I was never really angry.
Yeah, I was stunned. I learned about the attack on the Towers — a place I had worked for 10 years of my life (Tower 2, 27th floor) from a television report in a California dorm lounge surrounded by undergraduates responding with what might have been nervous laughter. I felt a tremendous sense of grief and disconnection. But not anger. Not a desire for revenge.
But, as the waves of US military planes leaving Kabul for the last time reminded us so clearly and tragically in recent weeks, America as a whole pursued revenge. It was as if we thought that the realm of international politics and diplomacy was just another urban cop show. With bad guys. And with cops who pursue and kill or jail them. And, eventually, we found and killed, without trial, the bad guy, Osama bin Laden. And then desecrated his body by flying it off to be dumped in the sea rather than seeking to treat it as his professed religion would have directed.
In our defense, maybe we were doing the most human thing — just trying to put meaning on inconceivable loss. After all, cop shows, like the cowboy westerns that preceded them, are at their heart morality tales, fantasies where the evil are punished and the good, usually at least, are rewarded. Morality tales give us meaning. And humans are creatures that hunger for meaning. It’s why one of the very first things civilization invented was religion, which is a kind of meaning-making machine. It helps us see order in an often chaotic and disordered world.
But maybe sometimes we need to resist our basic urge to seek meaning. One thing I’ve done in the 20 years since that disaster in lower Manhattan is immerse myself in the teachings of the French/Jewish philosopher and Talmud scholar Emmanuel Levinas. One of his most famous works is a short essay called “Useless Suffering”. He dubs suffering “useless” there to draw attention to the tremendous danger of the human predilection for trying to put the experience of suffering to use. Politicians and political movements often cite the suffering of their own people as a justification for inflicting suffering on an enemy; and the inflictors find meaning in their victims’ suffering by saying things like it was ‘deserved’ or even ‘for the good of humanity’.
For Levinas, instead of trying to pursue meaning in our suffering — like the destruction of the Towers — the most ethical thing to do is to focus our energy on trying to find out how we can serve the other. I don’t really know if I can say for sure if that’s what I’ve done with my grief in the wake of 9/11, but I hope it is. I hope I’ve succeeded in devoting my life to service. To both the Blessed Holy One and the human beings around me. I hope I’ve succeeded in avoiding being ruled by anger as I also wrote on the 10-year anniversary of this source of so much grief for me.
We stand today in the space in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a time the Jewish tradition dubs the Ten Days of Repentance (עשרת ימי תשובה). My prayer is that we will use this time to focus on our deeds, both past and future, and not our pursuit of meaning, a pursuit that perhaps can even become a form of idolatry. A worship of false gods that can lead us astray. And into violation of the most basic injunction of the Torah about relating to others — don’t kill.