Thoughts on 9/11/01 – In the Shadow of 9/11/11
Guest post by R. Basil Herring
Rabbi Basil Herring is Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America. He previously served as Executive Chairman of The Orthodox Caucus and the rabbi of congregations in Kingston NY, Ottawa Ontario and Atlantic Beach NY. His books include Jewish Ethics and Halakhah For Our Time: Sources and Commentary.
It was said at the time that on 9/11 our world had changed forever. And indeed it was true – in the first place for the 2,976 grieving families who would never again see the smile, or experience the hug, of their husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, or cherished one.
And in the second place, it was, and remains, true for those men and men in uniform who have protected each and every one of us with their exemplary selflessness. We are reminded of their heroic sacrifices large and small, offered in the penumbra of 9/11, whenever we see the names, and sometimes pictures, of the young, vital, and earnest, men and women in uniform killed before their time. Of course those who are “merely” wounded, in body or in soul, all too often remain unknown and unappreciated. But indebted we are, to all of them, for the fact that to date 9/11 has not been repeated on these shining shores in any similar fashion.
As to the rest of us, the shock, and the events, of 9/11 remain a searing memory, a wake-up call of epic proportion, much closer to home in both time and place than Pearl Harbor, made all the more immediate by the occasional warnings, alerts, security scares, or (in more mundane fashion) airport and building security lines, that have become an integral part of our comings and goings. We are after all a nation at war, a war that is without boundaries, against a militant Islamicist enemy that respects neither the universal conventions of warfare nor the unwritten codes of civilized behavior. And thus commits war crimes as a matter of course. Motivated by implacable religious fanaticism, and a determination to impose its will and its ways on the world, aided and abetted by hidden cells of religiously motivated malcontents in our midst, it is an enemy and a war of a religious character which, as recently as 9/10, few – if any – thought possible in a largely secular 21st century.
For us Jews, of course, 9/11 bears a whole other set of markers. The hijackers and those who sent them were the sworn enemies of Israel, and more generally of the Jewish people. By attacking the American homeland as they did, they brought home to all our fellow citizens, with vicious immediacy, the horrors that our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel have come to know and endure. The moral cretins who turned civilian airplanes with their passengers and crews into murderous missiles, to sow mass death and destruction in the very shadows of the symbols of American liberty in New York and Washington, regard America and Israel as two sides of one coin – respectively the “Great Satan” and the “Small Satan.” In so doing they have forced an unwilling humanity to recognize the threat that they pose not just to the Jews of Jerusalem and Jaffa, but to Western civilization as we have come to know it in modern times.
But even closer to home, for those of us who are religiously observant Jews, the cruel and bloody events of 9/11 and the decade that has following in their wake, bear particular weight and instruction. I refer to the specter, to which we have been witness these years past, of the debasement and distortion of the teachings of a world religion at the hands of deeply flawed religious zealots who have led their followers astray. Each time we hear of another outrageous bloody incident deliberately inflicted on innocent civilians in the name of their faith, we should be thankful for the incomparably more redeeming ethos that is Halakhic Judaism, dedicated as it is to inculcating ethical values and moral sensitivities in the heart and mind of the Jew, as an individual and as a member of the collective. Starting in the Torah itself, and then proceeding and developing throughout the prophetic and rabbinic ages and legacies, ours is a faith and a religion that has served to elevate and refine the moral fiber and behavior of a flawed human nature. It is that which has conditioned and uplifted us to improve ourselves and the world we live in, in every realm, be it between Jew and Jew, Jew and non-Jew, or Jew and the natural world, step by painful, but necessary, step.
Which brings me to Parshat Ki Teitzei, and the pivotal comments of Rambam and Ramban on the mitzvah of shiluach ha-kan. Why does the Torah command us to send forth the mother from her domestic nest before taking her young? It is an ancient conundrum, they tell us, and there are varying views. But for these giants of the cruel and dark ages in which medieval Judaism found itself, the fundamental and enlightened purpose of such mitzvot is not in doubt. This ordinance – they teach us – was not given us because it benefits God, or because the Torah wants us to be kind to the bird (for if so, why permit us to take its young at all), but for the solitary, and salutary, purpose of making us better, more sensitive, more decent, more civilized people. By stopping to send a mother bird away, we are ourselves more purified of the dross of human fault, even (or perhaps especially) those that are so easily and commonly dressed up in the cover of a religious guise. So it is with shiluach ha-kan, and so it is with every mitzvah of the Torah in its halakhic adumbration, whether we understand it or not. It is all the same.
As we remember the awful events of 10 years ago, let us be mindful of the sacrifices of so many. Let us be thankful for all that we enjoy as citizens of these countries that have brought us liberty and security. And let us rededicate ourselves to be ever better human beings, better citizens, and more committed Bnei Torah and Bnei Mitzvah, so as to continuously improve our own moral character and actions, no matter our station in life, and in so doing to play our part in the certain defeat to come of those at home and abroad who would presume to do us, our fellow citizens, and our fellow Jews grievous harm.