of our history. Already 2500 years ago Isaiah was wise to observe, “The human heart conceives evil from its youth.” The savage suddenness and arbitrary cruelty of the terror attack that leaves we Americans fresh with horror is, sadly, a dread the People Israel have known for too long.
But then, in the midst of the cruelty, the chaos, the blood and fire, we are starting to hear other stories. These too are stories of self-sacrifice. But instead of suicide in the name of mass murder, these emerging stories are about self-sacrifice in the cause of life. Already we know that perhaps hundreds of New York firefighters died in the heroic effort to save and help the victims of the WTC attacks. No doubt other harrowing stories of courage and altruism on behalf of the victims will become known. Clearly this tragedy reveals there are many who have hearkened to Ezekiel’s call to replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, hearts that responded in a moment of crisis to the suffering of others with the last full measure of love and devotion. If there is any comfort to be found in this tragedy, no doubt it will be found in such examples.
But for now we are far from the possibility of comfort. So let us instead mobilize our other Godly capacities. The Bible calls upon us to “walk in God’s ways.” How may we do this? Just as God is compassionate, let us act with compassion. Just as God lifts up the fallen, let us too lift up the fallen. And just as God keeps faith with all who sleep in the dust, let us keep faith with all those who died Tuesday; seeking justice on their behalf, offering support to their families, and comfort to all those who have suffered. May the small still voice of conscious and caring be heard in the aftermath of this fiery horror. May the voice of God stay with us long after the burning pain and passion of this moment starts to recede.