Brussels carnage this week brought a familiar rhythm of responses. The remoteness and routine-ness of yet another attack leaves some anesthetized. Then there are those who deliberately avert their gaze, who don’t want another glimpse of evil’s face. Still others elect to contextualize or quantify ‘incidents’, a dehumanizing outgrowth of either of the above responses. Most common is ‘outrage that is unconnected to action’. All four fail morally. This is because none strives for moral progress. Each accepts the terror scene as a spasm of moral regress.
Although it is not clear what specific things can be done to curb the attacks, we seem too resigned to their reality. Our colleges confront atmospheres of micro-aggression, assailing an unsafeness of dissent. But these earth-scorching attacks of macro-aggression parade on, as Leon Wieseltier recently summarized: “bad fortune and bad actors forever have the jump on us. We are always playing catch up to evil.”
What does a morally credible response look like? It insists upon striving. It rejects settling. It embraces duty. It eschews coexistence with wickedness. In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the early morning responsibility of the High Priest to remove the ashes left on the altar from the night before. “And he shall take the ashes outside the camp, to a pure place” (Lev. 6:4). The word for ashes, deshen, recurs twice each Friday night in the Sabbath liturgy. Toward the end of the Psalm for Shabbat, vigorous and fresh trees are depicted as deshainim, and we conclude the evening service rejoicing at how God’s weekly sabbatical gift makes our People brim with joy, m’dushnai oneg. How do stale ashes begin to pulsate with such unanticipated yield? Perhaps it is the reward for earnest acceptance of responsibility. The very first thing with which the High Priest began his day was the eager embrace of this unglamorous task. Duty can bring transfusions of dignity.
In his surpassingly touching new book When Breath Becomes Air, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi captures the essential cause of his sudden decline within days of his terminal diagnosis. “Therein lies the paradox: like a runner crossing the finish line only to collapse, without that duty to care for the ill pushing me forward, I became an invalid.”
Like physical fitness, moral muscle-memory requires exercise lest it suffer from atrophy. Macro-aggressive violence demands civilized responses that are spacious and generous. May we rise early to duty, responding to misanthropy with philanthropy.