Wednesday, September 12, 2001

First Response:
September 12, 2001

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland
We are all still in an almost surreal state of suspended animation.

Our hearts go out, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the slaughtered and the sundered, their families, friends and loved ones, the wounded who will recover, and those who were not scratched whose wounds will never heal. All this, a communal condolence, while not even knowing if we are to be counted among the group in personal mourning. For we do not know the final numbers, and the names we wait to hear. Even if I had not just moved back to the Washington area, all of us, do we not, know someone who
might have been in the Pentagon or, perhaps much more likely, someone who worked in or near, or had reason to stop in the Twin Towers? With profound apologies to the West Coast, I simply assume everyone has personal connections to Washington and New York. If they are not the center of the universe (a claim also made by the book stand in the center of Harvard Yard), the are the center of the American world. Or at least, of my American world.

How to respond? How to begin? Where to start? An emptiness opens in the pit of our stomach, a wordless agony which seeks expression. The spontaneous outburst of prayer, in churches and synagogues and, yes, in mosques as well, is a gathering of the spirit, a turning to face the depth of nameless emotions in a time of crisis. Our synagogue will be holding such services tonight and tomorrow night. It is not just that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Here, the foxhole is the whole world. And now, we feel a need to simply... huddle together. (And every rabbi in America who had already completed Rosh Hashanah sermons is tossing them out, and starting from scratch.)

A few scattered thoughts, to be developed more fully, and more expertly, I am sure, by others in the days and weeks to come.

The first is that we are all on the front line. It is a feeling Jews have had for centuries, intensified since the Shoah and the birth and struggles of the state of Israel, muted by the false sense of security in this country, shared, this day and for all our tomorrows, by every American.

The second thought is the inevitable reaction, a reminder of the fragility of life. A plane missed, a wrong turn on a street, a chance encounter which threw us from our daily routine -- it can save our life. Or it can cost our life. And we can never, never tell in advance which it will be.

The third thought is a plea, to avoid finger pointing, to keep alive the humanity in ourselves, and in the way we look at others. I have said some things in the last 24-hours in anger which I do not believe have come out of my mouth -- referring to entire groups in terms that are not human, expressing hopes for revenge and destruction on a scale which will satisfy a blood-lust of emotion, but which are... well... wrong. We need to know the difference in ourselves, between the heat of anger, and effective, appropriate and just response. We need to discover the difference between vengeance... and justice.

Finally, there is anger. But it is not just anger at the perpetrators. I must confess to anger at the Bush administration -- for its previous criticisms of Israeli responses to terror. Let's just watch over the course of the next few weeks, to see how completely hypocritical those criticisms turn out to be. Criticizing the Israeli policy of assasinating terrorists? Do you think someone is going to tap Bin Ladin on the shoulder and politely arrest him, to bring him to trial? I think not. I have long said that if a single mortar were, God forbid, fired over the border from Mexico onto a Texas village, the American response would be immediate, swift, disproportionate, and not dependant on world opinion. That Israel's responses would appear positively restrained by comparision.

Now the unthinkable has happened. This is much more than a mortar shell. Almost any American response will be justified. And will have the support of the American people. Including mine. It will be justified.

Let's just see how hypocritical it will be.

Or perhaps... perhaps... perhaps... now "we" (Americans) will understand, what "we" (Jews -- most particularly the Israelis, but I mean the entire Jewish people as well) have been going through.

But this is not the way I would have wanted to earn the sympathy and understanding of America.

We mourn. We cry. We yearn.

We stand together, at this time of crisis.

As one colleague wrote (my friend Sara Perman), connecting the events of yesterday, with the Torah portion of the week: Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheichem; You are standing this day before the Lord your God... all of you... all of us... those who were there, those who were near, and those who stood bound to and by the images broadcast around the world.

Only the ones touched by fire were burned on the outside. But in another sense, all of us were there. We are all burned on the inside. We have all been attacked. This day, this month, this time, we are all among the injured.

Let us pray. And let us be there for each other.