Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002/ Tishrei, 5763

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Twin teachings | Distance in time, no less than in space, provides perspective. And so the passage of a year since the Islamist terror attacks on our country should spur us to try to mine insights from the disaster. To my mind, two lessons from that bright and sunny turned dark and hellish day stand out. Neither is particularly astonishing or novel, but each is worth a quiet moment of contemplation..

The first is that evil exists.

That's not as self-evident an assertion as it might first seem. All too many people, after all, choose to view words like "right" and "wrong," and certainly "good" and "evil," as possessing no absolute meanings, and see in history only competing desires, not ultimate ideals. In fact, moral relativism, if it even suffered a blow in the attacks, has enjoyed quite a comeback in the months since, in particular with regard to the Middle East - with prattling pundits likening the victims of murderous violence with its perpetrators and offering amoral aphorisms like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

It is, however, the diametric approach to life and history that we should glean from the wanton destruction of last September 11: That what we humans do makes a difference, that we are here for a higher purpose - not to acquire a bevy of celestial mistresses but rather to live lives of service to others and to our Creator. That our individual lives and history itself are combat zones for battles between good and evil. That the bloodthirsty are the opposite, not the equals, of the reluctant warriors. And that last autumn's attacks revealed an example of the deepest evil of all, the kind that believes itself to be good.

My second suggestion for contemplation is not unrelated to the first, but touches a more sensitive spot.

The Talmud teaches that when one experiences something painful, he should take careful stock of his life and behavior. Adversity, in other words, can be a divine message.

That does not mean one can ever determine with certainty the cause of one's pain. What it means is that each of us has a responsibility to try to understand what may have left him vulnerable. A nation, presumably, must do the same.

In the wake of last year's attacks, a prominent evangelist identified several societal ills he maintained had weakened America's merit for Divine protection. He was roundly excoriated, especially because his suggestions concerned gender issues and the unborn - charged topics that generate more heat than light when broached in the public square. But the concept of seeking areas of moral vulnerability was - and is - not misguided.

Jewish tradition, to be sure, clearly considers homosexual activity (and especially its legitimation) as well as most abortions to be deep moral wrongs.

But I have another suggestion for national introspection. It is more prosaic but more readily evoked by the imagery of September 11. And it is more equitable in its finger-pointing; it indicts us all.

While all the September 11 attacks entailed tragic loss of life, for most people the chief image of the destruction remains the Twin Towers.

Those soaring edifices represented achievement, commerce and material success; they were fitting reflections of the society that bustled below them, awash with the pursuit of worldly possessions.

All people would rather be haves than have-nots, of course; there is nothing wrong with living comfortably. But might we Americans have allowed things to get somewhat out of hand in recent decades? Have we not subtly morphed from haves to must-haves? Into people who judge others by the electronic gadgets they carry, the car they drive, the price of the watch on their wrists?

Some thought it odd or incongruous when several renowned Orthodox rabbis took the initiative last fall to issue guidelines limiting their followers' expenditures for weddings. Though the guidelines were never presented as such, they may well have comprised the most sublime and trenchant response to the September 11 attacks. We readily recognize the need to address air-travel procedures in order to avoid future vulnerability; addressing the societal plague of rampant materialism might, in a deeper sense, be even more vital.

September 11 falls this first year since the attacks smack in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance, the time of year Jewish tradition considers most fortuitous for making changes for the better in our personal behavior. We would all do well to take the opportunity to remind ourselves that material possessions and success are not inherently meaningful, that only spiritual wealth is true wealth - and that repentance empowers good and undermines evil.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.

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