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Reflections on 9/11

“The great tragedy of life,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is that it must be lived forward and can only be understood backwards.”

We cannot truly understand events as they unfold. It is only with the perspective of time that we can begin to grasp their true meaning. It is a truth that rabbinic commentators point out is expressed in the Torah.

In response to the request from Moses that he be allowed to see God’s glory, the Almighty tells him, “You can see My back, but My face you cannot perceive.” The Almighty obviously has no physical form; what He meant was that His relationship to the world could only be understood in retrospect.

A decade has passed since the horrifying attack of 9/11 on American shores. Life has never been the same since then, neither here nor in the rest of the world. And what new insights have we gained since that tragic moment in September of 2001?

In one sense, we share the feeling of Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, who when asked in the mid-twentieth century what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, responded simply, “It is too soon to say.” We cannot yet fully grasp all the consequences of that seminal moment in history when Bin Laden chose to begin the war of East versus West, of Muslim fanaticism against Judeo-Christian values.

But what we have learned in these last ten years is that we are engaged in a conflict rooted not in a desire for more land, for more wealth, for more power, but a war that is meant to decide between two visions. “The difference between you and us,” Osama Bin Laden famously said, “is that you glorify life and we glorify death.” There cannot be a starker and more succinct summary of what is at stake in this battle. To call our enemies terrorists is to diminish the scope of their evil intentions.

Today at the very least, we recognize that what we are fighting for is nothing less than the survival of civilization. And our goal must therefore be the Biblical mandate we have been given from God in the Torah to “choose life.”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, the author of many highly acclaimed books, is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Oceanside.

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