The blasts of repentance
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 12, 1997
The news within hours last week of both the Rehov Ben- Yehuda suicide bombings and the failed commando operation in Lebanon has left us all numb.
That numbness is fast becoming a permanent aspect of our existence. Soon, it seems, we will all be walking around like zombies in an Orwellian dystopia, with news of death as our constant background noise.
After every suicide bombing, we do a quick mental check as to when we or our children were last at the site of the bombing, wait anxiously to hear whether anyone we know was injured or worse, and then return to our business. A certain dulling of our deepest feelings has become the price we pay for retaining our sanity.
Our numbness is compounded by the widespread intuition that there is nothing we can do to stop the repetition of these tragedies. In Yosef Lapid's words, 'There are no alternatives and no way out."
No one believes any more that being more forthcoming to the Palestinians will end the suicide bombings; nor do they think that temporary closures or more security forces can ultimately deter those willing to give up their lives to kill Jews. We are quickly coming to view ourselves as helpless punching bags.
Is passivity, then, the only course left to us? For those whose concept of action extends only to the political or military, the answer is probably yes. But we Jews have been living with tragedies on a far greater scale for millennia, and our response has never been that there is nothing for us to do as individuals or as a community.
Rather we have viewed these tragedies as messages, however cryptic, from God - calls for individual and national repentance. The classic Jewish position is enunciated by Maimonides. Those who refuse to reexamine their ways after a tragedy, and who insist that these calamities are merely natural events, he writes, are guilty of the greatest cruelty, for they prevent themselves and others from repentance, and thereby ensure the repetition of similar tragedies.
This view is far from suggesting that we know, or will ever know, the exact meaning of a particular event. Even Moses was denied that understanding when he beseeched God to know His ways. Only fools pretend to be able to link a particular event to a particular sin. Nor is it to suggest that punishment is always the sole, or even the primary aspect of the Divine calculus - the error of the friends of Job.
No Jew with even a superficial knowledge of our sources would ever suggest that who is taken and who is spared when the bombs go off, for instance, is a simple function of merit.
BUT no matter how inscrutable events are, they are not random, and we are not without a role to play. Jews have always believed that at least one thing is within our control: We have been endowed with free will to be righteous or not.
When we choose the former course, we become conduits of blessing to the world; when we choose the latter, we obstruct those pipelines. All this is well captured by Maimonides' injunction to view the world at each moment as poised equally between the side of merit and demerit, with everything hanging on the exercise of our free will.
The religious Jew does not expect definite answers, but he is highly sensitized to scrutinizing events for hints. Those hints, in turn, are spurs to action.
For instance, today, for the first time, those who kill Jews are willing, even eager, to sacrifice their own lives to do so, and they do so in the name of the God of Abraham. In this new phenomena, we hear a reprise of the midrashic debate between Ishmael and Isaac over who showed more commitment through his circumcision and is therefore Abraham's true heir.
During the Gulf war, 39 Scuds hit Israel, many of them in highly populated areas where they caused millions of dollars of damage. Yet casualties were minimal. We duly noted the miracle, and then carried on with our lives as if nothing had occurred. Having ignored God when He made Himself glaringly obvious, is it any surprise if He now allows us to see what the world looks like when He conceals Himself?
That world turns out to be a pretty hopeless place. We have no clue as to how to extricate ourselves from the role of pigeons in a shooting gallery.
Even our vaunted military, once thought invincible and capable of executing any mission impossible, has proven susceptible to horrifying accidents and incapable of deterring rock-throwing children.
In Elul, we blow the shofar after the morning prayers. Those shofar blasts are meant to cause us to tremble, to remind us of an earlier confrontation, amidst shofar blasts, with God on Sinai, and to spur us to the most intense spiritual efforts. But who among those in synagogue pays any attention, not to mention the far greater number who never hear the shofar in Elul at all.
This Elul we have experienced other blasts to arouse us from our slumber.
One way or another, we will tremble.
Not joyous reflections perhaps. But at least they do not leave us feeling there is nothing for us to do. And that is surely better than trying to forget our pain in fantasies of far away princesses.
Related Topics: Elul, Jewish Ethics
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