The Torah speaks in numerous places about what will happen to the Jewish people and the world in the climax of history. Some of the prophecies are clear---that the sufferings of exile will come to an end and we will return in peace to the land of Israel. Others are obscure and will only become understandable as history unfolds.
One of them reads, "You shall be mad from the sight of your eyes that you shall see." (Deuteronomy 28:34.) What that sight will be is not spelled out. And the phrase "that you shall see" appears redundant. But nothing in the Torah is redundant; it must be there for a reason. And indeed, the seemingly superfluous words are there to further pinpoint the prophecy: the maddening vision will be such that we shall see it whether we want to or not, it will not be something from which we will be able to avert our eyes and ignore.
The horrifying spectacle of the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers is a fulfillment of the prophecy. The image haunts us; it is inescapable. On television, in newspapers, in our mind's eye, that deranged fantasy come true is something that holds us in its thrall, forcing us to confront a new and frightening reality.
It is a reality of death and destruction; but more than that, it demands of us the answer to a question: What is to be done? That is the question on everyone's mind, and we are already seeing a variety of responses.
Some people joined the heroic rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site. With pick and shovel, in some cases even with bare hands, they scraped at forty stories of rubble on the remote hope of finding someone still alive. Their efforts were scantly rewarded. Nevertheless, as one volunteer told the BBC, "I think it will probably be the best thing that I have done in my life."
There were other responses, as well. The generous hearts of the civilized world poured forth with relief supplies and words of support for a shattered America. And thousands stood on line for hours to donate blood to the victims.
And now, there is a readying for war. A coalition is forming. Ships and planes are moving into position. It is a necessary response; how far it will have to go is as yet unclear.
These are the practical responses. But the spiritual response has not been ignored. Many joined the lead of America's President Bush in praying for the dead and the living, and for the future of all of us.
Anyone who doubts the importance of spiritual resources in this time of crisis is mistaken. Despite the vast military might and the far-flung intelligence network of the United States, the nation was totally blind-sided by the daring acts of a handful of true believers, armed with nothing more than knives.
As Islamic militant, Abdullah Azzam, declared to an American crowd in 1988: "After [the defeat of the USSR in] Afghanistan, nothing is impossible for us anymore. There are no superpowers.... What matters is the willpower that springs from our religious belief." ...And among the papers of El Sayyid Nosair, charged with but not convicted of killing Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1990, was this: "We have to thoroughly demoralize the enemies of G-d... by means of destroying and blowing up the towers that constitute the pillars of their civilization, such as... the high buildings of which they are so proud."
We may despise their twisted religion of hatred and violence, but we cannot deny its power. Anyone who still thinks that our salvation lies in material force alone is living in a dream world. Israel and America need the kind of spiritual empowerment that until now has been hijacked by the forces of evil.
And yet, many of us cringe at the sight of public prayer. The very word "G-d" has been expunged from liberal discourse except as a common expletive.
The brainwashing has been going on for a long time. I remember growing up with a stock character, a man who often appeared in the background of cartoons, carrying a large placard that read: "Repent, Repent, The End Is Near!" He was the prototypical religious crank, detached from reality, bearing a moral message that no one paid attention to. Proof of the power of ridicule, I internalized the attitude that the idea of repentance is a joke. Millions of others did the same.
Language has a lot to do with it. Repentence is a word redolent of sin and guilt. In Hebrew, however, the corresponding word is teshuvah, and the concept is completely different. The word teshuvah derives from the root word shuv, which means return. A Jew who has strayed from his people's tradition, is beckoned to return. The soul of each Jew is hewn from the Throne of Glory, and partakes of G-d's essence. Coming back to our Jewish identity means coming back to the spark of divinity inside each one of us.
Moreover, teshuvah has an historic dimension. According to Jewish tradition, teshuvah existed before the world was created and is integral to its ultimate redemption. As the verse in last week's Torah reading said, "And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, then will you return to the Lord your G-d." The Torah predicts that the exile will culminate with a mass movement of teshuvah, a development that we have been witnessing for some years now.
Regarding this historic teshuvah movement, the Torah says that "it is not in heaven, nor is it beyond the sea, but close to you, in your mouth and in your heart." We do not have to climb into fighter planes to combat the enemy; we do not have to travel across the seas to help dig out the dead in New York City. The positive, meaningful response that we crave in this time of crisis is in our own mouths and hearts; in words of prayer and acts of love.
At this time of year, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, there is a special mitzvah of teshuvah incumbent upon us. These ten days are a time in which G-d is especially accessible. More than any other time of year, His hand is outstretched to accept us back.
Last week, when the pinnacles of power in America were going up in smoke, it seemed to some people like the end was indeed near. What we have to realize, however, is that though it may be the end of an era of arrogance and complacency, it can be the beginning of a more spiritual time for all of us.
Or, to coin a phrase: Repent, repent, the beginning is near.
Sources: Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim L'Torah; George Will in the Washington Post; Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah; Orchot Tsadikkim, Sha'ar HaTeshuvah.