Tuesday, January 27, 2009

London 05

Having led services a lot for the past couple of years, I am struck by the Torah as a bottomless well of opportunities for learning. We read the same parshot at about the same time every year; the words don’t change, the stories are the same. What changes is the context in which we read them – a new reader, a different person studying and writing a d’var Torah, and most importantly a different world in which we are living. There is an analogy here to what the Rabbis have taught is the origin of death. There is a view that death is not an inevitable consequence of being alive, but arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge – death was then part of their and their descendants’ punishment for disobeying God’s order. At that point, there was set up a conflict between the soul, which is eternal and open to God’s light, and the body, which is finite, material, and opaque to God’s light. The soul now feels confined by the body and longs to escape and return to direct connection with the Eternal, and eventually death frees it. In the same way, the Torah is eternal and is both a source of and connection to God’s light, and the day to day world is finite, material, and an impediment to our connection with God. As we study the unchanging words of the Torah from year to year, we attempt to bring God’s light into our lives.

That seems particularly hard to do today. When innocent people leave for work in the morning and board a train or a bus or go to their office or just walk down the street and die that day for no reason other than some other people’s need to make a dubious political point, it is hard to find God’s light through the smoke.

In the Torah, God is not averse to using death, even death on a large scale, to make a point, but there is always a point, and death is visited in such a way that the point is clear. Those who persistently fight against God’s commands die, those who follow God live, and those who are unsure now have a clear basis on which to make up their mind. Six million died in the Holocaust, but those who perpetrated that great crime were destroyed at every level – physically, ideologically, politically, and nationally. Somehow, despite all the death, destruction, and exile visited on us, the Jews have survived physically, ideologically, politically and nationally. No other people in the history of the world have survived exile, dispersion, and assimilation in this way, and we have seen most of those who would destroy us die while “am Yisrael chai,” the people Israel live.

As a psychologist I have spent a lot of time trying to understand terrorism and the mind of the terrorists, and my understanding of these individuals is very limited. In her post-war study of the Nazis, and particularly of Eichmann, Hannah Arendt was most surprised by what she called the “banality of evil.” She went to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem expecting to see great, dramatic evil, and saw instead a man who looked and acted like a clerk, and whose defense was “I was only following orders,” and she was struck by how ordinary he was – not tragic or dramatic, but banal – lacking originality, freshness, or novelty. The same could be said of Bin Laden and his cohorts, but with one addition – they seem to have no capacity for self-doubt and an almost infinite ability to rationalize their own contradictions. Al-Zawahiri is a physician –presumably, at some time he dedicated himself to healing and saving lives. Bin Laden sees himself as a devout Muslim, but rejects the teaching of any Imam who disagrees with his policy of terrorism, yet none of this seems to slow them down.

If the Torah teaches us anything, it teaches us that the values it describes as good ultimately triumph. It may take 400 years of slavery in Egypt or 40 years of wandering in the desert, but in the end those who would destroy life are defeated. Ancient Jewish teaching prophesied that the Jews would be expelled from our homeland, return, be expelled again, and return again, and it has happened just that way.

There are those today of every religious faith, including Judaism, who distort the message of the Torah to their own ends, and who try to turn that message from one of life, love, and peace to one of death, hate, and war. In the Vietnam War our leaders were heard to say that they had to destroy a village in order to save it. Today extremist Jews say they need to destroy conservative and liberal Judaism for Torah to survive, fundamentalist Christians say that the world has to end for the souls of the righteous to survive, and Islamic terrorists seem to be out to destroy the 95% of more of the world that does not agree with them in order to impose their perverted view of Islam on those who are left. None of these will succeed.

The clear message of the Torah and of History is that God, whatever you conceive God to be, has designed the world such that the values of life, love, and yes even peace always triumph in the long run. The Pharaohs, the Torquemadas, the Ku Klux Klans, the Hitlers, the Pol Pots, and the Bin Ladens rise up one after the other and they may have their day, but in the long run their message and their methods are seen for the evil that they are.

Our hearts go out to the people of London and to the people of Israel as they live on a continuing basis with what New York, London, Madrid, and others have experienced and hopefully will experience only once. And to the terrorists we say “you can not prevail” in the face of a God who, whatever his wrath may bring, is at the source the author of life, love, and peace. Ose shalome b’mromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alenu, v’al kol ha-olam. May God who makes peace in the heavens grant peace to us and to all the world.

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