Fourteen years ago this week the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking Americans (at least temporarily) out of their complacency, and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars.
Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.
On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones.
Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives coming to an end in sudden acts of unimaginable horror.
When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities Hashem has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service.
That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.
But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.
As we say in the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.”
It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.
If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control?
Is it possible to understand God’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im? Is there a divine message we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?
* * * * *
God’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Mashiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely ordained role in history.
The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, God forbid, as our (and God’s) enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence down to our day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific, and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire.