Torah.org Home Subscribe Services Support Us
 

Message From McVeigh
Rabbi Avi Shafran

From the clearheaded conviction he displayed throughout his trial and imprisonment to the calm, defiant way he went to his death, Timothy J. McVeigh exhibited the determination and demeanor of a true idealist, which is, of course, precisely what he was.

That may be a jarring thought, but it is hardly arguable. And it holds an important lesson for all who claim to care about the meaning of good and evil.

The lesson was recounted in another context by the late celebrated biologist/essayist Lewis Thomas, who recalled the legendary dedication of an antecedent of his, a medical doctor who lived in the 1800s. The talented and humanitarian gentleman would selflessly make the rounds of a tuberculosis hospital every day, visiting the patients, placing his bare fingers into their throats to examine their tracheae, moving from patient to patient - without once ever thinking to wash his hands.

In those days before Lister and sterilization, much spread of disease was likely due to such well-meaning devotion to the cause of medicine. The idealism and good intentions were there. What was missing was only knowledge, but that made all the difference.

The doctor, needless to say, was in no way morally responsible for the damage he wrought. He had no way of knowing what his well-intentioned actions were yielding. But he stands as a poignant example of the fact that idealism doesn't necessarily lead to good results.

And it need not even be associated with goodness at all. The Talmud tells of a renegade Cohein Gadol, or High Priest, in the Second Temple era, who confessed to a friend that he had performed the most important priestly service of the Jewish year, the offering of incense in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, in the manner favored by the Sadducee sect, against the dictates of Jewish religious law. The friend asked him if he was not afraid of being discovered by the other priests. "All my life," he responded, he had been "pained by the verse" that he understood in the Sadducee manner. "And I wondered," the renegade continued, "when the opportunity [to fulfill it] might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

What is striking about that Talmudic passage is that it is, practically verbatim, what another account, in a different Talmudic tractate, has Rabbi Akiva saying as he was taken by Roman officers to his execution for having violated an imperial edict against teaching Torah. As he recited the Shma, his students were incredulous at his presence of mind while facing the iron combs with which the Romans flayed him alive.

"All my life," the sainted Jewish sage replied, addressing their wonderment, "I was pained by the phrase "[and you shall love Hashem your God] with all your soul'" in Shma, which implies that we must be ready to give up our very lives for the glory of heaven if necessary. "And I wondered when the opportunity might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

The implication of the identical wording is inescapable. The editors of the Talmud were subtly teaching us that the Sadducee's conviction was every bit as sincere as Rabbi Akiva's. The Sadducee was an idealist. But he was wrong. And that made all the difference.

Hitler and Stalin were idealists too, and as they faced death they no doubt regarded their lives as having been lived in dedication to a higher cause, to the betterment of mankind, no less.

Yassir Arafat may even be an idealist too, though there are ample grounds for wondering whether his motivations might include less than rarified concerns. The "martyrs" of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, though, are certainly idealists. Though they may be focused hungrily on the particular pleasures of the Islamic afterlife, they clearly die convinced that they are holy men dedicated to a sublime cause.

But they were, all of them, dead wrong. And, again, that makes all the difference.

Timothy McVeigh surely took great pride in his idealism and in the "unconquerable soul" he assigned himself. But he, too, was wrong. Indeed, like so many idealists, he was evil.

And so, as our image of him recedes into the dark, putrid place where bad memories reside, we might consider redeeming his life in a tiny way by reflecting on the lesson he inadvertently taught us, a lesson of particular poignancy for our relentlessly relativistic times: it's not enough to be an idealist; one must be right and good or our idealism means nothing at all.


AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.


 

ARTICLES ON KI SAVO AND ELUL / ROSH HASHANAH:

View Complete List

First in the Mind!
Rabbi Label Lam - 5763

Humility and Fruit
Shlomo Katz - 5765

Parshat Ki Tavo
Shlomo Katz - 5764

Looking for a Chavrusah?

No Atheists in Foxholes
Rabbi Yaakov Menken - 5761

Framed Symbols: Part I
Rabbi Aron Tendler - 5764

The Power of One Word
Rabbi Naftali Reich - 5766

Frumster - Orthodox Jewish Dating

Poor Beginning, Wealthy End
Rabbi Yisroel Ciner - 5760

Sound of the Unheard Shofar
Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann - 5764

Wake Up!
Rabbi Label Lam - 5767

ArtScroll

The Evil of the Ingrate
Rabbi Aron Tendler - 5760

Parashat Haazinu
Shlomo Katz - 5764

The Fast of Gedalya
Rabbi Yehudah Prero - 5760

> Selichos: It Pays to be 'First in Line'
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5765

Yehi Ratzon - Text and Instructions
Rabbi Yehudah Prero - 5760

Call of the Shofar
Rabbi Yaakov Menken - 5760

Self Cancellation
Rabbi Pinchas Winston - 5763



Project Genesis

Torah.org Home


Torah Portion

Jewish Law

Ethics

Texts

Learn the Basics

Seasons

Features

TORAHAUDIO

Ask The Rabbi

Knowledge Base




Help

About Us

Contact Us



Free Book on Geulah!




Torah.org Home
Torah.org HomeCapalon.com Copyright Information