Once again our nation remembers that which has not been forgotten. Three years ago, 9-11 challenged our innocence and our protected sensibilities. As we witnessed the wanton destruction of so many lives, the shocking helplessness, numbing fear, and overwhelming emotions seared our souls and branded our hearts. The heart of humanity was not pure and its soul was not proper. Beamed into the illusionary safety of our homes and consciences was the unmitigated face of evil. It could no longer be denied. Fifty years in the turning of the cosmos, one half a century of the greatest advances in medicine, technology, industry, and the human domination of space and time had done nothing to advance the heart and soul of man. The truths of our parents and grandparents were now the truths we must teach our children and grandchildren.
It has been three years. In that time our President responded as a true leader. Young men and women traveled half a world away to confront evil and make a difference. Some were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Their families deserve our deepest felt appreciation and prayers. May G-d give them the strength to bear the pain of their sacrifice. May their hearts be filled with pride in the everlasting contribution they have made in the eventual victory of goodness over evil. Their sons and daughters have not died in vain. They are the new heroes who represent the greatness of the human spirit and the indomitable goodness that is the United States of America.
There are those who still do not understand, or worse, refuse to care. They are either evil or foolish. Regarding the evil, we pray daily to witness their destruction. Regarding the foolish we pray that G-d protect us from them, and they from themselves.
Understand that central to the human condition is self-centeredness and rationalization. The evil are beyond rationalization. They have no need to rationalize because the evil are not conflicted. They are truly the ones who see good as evil and evil as good. In their tragically twisted souls they believe they are doing the ultimate good. We pray that G-d destroy such evil. We do not ask for revenge or justice. We simply ask that G-d excise such unmitigated evil from the body of humanity. It cannot be rehabilitated or retrained. It cannot be isolated and contained. It must be cut out and destroyed and like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah leave behind a scar that will forever remind us how low we can fall.
The foolish play the game and politics of self-delusion. They are the ones fully invested in rationalization and denial. They do not understand that we are given moments in life to make a difference and advance goodness and redemption. They want to believe that evil needs a reason to be evil and do evil. They look at themselves and ask, What would bring me to the point of perpetrating such destruction on a world that I otherwise thought was good and decent? There must be a point of no return where the only possible response is destruction and mayhem. Once assumed, the foolish seek to substantiate their assumption. Something must have happened to force an otherwise decent mother to dress her child in explosives and send him out to kill himself along with the enemy. What would it take for me to do the same?
The falsehood is that in a world of decency and goodness there is never a point of no return. A decent mother would never pride herself in sending her child to kill the innocent and pure. However, because most of the fools live in societies where basic decency and goodness are taken for granted they assume that the same is true for all people and all societies. They cannot imagine a society founded on evil spawning generations of evil. G-d, please protect us from the fools! They know not what they do. They think they mean well but instead of goodness and decency they are accomplices to evil.
But maybe I am wrong! Maybe they are right and I am wrong? Maybe the mother who kisses her child goodbye hoping that he will kill and maim countless children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters readying themselves to go under the chupah (marriage canopy), is the decent one. Maybe there is a justification that I am simply incapable of understanding because I have become so calloused and insensitive to human suffering? Maybe so.
You know, I am beginning to think that I am wrong. Maybe I am the foolish one, or even worse, the evil one. Let’s be scientific about it. Numbers do not lie and majority often rules. Even if I would arrogantly assume to represent all Americans and all Jews, I would represent less than 300 million people in this world. On the other hand, the tragically heroic mother kissing her soon to be dead son goodbye believes that she represents the entire Moslem world of some 1billion plus people. If she is wrong and I am right I have to imagine that even a single voice would have been raised to challenge the absolute horror of the suicide killer. Can it be that within a religious population of over 1 billion people there has not been a single demonstration against the terrorism we know to be evil? Can 1 billion people be wrong? Is it logical to assume that 300 million know better than 1 billion?
On the other hand, if I am right and not foolish or evil than the thundering silence of the collective Moslem world is absolute empirical proof that we have much to fear. Evil truly does exist and it exists in awesomely large numbers.
Life is full of nuance, negotiation, and compromise; however, there is a difference between the pragmatism of life and the absolutes that allow for pragmatism. Pragmatism, nuance, negotiation, and compromise can only exist if they are framed in inviolable absolutes. Those absolutes must transcend time and circumstance and therefore cannot be the creation of human limitation. They must be of divine origin.
Let us talk absolutes, and more so, let us talk beyond absolutes. Some absolutes are: the sanctity of life, the rights of individuality, the importance of family, generational relationships, selflessness, belief in G-d, commitment to justice, personal integrity and social responsibility. Of course there are many other absolutes that protect us from each other and even from ourselves while at the same time motivating us to give to each other and be more than ourselves; however, rather than enumerate more absolutes I would like to explain what I mean by beyond absolutes.
Absolutes are so important that they must find expression beyond the workings of our minds, hearts, and souls. It is not enough to think, feel, believe, or even act in goodness and decency. Absolutes must be evident in the structure and symbolism of society. Edifices must be built, documents printed, and institutions developed that symbolize goodness and decency. Some should be functional as well as symbolic while other should be purely symbolic. Some must be imposing and public while others individualized and private. Regardless, the absolutes that frame life’s pragmatism must be represented in practice and symbol in every sector of individual, family, and social living as a constant statement of who we are and what we aspire to be.
This week’s Parsha as well as the remainder of the Torah can be viewed through the framed lens of symbolized absolutes. Bikurim (first fruit), tithed proclamations, ceremonies of blessings and curses, admonitions, periodic national gatherings, and the writing of a personal Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) are all Mitzvos that go beyond the absolute. They are absolutes that frame life in symbolic as well as pragmatic value so that it can be lived in goodness and decency without fear of evil’s harm.
To begin the discussion and to end this week’s essay let me quote from Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s, Introduction To The Study Of Symbolism. All of us use a natural symbolism that requires no special study to understand. Yet, an analysis of this symbolism may well teach us the value inherent in the symbol as a reinforcement of the spoken word. The bodily gestures with which we accompany our words and which, indeed, we often permit to take the place of words, are simply a natural symbolism which we practice and which we certainly would not want to do without. Whether we want to say “Yes” or “No,” whether we want to express agreement or disagreement, approval or criticism, respect or contempt, joy or sorrow, friendship or love, we could not express even half of what we feel unless we add appropriate gestures to our verbal communication. Indeed, in some instances a bodily gesture alone might be sufficient. I am apt to forget quickly the farewells bidden in mere words. But the silent handclasp with which my friend took leave of me, which for a moment united us physically, making a bond that he would have liked to preserve forever this gesture, wh home to me in full measure the sadness my friend felt at parting from me, I will never forget. Symbols provide us with the ability to communicate absolute values in a manner that goes beyond words. As a final example, consider what 9-11 would have been like without the American flag. How would each of us expressed the sorrow of the tragedy, the desire to embrace each other and give strength, the fear for our nation and the extraordinary solidarity of a people standing proudly and fiercely behind their President, if we did not have the American flag? What would we have done in its stead? How much poorer we otherwise would have been. Think symbolism and think our nation’s flag. How important is symbolism? How important is the flag?
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.