מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו

I haven’t commented much on Obama’s big speech because, well, I pretty much said my peace on the subject of his church and his pastor here last month.

But, apropos of the speech by Wright that Andrew Sullivan has posted, I just wanted to point out two things.

First, in the musaf liturgy recited on festivals, we (Jews) say, “mipnei chataeinu galinu meartzeinu” (that’s the title of this post), which means, “in the face of our sins we were exiled from our homeland” and therefore we can’t celebrate the festival with the proper rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem as we are commanded to do. In the face of our sins means either or both of the following: that we are exiled because of our sins, or that in exile we are brought face to face with our sins. In any event, the point is: we don’t say that in the face of Nebuchadnezzar or Titus we were exiled from our homeland; we say, “in the face of our sins.” That seems to me very close to the message Rev. Wright was delivering in his post-9-11 sermon.

Second, Psalm 137 is traditionally recited before saying grace after meals on weekdays. (Traditional Jews say a brief blessing for the existence of food before eating and a more lengthy grace thanking God for a variety of things including food after eating.) It’s one humdinger of a psalm, and it’s a good thing most people don’t pay too much attention to the concluding verses. And I remember my rabbi giving a sermon (not immediately after 9-11, I will note) about that very psalm and its troubling conclusion, a sermon with a very similar message to the one Rev. Wright is delivering about the “dangerous place” people of faith can be taken to.

Rev. Wright was, of course, preaching to a congregation in Chicago that was very receptive to a message of this sort, which is, I suspect, what actually rankles outside observers. Because a message like this – not the “chickens coming home to roost” bit but the bit about getting right with God and being wary of an outright desire for vengeance – strikes me as exactly the sort of thing America needed to hear from its clergy in the wake of 9-11, and, in many cases, did hear. I know I did.

By the way, and for whatever it’s worth (and I’m not sure that’s anything much), here’s the text of what I wrote to friends and family a few days after 9-11. Call it my own “sermon.” I was obviously coming from a different place, politically, from Rev. Wright at the time, as I would be now. But I hope he would be no more offended by my “sermon” than I am by his, in retrospect anyhow.

Dear Family and Friends:

I want to reassure everyone that Carolyn and I are fine, and that furthermore all our friends and loved ones whom we have tried to contact are alive and well. Amazingly, no one in our apartment building, no one from our colleagues, no one from our synagogue or from our circle of friends was lost in the attack on September 11th. It feels selfish to be grateful, when so many have lost so much, but we are grateful, profoundly so, for having been spared the suffering that we have seen.

As the Days of Awe approach, I find my mouth stopped from prayer, or at least the kind of prayer called for on this season. On Rosh Hashanah, we begin a season of introspection, searching our souls for our misdeeds, and asking forgiveness of G-d and our fellows, as appropriate, for the offenses done them. We contemplate with awe the approach of the Day of Judgment, and seek to purify ourselves. But all my thoughts fly outward, not inward. We are enjoined not to comfort the bereaved with their dead lying before them. Our dead are before us – they will remain so, literally, for weeks and months as the wreckage is removed, girder by girder. So how shall we turn, as are told to on Yom Kippur, to mourning for ourselves?

Well, why are we supposed to mourn ourselves, at this season? Why are we supposed to afflict our souls? It is not, as might be the case in some philosophies, for the perfection of our souls in isolation. We turn inward during the Days of Awe, yes, but not for the sake of inwardness itself, for the sake of our selves. We turn inward in order to do teshuvah, to return to G-d. And returning to G-d, it seems to me, means doing G-d’s work in this world, not in another. The prayer and fasting that we will engage in are spiritual exercises designed not to remove us from the world but to prepare us for action in it. It seems to me that those are the kinds of exercises we very much need at this time, more than ever.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac. G-d asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, his beloved, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah to raise him up as a burnt offering on a mountain that G-d would designate. Abraham duly goes, Isaac walking beside, and they climb the mountain, and on the way Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice. And Abraham answers: G-d will provide the lamb. And they ascend to the top, and Isaac is bound; and Abraham has already raised his knife to cut his throat when an angel intervenes to stop the slaughter. And indeed, G-d provides a lamb to substitute for Isaac, and Abraham is blessed.

Like most people, I have long found the story to be terrible in the original sense of the word: inspiring terror. I have struggled to understand what possible meaning this abortive human sacrifice might have. But I began to understand it when I read a story in Senator John McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers.

John McCain, as probably the whole world knows by now, was imprisoned in North Vietnam for five and a half years, through the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, his father was an Admiral, and commanded the fleets of planes that were bombing North Vietnam. As everyone in the world probably also knows, John McCain refused an offer from his captors to be released early in his imprisonment. He did so because if captives were to be freed they should rightly be freed in the order they were captured, and if he were set free earlier because of his high-ranking connections it would have a devastating effect on American morale.

One year, on Christmas, Admiral McCain took a helicopter to the border with North Vietnam, to get as close to his son as he could. And he watched the bombers passing overhead toward the North, with their deadly payloads. And he knew that any one of them might land on the very prison where his son was being held. And that was how they spent Christmas together, that year.

I read this story and I thought: that’s the story of the binding of Isaac. Now I understand it. At times we are constrained – by necessity, by what is right and by what is true: that is to say, by the will of G-d – to put our lives and, more terribly, the lives of our beloveds in mortal danger. We do not do so laughingly, knowing that 70 virgins will wait upon our dead sons in the next world. We do so with no hope of reward of any kind, knowing only that we must, praying only that G-d, if He is merciful, will provide a lamb for sacrifice instead – that the worst will not come to pass, and those we love will return to us in safety.

We are not always granted that much. Over 300 firefighters in this city, and their loved ones, were not granted that much. Jeremy Glick and the other passengers of flight 93 – who died heroes, bringing down their plane in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow themselves to become a sacrifice to Moloch – were not granted that much. But had they not had the faith, the knowledge that they must do right even at the cost of their lives, we would not have their zechut – their merit – to rely on when we face our own trials to come.

Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us. Before we enter such a war, it is all the more incumbent upon us, to cleanse our hearts to serve G-d in truth, and to pray for G-d’s help in doing so.

G-d willing, few among us will be required to make the kind of sacrifice that Abraham did.

G-d willing, we will all be inscribed and sealed this year in the book of life.

And, no, this was not intended as an endorsement of the McCain campaign.