Fear is insidious. It wears at our hearts. It gnaws at our loves. This is the goal of terrorists. Those who murder in their metastasized faith’s name seek to destroy our values and our enjoyments by these random acts of horrific violence. They attack the ordinary and everyday.
We mourn the brutal murders of over 129 souls in Paris, and 43 in Beirut, as well as the daily slaughter of innocents throughout the Middle East and Africa. We must not forget that what was perpetrated in Paris occurs on a daily basis in Syria. Over 100 people are killed every day in that country’s civil war, often in a similarly gruesome fashion. In Israel, Palestinian terrorists continue to attack with knives. Today, in Tel Aviv, two Jews were murdered while praying and another three elsewhere in Israel.
We live in frightening times. Terror can be debilitating. It arouses the feeling that no place is safe. We become hesitant about leaving our homes. We dread venturing out to public venues. This is its greatest threat. We must recall that terrorism does not represent an existential threat to our country. The weapons of terror will not destroy our nation. They will instead make us question the most ordinary of actions and the most everyday of concerns. Their acts undermine by causing us to question our values. Their randomness amplify the terror.
I retreat to my books.
I rediscovered the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who argued that the Other can only be known through face to face encounter but who is also simultaneously unknowable. Most importantly the Other arouses within us a sense of justice and love. He states: “Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.” The centrality of ethics becomes even more important during these terrifying days. Our relationship to other human beings continues to call out to us. That is my first defense against terrorists. I will continue to love. I will continue to reach out to the Other.
I reread the poets who inhabit my shelves. I grasped at the poetry of Edmond Jabes, a French Jewish poet and a refugee from Egypt. He writes: “You think you are dreaming the book. You are its dream.”
I return to my Torah. That is my second defense.
Jacob too is afraid. He is running from his brother Esau, who the rabbis later imagine will become synonymous with all our enemies, but who in last week’s reading vowed to kill Jacob after he stole the birthright. Today we discover Jacob, alone in the desert. He lies down and places a stone under his head and falls asleep for the night. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. Angels are climbing the ladder, going up and down on it. He envisions God standing by his side.
Jacob awakens, shaken. He proclaims: “Mah norah hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) And where is this place where Jacob dreamed? It is nowhere. It is a non-descript place, a rock in the desert, somewhere in between Beersheva (in today’s Israel) and Haran (in modern day Turkey). That is a wide expanse of desert. Do we pilgrimage to this site? We do not because we cannot. Its location is not recorded by our tradition. This place is instead everywhere.
And so I hold on to the image of ordinary Parisians sitting once again at cafes. Mah norah hamakom hazeh. I am reminded that awe is found everywhere. It is found in the seemingly, but this week the extraordinary, act of enjoying an evening walk along Paris’ or Tel Aviv’s streets. The war against terror is in fact fought by each of us in our hearts. The battles against ISIS are fought by our militaries. We must not confuse the two.
There is only 100% security in our hearts. That is likewise elusive.
In Hebrew, the word for fear and awe are the same. It is yirah. It requires the will to see the ordinary as awesome rather than frightful. That is the turning Jacob makes. That is the choice we must make each and every day. In the age of terror the ordinary and everyday can be fraught with dread or filled with awe. That is what is placed before our hearts.
Fear and awe hover side by side.