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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Yom Kippur 5763
September 16, 2002   10 Tishrei 5763
9/11 in Perspective

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Last year's assault on America struck less than a week before Rosh Hashanah. With the embers still burning and the air laden with smoke and the taste of ashes in our mouths, we could hardly bring ourselves to wish each other a sweet new year. Suddenly, the shehecheyanu thanksgiving with which we greet each holiday rang with a frightening literalness. Our state of shock was too acute for comforting, like that of a mourner before the funeral.

By now, on the first yahrzeit of 9/11, our pain has subsided and our perspective grown. As we recall the enormity of the tragedy, we see more clearly the dimensions of what was perpetrated. The new century would be vastly different from the one just finished. Several of those dimensions come to mind on this somber occasion.

First, the human: the loss of life was far less than once feared, but that statistic is of no solace to those whose loved ones were incinerated. Their wounds have barely begun to heal. How could they? Without forewarning or closure, they were stripped of a husband or wife, a parent or child, a sibling or friend in an uninhibited act of radical evil. Terrorism had randomly darkened and destabilized their lives. In recalling the memory of those who perished, mostly in the prime of life, we must also pay tribute to the loved ones left behind. Their lonely struggle against despair, their desperate search for a life-giving purpose, their humbling efforts to master new skills

We stop to remember in the midst of a period in the Jewish calendar in which we face our own mortality. The ritual and liturgy are designed to remind us of what we go to great lengths to ignore: the impermanence of our lives. It is against the backdrop of that awareness that we take stock of our misdeeds. The judgment we seek from God is not for life eternal, but an extension of our lives for one more year. Confronted by our vulnerability, we affirm the gift of life and rededicate ourselves to fill the time allotted with acts of compassion and generosity to others.

And is this not one of the lessons of 9/11? We ought to live more of our life from the perspective of the end. Were we to do so, without becoming morbid, we would endow our life with a measure of gravitas that would make us more considerate and giving of ourselves. Life is too precious to be frittered away. Every hour can make a difference. When our time comes, even if cut short, we should be able to find a modicum of comfort in knowing that we have behaved with a lofty sense of accountability.

Second, the impact of 9/11 on America has been equally transformative. The uncongested airports suggest that we have not yet regained confidence in our own security. Terrorism has become the weapon of choice for a smattering of those left behind by the converging forces of modernization. The depth of their perceived grievances justifies the use of the most abominable means. In a war without constraints, civilians are their prime target. Our government has shown admirable resolve and awesome effect in responding to the nihilism of this new enemy. But the counterattack is far from over. Rebuilding a society torn by terrorism is even more demanding than vanquishing the terrorists, who don't stay in remission for long. Yet in the end, as the world's last superpower and the envy of impoverished and oppressed masses of humanity, America will always be at risk from the malevolence of the aggrieved. Learning to live with a low level of insecurity may restore some balance to our psychic well being.

Part of the answer to 9/11 is surely 9/10, primary election day in New York State. In our quest for absolute security, we cannot allow our institutions of self-government and judicial procedure to be compromised. Whatever the cost, we must enhance the fairness of our electoral system at every level of government and continue to curb the arbitrary exercise of judicial authority by government officials. Nor dare we allow the misery inflicted by social inequity to flourish because the war against terrorism drains the federal budget. Forty million Americans without health insurance are a moral obscenity for a nation that prides itself on being "a light unto the nations." Indeed, to become less of a light is to concede a semblance of victory to our enemies.

We must also move to strengthen the coalition of nations wisely assembled to cooperate in the war against terrorism. Tactically, the advantage is self-evident. On a deeper level, it bespeaks a recognition that the nihilism of the terrorists is an attack against Western civilization itself. Religious fanaticism, with its contempt for human life and intolerance of the other, threatens to demolish the values and institutions of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions that lie at the heart of our way of life. How often do we intone the prayer during the High Holy Days that the nations of the world, compelled by God's awe and majesty, will unite in comity to heed God's will with a full heart! Though still far from this vision, the pace of international cooperation over the last few decades on a number of key fronts gives reason for hope. America should be at the forefront of this unprecedented development and not its most powerful critic. Seeking to engage with others only when it serves our national interests, narrowly defined, will never build the trust necessary to achieve a lasting comity of nations. The global village calls for more international forums of collaboration, not fewer.

Finally, the Israeli

The prayer for world peace reverberates more often in our synagogues than any other. Human reason is not quite powerful enough to achieve permanent relief from the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. That is why we beseech God time and again to bestow the peacefulness and perfection of the heavens on a humanity prone to desecrate creation. On this dark anniversary at the dawn of a new century, we are more mindful than ever of our need for help from above.

May you have an easy and meaningful fast,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Yom Kippur are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.