Confronting Evil: Reflections on 9/11
The heroes and villains of 9/11.
Cultures can clash with a silent, profound hostility. Yosef Khozian was born in Iran to a culture rich with Jewish tradition and material wealth. The unexpected fall of the Shah of Iran created a choice for Yosef's father, Shimon, more complex than any other choice he had ever made. He had to decide which sort of wealth would take precedence over the other: Jewish tradition or material wealth? Should his family replant itself in Israel or the United States?
His was not the first branch of his extended family to face the upheaval of redefinition. His nieces and nephews in the U.S. had one sort of wealth, but were spiritually barren. Shimon's brother Moshe wished that his children had a higher regard for the traditions that had endured the length and pain of the Diaspora. It was no longer enough to say, "This is how it should be." Life in the U.S. had rendered the voice of tradition shrill and hollow. Shimon chose Israel.
In the dusty development town where the Khozians dwelled, Yosef and his six siblings had little opportunity to acquire either sort of wealth. Their teachers imparted to them a high regard for whatever could be catagorized as "new." Ancient traditions might be beautiful, fascinating or even ethnic and cool. But they were never presented as being true or relevant.
Whenever the Los Angeles or Dallas branches of the family came to visit, the contrast between the lifestyle that they could afford and that of his own extended family became more and more apparent to Yosef, now a young man. He wanted out! Out of mediocrity. Out of hopelessness. For Yosef, this meant that within a week of completing his army service, he was out of Israel.
Yosef's uncles helped. His natural intelligence and subtle business sense helped even more. Success felt good in the only terms that now had meaning to the rather lonely, rootless individual Yosef had become. He had more money than he had ever hoped for, with every prospect of matching his cousin's good fortune. For Yosef, there was none of the conflict between wealth and tradition that his father felt so keenly.
He wanted to share his triumph with the people who understood him the best -- his family. He went to the nearest travel agent to make inquiries. Eventually the phone calls and red tape had metamorphosed into plane tickets for his mother. Machtab was a homemaker in the classical sense. There was no job to reckon with, and no employer to whom she would have to justify a trip to see her beloved son.
Machtab was delirious with joy when she saw Yosef waiting for her at J.F.K. airport in New York. He looked well and was beautifully dressed. He could barely contain his pride when she entered his car. He had indeed made it.
Their first morning started off well, but the disintegration was rapid. Yosef planned to be at his Manhattan office early. Machtab had risen earlier than he, setting the table for two and preparing a feast fit for a Persian prince. From Yosef's perspective, there was only time for some dry cereal and coffee.
"What! You're leaving now? Nothing will be ready for another twenty minutes! Look what I'm making you! You can't just leave me here all day alone."
Sometimes doing a mitzvah can save one's life.
Yosef tried to explain that in America things are different. When you are expected at work on time, you have to be there. No nonsense. His discourse sounded good to his own ears, but suddenly sounded flat and heartless when he saw his mother's deflated face. The cultures clashed. She had not traveled 5,000 miles to hear a lecture on The Significance of the Work Ethic. She had come because the ties that bound them were made of blood and tradition.
For reasons that he could not put into words, Yosef made the same decision that his father, Shimon, had made two decades earlier. Sometimes tradition is worth more than wealth. He would honor his mother; that was the tradition and he would keep it. Even more, it was the love and spiritual connection that made his decision final. There was a channel that he wanted to keep open that led him to his deeper and higher self. Its name is not "goodness" or "duty." Its name is "mitzvah," which means that its source is God Himself. There is no such thing as a "commandment" unless there is a Being beyond oneself who can command us to move to where we have not yet been.
Yosef smiled, sat down and after downing three courses headed to his office at the Twin Towers. His finger was on the lobby's elevator button when he heard the horrific crash. It was September 11th, 2001.
ROMANTIC FANTASY CRASHED
We will never see ourselves or the world the way we saw them on September 10th. I used to think of some of the great tragedies of history as rather romantic. The fabled convert Avraham ben Avraham, who faced down his royal family and refused to renege his faith in one God surely must have been a noble figure as he was tied to the stake. He was mirroring Rabbi Akiva who faced the same fate over 2000 years earlier. The children learning their Hebrew letters in a shadowy cellar under the supervision of their young teacher who had seen far too much in his short life is the sort of image that touched a place so deep within me that I was both grateful not to have been there and envious of those who were. This sort of fantasy crashed on September 11th.
I wonder if the pilot was laughing.
I didn't see the face of the pilot as he rammed his plane into the Twin Towers. But I imagine it must have looked like the face of a ten-year-old playing Doom. He had no idea of the preciousness of each life he took. His ability to dehumanize his victims is not caused by because of the enormity of his hatred, but because of the shallow, two-dimensional world he had created in the recesses of his mind. I wonder if he was laughing. I wish I didn't live in his world.
He no doubt was a blood brother of the terrorist who tossed explosives at a bus leaving the tiny township of Emanuel. He too had no idea of what would happen the next day or the day after that to those who understood life's value.
I was visiting a family who was sitting shiva for their mother who was murdered in that terrorist attack. A low table set with warm orange soda, disposable cups and plates filled with cookies separated the visitors on the chairs from the mourners seated on the bed. The only decoration on the wall was a school certificate commending its third grade recipient for extraordinary effort. The third grader was with neighbors. His five siblings, including a two-year-old, wandered in and out. Their grandmother and aunt were on the couch, their father and uncles in an adjacent room. They would never see their mother again.
There was great sweetness and serenity in the grandmother's gaze. When she began to speak, I expected to hear words of consolation. I heard something else:
"He looked at everyone he shot. He saw the women and the children going down, and he kept shooting. Shooting and laughing."
"When they got close to the bus, I thought they were soldiers. They were wearing uniforms. The one who was shooting had dyed his hair blonde. I thought he was an Israeli. When he began to shoot, my first thoughts were that there must be some mistake. Why are they shooting us? I looked at him a split second before I took shelter under the seats. He was laughing. He looked at everyone he shot. He saw the women and the children going down, and he kept shooting. Shooting and laughing. The Badichi boys had been sitting in front just a few minutes before, but they were rowdy and overtired, so they went to the back of the bus. They were saved. The little one told me that he didn't know what to do. He saw the gunman shooting and said Shema over and over. Hundreds of times. The bigger boy held his tefillin bag close to him. The gunman kept laughing."
Indeed, danger and tragedy have lost their glamour.
INSENSITIVITY TO LIFE
September 11th has not been forgotten. But for those of us who have not been directly affected, perhaps something far more insidious has happened. We are beginning to glamorize the moment and sentimentalize its power. "Where were you on 9/11?" "Have you been to Ground Zero?" "I kept the magazine pictures. They are unbelievable. Awesome" We instinctively knew that the souvenir market that appeared at the site were vulgar and callous. We don't always recognize our own insensitivity to life. We, too, are capable of being callous and banal.
We can ask more of ourselves. We can demand of ourselves that we stay truly human, living with the ongoing awareness of the sacred soul God has breathed into each of us. The Midrash tells us that in the perfect before-the-sin world that was Eden, even the animals were awestruck by the Godliness concealed within Adam's body. Only after Cain killed Abel was their spiritual stature diminished. The diminishment has now become so extreme that, for many, life has no more value than cardboard pieces in an unending game of war.
Let us remember September 11th by making a commitment to seeing life in a way that is vastly different than the pilot.
Not everyone has been dulled.
The moment that Yosef Khozian sat down to breakfast with his mother, he knew he was responding to something that could not be weighed or measured. He was responding to his need to give and receive love, displaying his capacity for infinite goodness by fulfilling a mitzvah.
Every mitzvah opens a channel to our spiritual selves. Let us remember September 11th by making a commitment to seeing life in a way that is vastly different than the pilot.