Rabbi Melanie Aron
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5762 - September 17, 2001
The Meaning of One Death, One Life
Perhaps it's spending so much of my life at funerals, that makes last week's events more difficult to absorb.
I know what one death is like. I have been with families grieving for one father, one sister, one son. The gaping hole when death comes suddenly, unexpectedly. The tears and the pain, the exacerbation sometimes of existing family fault lines, or sometimes thankfully, the healing that coming through a crisis together may bring. Most often there are plans that will never come to be, hopes unfulfilled, happy events in the future whose joy will be diminished by the absence of a loved one. Rarely are there no regrets. If the survivors are children, there is the terrible knowledge that this loss will not be easy to overcome. I know what one death is like.
But over the past few days, it has been difficult for me to hold in my mind, the deaths of so many victims of the September 11th attack. I try and put it into some context that I am familiar with - if I officiated at three funerals a day, and continued from now until Jeremy, who was just Bar Mitzvah, graduated from high school, could I lay to rest all of the dead from last week's tragedy? What becomes of all the sorrow, the burdens of so many people?
In most ancient times the taking of a life was an offense against the family of the deceased. That made sense. The family suffered the loss, both emotionally and economically. Therefore the family had the right to avenge the loss. In the Bible you can see a transition taking place, as murder becomes not just a crime against the family of the victim, but also against society. Cities of refuge are established, places for an accidental man-slaughterer to flee. Whereas originally the sanctuary was an automatic refuge to whomever could reach it, now it is society that decides whether the criminal deserves protection from the avenger. If, as the Bible describes, the killer is one who has killed unwittingly, without having been his victim's enemy in the past, then he can stay. But if he has lain in wait for his enemy and strikes him a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, then he is taken even from the corners of the altar and handed over for punishment.
Murder is not just an offense against the human community but it is also an offense against God. In murdering another individual, one is blotting out God's image reflected in every human being. That is why Jewish law came to require an almost unattainable level of certainty in imposing the death penalty, and why we are required by Jewish law to intervene in order to save a life, even where we are not directly involved.
The first murder in the Bible, of course, is Cain killing Abel. Here some commentators attempt to blame God- after all God didn't accept Cain's offering and that's what seems to have started it all.
But the Bible rejects this rationalizing. Bad things happen, we may even be treated unfairly, that does not entitle us to lash out. Cain is warned, as his blood begins to boil, " if we do right, there is uplift, and if we do not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is towards us, yet we can be its master."
The rabbis read into this story every contemporary source of warfare: economic, political, religious and even sexual. They tell us that Cain and Abel divided the world between them. Cain took all the moveable property and Abel the land. But even the whole world divided among two brothers was not enough. Cain said to Abel, why are you wearing clothing that comes from my property? And Abel said to Cain, why are you standing on the earth?
Others say they were competing over Eve, the only woman alive, our own Helen of Troy.
And still others say that it was religious intolerance: that they were arguing as to whether the Temple would be built on the property of one or the other.
Cain and Abel, living in a world before Torah, a world without law, were not able to manage their conflict, were not able to find a way to live together. Placing this first fratricide so close to the beginning of the Torah was to shows us how deeply ingrained in humanity is the recourse to violence.
Perhaps closest to the events of this week, is the attack of the Amalekites on the Israelites following the crossing of the sea. We are told, that contrary to the established conventions of warfare at that time, the Amalekites attacked the camp at the rear, attacked the weakest members of society, the civilian stragglers, old men and children, rather than the armed men at the front. Perhaps for that reason the Torah treats them differently from all the other enemies of the Israelites. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for 430 years. They forced cruel labor upon them, they embittered their lives with hardship, yet we, the Israelites descendents, are commanded in the Torah, "you shall not abhor an Egyptian".
The Amelekites are a different story. They are viewed as enemies of God. When the battle is over and Moses builds an altar it is called Adonai Nisi- which the Torah translates as "hand upon the throne of the Lord". And the Bible reminds us: "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages". The Amalekites, as a people, disappear from the pages of history, but the concept of the Amalekites is evoked whenever an enemy arises who recognizes no limitations, who abides by no laws, who dehumanizes those who are targeted for death and feels no compunction in wiping them out. Amalek is the enemy of every organized community.
In 1938 Mahatma Gandhi, who was leading a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience against the British, published a statement in the newspaper suggesting that the Jews in Europe adopt that strategy in Germany. Martin Buber the prominent philospher wrote a response that was published on February 24th, 1939. Buber was a pacifist; later he became an outstanding Jewish proponent of a bi-national state in Palestine. He was not a man of war. But he wrote Ghandi a letter, saying in essence that not every enemy is British: civil disobedience works only against those with an underlying respect for human life.
I do not wish to see America at war. I pray that we do not imitate our enemies and become Amalek, indiscriminantly killing civilian non-combatants. Doing so will not prevent further terrorism and will only encourage another generation to rise up against us. But neither should we be innocents, who refuse to recognize murderous hatred when it is directed against us.
In America we have differences of opinion and still go out to coffee. In the House and Senate, and even on the Supreme Court, the most partisan of opponents may still be personal friends. Arthur will be pleased to know that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsborg, and Justice Anthony Scalia enjoy attending the opera together. I may be a Republican and you a Democrat but we can still live side by side, our children attending the same schools, our arguments limited by the conventions of our society.
It is not like that in all parts of the world. Conflicts are not seen as limited, compromise is viewed as treachery and enemies are demonized.
As Jews, our concern for Israel makes us think of fundamentalist Islamic extremism mainly as a danger to the Jewish homeland in Zion. But Islamic fundamentalist extremism is active in other areas of the world as well- ask Hindus in Kashmir, ask Buddhists in Afghanistan, ask the Southern Sudanese Christians and Animists, ask the Ibo's in Nigeria.
It is not Islam with which we have a quarrel. Islam is a beautiful religion, closer in many ways to Judaism than Christianity. It has a sense of halachah which Christianity lacks, and a tradition of midrash. It has been in some times and places, a religion of tolerance and humanism, of learning and culture. Our enemy is a particular narrow and totalitarian political use of Islam, a perversion of Islam. An Assyrian Bishop I spoke with on Sunday evening used the analogy, bin Laden is to Islam, as the KKK is to Christianity. Perhaps we can get the analogy a little closer, as Timothy McVeigh was to fundamentalist Christianity, as Yigal Amir is to Judaism. Even if Israel did not exist, there would be conflict between the West and this version of Islam, as there are conflicts between this and other more mainstream versions of Islam. As the United States creates alliances around the world, we reach out to Muslim countries to join us, so long as their professions of sorrow at our loss, are accompanied by a serious commitment to renouncing terrorism as a means of achieving political goals.
There are those who lay blame for recent events on the economic disparity between the United States and the peoples of the Southern Hemisphere. It is embarrassing how disproportionate a percentage of the world's resources we use here in the United States. Working with other religious groups on the appeal for the year 2K Jubilee debt forgiveness for African nations, I learned about the hardships we create when insisting that debts to the West be paid back. I hope on Yom Kippur, or perhaps given the dislocations of this high holidays season, it will be on Children's Sabbath in October, to talk about the terrible moral quandaries related to the exploitation of children around the world in factories and fields. We cannot ignore the suffering that exists in much of the world. We need a Marshall plan for the 21st century. But, it is also true that inequities within poor countries are a cause of poverty and destitution, and that often local elites take no responsibility for the well being of their citizens. Judaism urges our allegiance to the government wherever we live, on the presumption that government is an important protector of the well being of the inhabitants of the land.
The massive deaths at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center were for some a challenge to their faith in God. The randomness of death, the vulnerability of the good and the innocent, all belie a simple understanding of God's action in our world. Our tradition would put theological justifications of the sort Jerry Fallwell recently presented, in the same category as the foolish responses of Job's friends. After Job loses all of his property, his children and his health, his friends come to visit proclaiming that God is wholly righteous and that if he has suffered then he must have sinned. The Bible rejects these words of comfort as being neither helpful to the situation nor insightful in providing a deeper understanding of the workings of God.
While for me there are no simple answers to the theological problem of evil, there was much in the past week that spoke of good and the presence of God in the hearts of people. It has been a long time since I have heard stories of self-sacrifice like those of the fire fighters climbing up the stairs in the World Trade Center, and of courage, like that of the cell phone heroes on the Pittsburgh flight. Individuals on crutches were carried down 50 flights of stairs, volunteers who felt that they had useful skills drove 10-12 hours through the night to come and help. There have been tremendous acts of generosity from people of all of the many different faiths and nationalities that make up New York City and from countries around the globe.
It is also significant that even under these most difficult circumstance, our country has spoken out strongly against acts of violence or threats against those whose ethnic background or nationality might lead them to be identified as related to the perpetrators of these terrible acts. To me this speaks to a wonderful decency in the American people. When on Friday I spoke on the phone with David Aboujoudon, one of the leaders of our Arab- Jewish dialogue, he expressed surprised at the statements of American government officials, community leaders, ordinary citizens and in particular Jews. His experience in the land of his birth, and the attitudes he had been taught, did not lead him to expect this.
I am a rabbi who tries to help people at times of loss and I know the meaning of one death. But I am trying at this difficult time to focus also on the meaning of one life, on the good that can be added to our world by individuals acting with courage, faith and love. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who preached during the difficult days of the 1930's and 40's described the task of good people as follows: to stay sane in the midst of madness, to stay civilized in the midst of brutality, to light candles in the midst of darkness. If we rise to those challenges then we will repair through our own actions the damage that has been done to our families, our society and our God.