Days of Awe, Terror, & Responsibility

Daniel Siegel

Days of Awe, Terror, & Responsibility

By Daniel Siegel

It is difficult for me to sleep these days. Even the lighter programs on NPR are filled with the aftermath of our national tragedy and it seems nearly impossible to achieve yishuv ha-da'at, inner calm.

In one sense, our lives prior to 11 September and our daily routines since, seem unreal and unimportant. At the same time, we risk contributing to the suffering of so many if we don't resume our normal patterns, including those ways in which we spend money. And, we are also subject to the pull of habits, including those of anger, finger pointing, and trying to outshout each other.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I wanted to share some thoughts with you all. I usually keep my posts short and infrequent and so I ask that you bear with me if this one is longer than normal. I share these only as Daniel; not as ALEPH's rabbinic director or on behalf of ALEPH or its board, although board members have seen this and encouraged me.

There is much talk these days which seeks to respond to what happened by pointing fingers at our own, American, shortcomings. On the right, it expresses itself in terms of our secularity and inclusiveness which constitute rebellions against Divine will. On the left, it is because of our cultural and economic imperialism, our racism and exploitation of the resources and labor of the developing world in service to our comfort and extravagance.

We who are doing our best to live consciously and lovingly are often made to feel guilty that we are not doing enough or that we have done too much.

On Shabbat Shuvah, I shared a passage in the Talmud, from B'rachot. There it says that when a person sees trouble coming, s/he should first respond with a rigorous self-examination to determine if the trouble is due to personal sinfulness.

If, however, the person discovers that no personal sin has been committed which would merit such trouble, then perhaps the afflictions are coming because of insufficient attention to Torah study.

However, the Talmud goes on, it may be that s/he has not neglected Torah study and so this cannot be the reason for the trouble.

In that case, let the troubles be accepted as yisurin shel ah'havah, afflictions of love.

This is a difficult concept to appreciate. Usually, commentators say something like G!d afflicts good people in this world in order to reward them more fully in the next. And since each of us will spend much more time in the next world than in this one, it's not so bad to endure a few years of pain now in exchange for an eternity of bliss later.

Taken to its end, this understanding leads both to a willingness to be a victim and a willingness to be an oppressor.

If, on the other hand, we remind ourselves that everything emerges from a single source, that in order for there to be light there must be darkness, then this idea takes on a different meaning. This is a world of choice. G!d of course wants us to choose love and light. But in order to make that choice, there must also be hate and darkness and we must have the option of freely choosing either one.

So, when some choose to afflict others, to deliberately harm innocent people, then the harm that they do can actually reinforce the recipient's commitment to love.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a free society, not all are guilty, but all are responsible. We who are reading this list are not guilty of creating the causes of the hatred which allows people to so pervert G!d's will as to be willing to kill themselves and thousands of others. We are responsible to do everything we can to strengthen our ability to continue loving one another.

So I ask all of you to begin again this Yom Kippur by committing to love one another first so that we can spread that love throughout Jewish renewal and far beyond.

There are participants on this list who have felt hurt over the past several months, and there is a cycle of mutual hurts in which each side is waiting for the other to admit to the greater responsibility for this hurt.

I ask each of you to think back over the exchanges of the past months, to identify anyone you might have hurt, and write to that person off list and ask for forgiveness. And I ask each of you who is asked for forgiveness to give it.

I am a person who carries much anger. It is both a powerful part of my lineage and it is a response to many events in my own experience. My personal spiritual practice is a response to my discovery of this anger many years ago and I am always trying to teach myself more constructive and loving responses to those many things and behaviors which annoy me.

Collectively, I think the Jewish tradition has done something similar. Even as we lived among people who didn't like us, who denigrated our practice and beliefs, we developed and extended the talmudic principle of mipnay darkay shalom, for the sake of the ways of peace. We included the Christian and Muslim poor in our tsedakah, we prayed for the stability and wisdom of the goverment, permitted the violation of Shabbat to save a non-Jewish life as well as a Jewish one.

There is much scholarship which shows that we did not do this only out of fear of making things worse if we didn't, but out of a genuine realization that our good was dependent on the good of others.

We live in a wonderful country which has created a reasonably successful experiment in organizing a society which does not have to legislate values and culture in order to achieve harmony and order.

We have been learning how to extend this notion of individual citizenship far beyond the limits of those who founded this country.

It is now our shared responsibility to find ways to extend this egalitarianism beyond our own country and those others which are recognizably similar, to recognize and appreciate the many other cultures and spiritual practices which exist in this world.

We need to do this by reconnecting with the holiness of all life and its ultimate unity in the One. We need to find increasing meaning in our relationships, our learning, and our appreciation of simpler things and so release resources to be shared with the many who have so little.

Those of us who can, need to model joyous and rich lives with modest consumption, to find ways of extending this pleasure to others so that they too will want to embrace a simpler way of living, and we need to encourage our leaders to find ways to improve our economy by improving the lives of people both within and outside our own immediate neighborhood.

We do this while recognizing that we are imperfect people seeking improvements, no one of us being righteous or all knowing or perfectly harmonious within. From where we are now, with all its and our triumphs and shortcomings, we need to reach out to one another, to our extended communities, and to this troubled and fearful world.

Mipnay Darkay Shalom, for the sake of the ways of peace.

May we all be sealed for good; may we all merit to be counted among the good.

May we all be able to share next Yom Kippur in a peaceful and safe world.




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