Act, Don't Just React
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
We sit around being armchair presidents and prime ministers.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 8:46 AM. Hijacked jetliner, American Airlines Flight 11, bound from Boston to Los Angeles, deliberately crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center. 9:03 AM, United Flight 175, crashes into the south tower. WTC collapses shortly thereafter. 3,100 dead. And, as was said over and over again, the world changed forever.
We will never forget the moment that we heard the catastrophic news and where we were when we heard it. But has the world really changed? Have we really changed?
This week's Torah portion contains an insight that is extremely relevant to the proper Jewish reaction to tragic events such as September 11. This is all the more purposeful years after the WTC/Pentagon attacks, when, except for longer lines at the security check in airports, life seems to have gone back to normal.
God has just performed perhaps the greatest miracle of all time in the Splitting of the Red Sea. God did this in order to save the Jewish People from the Egyptians, and the Jews were very appreciative, bursting forth in spontaneous song.
There is a curious section in the Song of the Sea which describes the reactions of other nations to the news of the Sea's splitting, then coming back and swallowing the might and army of the Egyptian empire.
"Nations heard -- they are trembling. Terror gripped the dwellers of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom were confused; trembling gripped the leaders of Moab. All the inhabitants of Canaan melted." (Exodus 15:14-15)
It is true that the purpose of these verses is to show the impact of the great miracle upon the entire world, and the fear the nations had for the Jewish people. Still, there is more wisdom that can be gleaned from this segment of the Song of the Sea.
All of the nations of the world reacted with strong emotions to the destruction of the Egyptian empire and the salvation of the Jewish people. Some became angry, some became nervous, and some were afraid that their nation would be the next victim of God's wrath.
But did they do anything about it? Did they actively pursue ways in which they could avert disaster for themselves? Perhaps they should have come to convert to Judaism as Yitro did in next week's portion. Maybe they should have sent ambassadors to offer peace so that they could secure the friendship of the Jews. We do not find any of that. They simply did nothing. They felt great, powerful feelings but they let it stop there.
When we heard of the nightmare that was September 11, we all had a mixture of emotions. Newsweek recently reported that President George W. Bush described his initial reaction as, "I was furious that this could happen." Didn't we all feel anger at the evil perpetrators? We also felt afraid and vulnerable, nervous and worried. How many of us had great trouble sleeping that night as the horrific images kept playing back again and again in our minds? Would it ever be safe in the world again?
But after we experienced so many ripe emotions, what did we do about it? What can we still do about it?
Yes, we sit around discussing politics and we all love being armchair presidents and prime ministers. Yet, we know that the hours we spend planning America's next moves against Al-Qaida, though it may make us feel good, do not usually accomplish much of anything.
It's like the guy who was telling his buddies the division of roles in his household. "I handle all the important things like: whether we should go to war against Iran, how much taxes should be raised, and whether the speed limit should be lowered. My wife takes care of the small issues such as: where we should live, what school the kids should go to, and what kind of car we should buy."
So what should we do in the face of September 11? We first should realize that the world has not changed much. Human beings are very resilient and we have bounced back from the catastrophe. No longer do advertisers apologize for making us think of petty things like clothing and cars, and professional sports are back in full force. (This is not to minimize the pain of those who lost friends or relatives or those who have lost jobs. But, by and large, it is true.)
If we do feel pretty much 'back to normal' now, then we unfortunately share the weakness of all the nations at the time of the Splitting of the Sea. We must do something active in order to change and grow spiritually from September 11.
We know that whenever tragedy strikes, be it 9-11 or rocket attacks in Israel, it is a reminder of the fact that we no longer merit Divine Protection. God no longer steps in to save us consistently as He did in the days of the Bible. Sure, there is divine assistance -- even today -- and miracles still happen if we open our eyes to them. But too often God lets evil succeed and does not protect us.
We have to be thinking of ways in which we can attempt to earn God's Divine Protection once again. What spiritual area can I improve in that will help myself, the Jewish nation, and the world become a safer place? Is it prayer? Is it Torah study? Is it acts of kindness? Is it avoiding gossip and thinking negatively about people? Maybe I did accept something upon myself September 11 or in the last 18 months as Israel has faced immense violence and deaths. Am I still keeping my resolution or have I forgotten what it was?
If we don't allow our reactions to 9-11 to become real spiritual actions that will last permanently, will there ever be anything that will move us? What else has to happen, God forbid?
Let us not become like the nations of the Red Sea. Let us act and not just react.