Learning through fear
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 21, 2001
On Rosh Hashana, we beseeched God, "Instill Your fear upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all that You have created. . . ."
But has He not already done that, less than a week before Rosh Hashana, just as He did last year on the eve of Rosh Hashana when our world collapsed around us?
Surely after the fire from the heavens directed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we are not in need of any more fear.
The West now knows that the world is a very dangerous place, filled with evil. Every child has by now watched thousands die before his or her eyes in a matter of seconds.
They have viewed men and women deliberately jumping to certain death from 100 floors above the street, preferring that death to the blazing inferno behind them. Having watched that, can we ever again recite the words,"And who by fire" the same way?
Rumors abound of dozens more men of Middle Eastern origin who received the same pilot training as those who flew their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. No one doubts that there are many others already within America, equally committed to spreading death and destruction, and that their resolve will only be strengthened by the carnage of last Tuesday.
America's confidence in its own invulnerability looks in retrospect like incomprehensible complacency. Federal Aviation Authority regulations did not even prohibit four-inch long knives or box-cutters from being carried on board.
Americans, and with them the entire world, have learned the limits of human control over events. Just as the first intifada revealed the limits of Israel's military might,the war against terrorism may well show the limits of the strength of the world's only superpower.
Columnists and politicians demand, "Kill the bastards" and "Bomb the hell out of them." How many children might be killed as "collateral damage," is irrelevant, says Senator Zell Miller of Georgia.
Talk is cheap. True, terrorists must be killed to make sure they do not kill thousands more, but there will be no satisfying revenge. Revenge is impossible against those who glorify and seek death. Nor can we bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, because the Taliban have already brought its people to that level of misery.
Even killing those who planned the attack on America and their followers will not prove easy. The Soviet Union, unburdened by the restrictions of democratic public opinion and operating next to its own borders, could not defeat Afghani mullahs over many years.
Nor are the terrorists confined to one country. A half dozen countries and the Palestinian Authority, which America continues to treat as legitimate members of the community of nations, harbor terrorist organizations. Potential terrorists are found in large numbers in every Western country.
Neither brilliance nor money proved any protection against the engulfing flames. Lying under the rubble of the WTC are some of America's most talented young men and women. Daniel Lewin, a self-made billionaire at 31, was on one of the hijacked planes. Barbara Olsen, a well-known political commentator whose husband Theodore Olsen stood recently at the pinnacle of success after successfully arguing Bush vs. Gore before the Supreme Court, was another.
WHAT GOOD can come of the terror we now feel, and the realization of how illusory is our control of events? Recognizing the fragility of our hold on life can awaken us to the preciousness of life. More, it forces us to ask what is the purpose of life and how can we best utilize every moment we are given. Fear removes our minds from life's trivialities, and focuses us on meaning.
Confronted with absolute inhumanity, the first reaction of many was to engage of acts asserting their humanity. Hundreds of firefighters and other rescue personnel gave their lives trying to save others. A group of passengers on the fourth jet, who already knew from their cell phones that their plane was part of a concerted attack on America, succeeded in plunging the plane to ground and themselves to certain death, thus sparing hundreds more.
Within 15 minutes of the first jet striking, more than a 150 volunteers and 15 ambulances from the Hatzola emergency teams found in all Orthodox neighborhoods had rushed to the scene. New Yorkers immediately lined up to give blood and volunteer their help, and they continue to do so.
Such giving affirms the Divine image within. God created the universe in order to give to another outside Himself. And He sustains our lives at every moment, even as we show ourselves oblivious to the purposes for which we were created. Nothing so demonstrates that we are created in His image than acts of hesed (loving-kindness).
Yet more is demanded of us than occasional acts of hesed. As we are reminded of the preciousness of life, we have to recognize that we are not pleasure-seeking animals but beings created in the Divine Image.
Every moment provides us with an opportunity to attach ourselves to the source of life. How do we do that? By exercising our free will to emulate Him and thereby reveal holiness in a world otherwise filled by darkness; by treating each moment as an opportunity to bring sanctity into the world.
As Yom Kippur approaches, we must not despair of our own capacity to change, and to change deeply. Nor must we forget that every such change, every good deed, has the power to change the world.
To deny that is to deny the Divine spark within each and every one of us.
Our relationship to God is compared to that of nestlings flying on eagle's wings. How do the eagle's young mount his wings? They have to jump aboard.
And so do we.
We have to turn to God because we cannot fly alone.
"Remember us for life, O King who desires life."
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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