Noah and 9/11

Published: September 11, 2002 [1st anniversary of the enemy attack on the U.S. on 9/11]

Over the past year several friends have remarked to me how much they still feel a pit in their stomachs from 9/11. One even said she felt as if this was the beginning of the end of the world. And no wonder. Those suicide hijackings were such an evil act that they shattered your faith in human beings and in the wall of civilization that was supposed to constrain the worst in human behavior. There is now a big jagged hole in that wall.

What to do? For guidance, I turned to one of my mentors, Rabbi Tzvi Marx, who teaches in the Netherlands. He offered me a biblical analogy. ''To some extent,'' said Tzvi, ''we feel after 9/11 like we have experienced the flood of Noah -- as if a flood has inundated our civilization and we are the survivors. What do we do the morning after?''

The story of Noah has a lot to offer. ''What was the first thing Noah did when the flood waters receded and he got off the ark?'' asked Tzvi. ''He planted a vine, made wine and got drunk.'' Noah's first response to the flood's devastation of humanity, and the challenge he now faced, was to numb himself to the world.

''But what was God's reaction to the flood?'' asked Tzvi. ''Just the opposite. God's reaction was to offer Noah a more detailed set of rules for mankind to live by -- rules which we now call the Noahite laws. His first rule was that life is precious, so man should not murder man.'' (These Noahite laws were later expanded to include prohibitions against idolatry, adultery, blasphemy and theft.)

It's interesting -- you would have thought that after wiping out humanity with a devastating flood, God's first post-flood act wouldn't have been to teach that all life is precious. But it was. Said Tzvi: ''It is as though God said, 'Now I understand what I'm up against with these humans. I need to set for them some very clear boundaries of behavior, with some very clear values and norms, that they can internalize.' ''

And that is where the analogy with today begins. After the deluge of 9/11 we have two choices: We can numb ourselves to the world, and plug our ears, or we can try to repair that jagged hole in the wall of civilization by insisting, more firmly and loudly than ever, on rules and norms -- both for ourselves and for others.

''God, after the flood, refused to let Noah and his offspring indulge themselves in escapism,'' said Tzvi, ''but he also refused to give them license to live without moral boundaries, just because humankind up to that point had failed.''

The same applies to us. Yes, we must kill the murderers of 9/11, but without becoming murderers and without simply indulging ourselves. We must defend ourselves -- without throwing out civil liberties at home, without barring every Muslim student from this country, without forgetting what a huge shadow a powerful America casts over the world and how it can leave people feeling powerless, and without telling the world we're going to do whatever we want because there has been a flood and now all bets are off.

Because imposing norms and rules on ourselves gives us the credibility to demand them from others. It gives us the credibility to demand the rule of law, religious tolerance, consensual government, self-criticism, pluralism, women's rights and respect for the notion that my grievance, however deep, does not entitle me to do anything to anyone anywhere.

It gives us the credibility to say to the Muslim world: Where have you been since 9/11? Where are your voices of reason? You humbly open all your prayers in the name of a God of mercy and compassion. But when members of your faith, acting in the name of Islam, murdered Americans or committed suicide against ''infidels,'' your press extolled them as martyrs and your spiritual leaders were largely silent. Other than a few ritual condemnations, they offered no outcry in their mosques; they drew no new moral red lines in their schools. That's a problem, because if there isn't a struggle within Islam -- over norms and values -- there is going to be a struggle between Islam and us.

In short, numbing ourselves to the post-9/11 realities will not work. Military operations, while necessary, are not sufficient. Building higher walls may feel comforting, but in today's interconnected world they're an illusion. Our only hope is that people will be restrained by internal walls -- norms and values. Visibly imposing them on ourselves, and loudly demanding them from others, is the only viable survival strategy for our shrinking planet.

Otherwise, start building an ark.


Mankind cannot rise to the essential principles on which society must rest unless it meets with Israel. And Israel cannot fathom the depths of its own Tradition unless it meets with mankind.
(Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, 1823-1901)



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