Friday, September 9, 2011

Struggle with Evil – thoughts about 9/11 and the Torah reading Ki Tetze

I am from New York. The twin towers that were destroyed with over 3000 lives was an integral part of my landscape growing up.

The 10th anniversary of this indiscriminate brutal murderous act belongs first to the victims and their families.

The death of a huge number of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan does not detract from the tragedy of 9/11. I don’t believe grief should be compared. It is insensitive to say to American’s that the death that followed 9/11 should cancel their outrage about this ghastly deed. Just as it grotesque to dismiss the devastation of Iraqi and Afghan families and lives lost. I think the prophet Jeremiah was reflecting the human condition when he imagines the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem crying out “Behold and see, if there is any pain like my pain”  היש מכאוב  כמכאובי?[i]

When I visited the site of ground Zero a year and some months after the attacks, the strange smell was still in the air. I stood at the fence around the hole in the ground and said a prayer while I contemplated the horror of the victims and their terrible horrific deaths, jumping from buildings etc.

I walked around the block and saw graffiti on a wall that said, “kill the Muslims”. I thought that there were two paths, the one chosen by Bin Laden and the brutal killers of 9/11 along with the graffiti artist, this is the path of us and them. The other path was one of reaching out to one another. I got some flack from some school friends about my work in Interfaith.  I made a vow to God at that moment that I would persevere with this work.  

The word Jihad burst into the consciousness of western world, at that point. For me, the word Jihad has come to mean something entirely different. In the 10 years since 9/11 I have made countless friends among the Muslim community. I have learned the idea of “the greater Jihad”, the battle with Evil within. I am grateful to those in Governments who take responsibility for protecting the community from violence, from wherever it comes. With the physical security being attended to, I am free to focus on the beautiful meaning of the word Jihad, the spiritual struggle against Evil. If enough people of all backgrounds, can succeed with the greater Jihad, the lesser one of violent conflict will be less likely.  

This struggle is not turn us into angels, although the complete eradication of evil is one ideal to struggle for[ii]. For most of us, our challenge is not to become something entirely different[iii] but simply to be human, half animal, half divine and to make good choices. These involve the ability to distinguish between ends and means, and no matter how pure and holy one’s cause, never to fall into the ugly place in which all the “others” are monsters are fair game and deserve to die because they are part of the dark side.

We are told twice to help a person struggling with a donkey, first we are told about a case with your enemy[iv], the second time we told about helping a brother[v]. This is interpreted as reflecting the truth that by working together we can turn an “enemy” into a brother. This will not always work, there are people for whom the blood of the others is of little consequence, these people are referred to at the end of our reading that reminds us that there are some people who attack the vulnerable, the stragglers, the tired, such as Amalek who must be fought[vi].  

Yet there are others who can be reached and improved through education and habit forming choices starting with ourselves. At first we might see the needs of another such as a lost object and be tempted to look away, but after forcing ourselves to do the right things a few times “you will not be able to look away[vii]”.

The stakes are high. Our portion talks about a rebellious child who can be put to death at his parent’s discretion if he disobeys them[viii] and he is a drunk and a glutton. On a literal level this is a pre-emptive punishment because such a person will eventually commit more serious crimes[ix]. There is an argument in the Talmud that the idea of the rebellious son is only theoretical and can never happen[x], it is only so that people learn from it and recognise that a failure to educate a child combined with indulgent habits and choices can lead to horrific outcomes.  

For me 9/11 is about the need to stand up to evil, not to be tolerant of small acts of violence which can lead to even greater violence. At the same time each of us must struggle with the evil inside of us, the temptation to paint our own as the good and see the other as collectively evil and deserving of destruction. May the victims of this tragedy not have died in vain, may bigotry and violence be removed from the face of the earth.

[i] Lamentations 1:12
[ii] Tanya Chapter 1, the work of the Tzadik
[iii] Tanya, part 1
[iv] Ex. 23:5
[v] Deuteronomy22:4
[vi] Deuteronomy 25:17
[vii] Alshich, a creative interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:1-3 quoted in Studies in Devarim, Leibowitz, N.
[viii] Deuteronomy 21:18-21
[ix] Rashi
[x] Talmud Sanhedrin

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