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Lessons From The Kaddish A Decade After 9/11

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As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I've been thinking a lot about the words of the kaddish, the memorial prayer that Jews recite daily in the months immediately following the passing of those closest to us and that we say as well to mark the yearly anniversary of their deaths. The very first line of the kaddish is especially meaningful to me. I think its words have a lot to say to all Americans of whatever faith or creed.

"May God's great name be magnified and sanctified in the world that He created in accordance with His will."

We can read that line in two ways, my rabbi once explained. It could be an affirmation, in the face of tragedy and loss, that there really is a Plan to things. All is not chaos, randomness, "one damn thing after another." The world proceeds even now, when things seem bleakest, in accordance with God's will.

That promise is certainly comforting to a family plunged into agony and grief at the loss of a loved one. It also offers collective reassurance to a nation robbed on a single day of three thousand loved ones. In the face of the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists, the kaddish restores a measure of confidence in our ability to stand up to evil -- for God has not abandoned us. There will come a day, the prayer continues, when "God fully establishes God's kingdom" on earth. Good will triumph over evil. The forces of life will defeat the forces of death. "May it be in your lifetime, soon, in a time that is near." Even now, even here, God's will remains effective and God's presence gives us hope.

There is another way to read the opening words of the kaddish prayer, however -- and I personally find it even more meaningful at moments of remembrance like this one. In this reading, the words "according to His will" pertain to our efforts to magnify and sanctify God's holy name in this world. How do we make God's name great and holy? Not only (and not primarily) by reciting this or any other prayer. We sanctify God's name by doing good together in the world.

This is the principle known in Judaism and other faiths as imitatio dei: "imitating God." As God performs deeds of justice and loving-kindness, so we, too, should do such deeds. As God comforts those who mourn, so can we. Every one of us, this day and every day, can be a source of goodness to the world and a source of strength and hope to one another. We can thereby bring the kingdom of God closer.

Martin Buber, one of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th century, taught the important lesson that the world can be repaired at infinitely many points other than the ones at which it was most recently injured. Buber wanted to reassure those who bear guilt for wrongs that they have committed, and cannot make right, that there is a lot of good that needs doing everywhere we turn. If we cannot help those whom we ourselves have hurt, we can and should help others. If you can't repair the particular wrong you've caused, repair a different one.

I think the lesson holds more widely. None of us can bring back to life those who perished on 9/11. Nor can we put an end to the threat of future terrorist atrocities, though we must try.

There's a part of us, in the face of these limitations, that wants to lash out in anger at someone, anyone -- and another part of us, or maybe the same part, that is tempted to throw up our hands in despair of ever making a real difference. So much evil! So much pain! How can we put a stop to it? Neither response gets us very far. Blind vengeance is rarely of much use and despair often leads to inaction. Suffering multiplies as a result. The forces of evil advance. Good retreats. The cause of life is diminished.

Better, Buber advises, to seek out good we can accomplish. It is stirring to see Americans come together at this anniversary of 9/11 as we did in the days immediately following the attacks. Solidarity promotes hope that things can be better -- and provides the means to make them better. I remember clearly being thankful, 10 years ago, to hear President Bush say again and again that Islam had not been the cause of the attack and Muslims should not be blamed for it.

We could not allow the terrorists to shake our nation's commitment to religious pluralism and mutual respect. I am equally thankful today that most Americans continue to trust one another, regardless of religious or ethnic differences. We've learned a lot as a nation in the last ten years, even as we hunt down our enemies, about how we can live with diversity and use it to make us stronger.

The closing words of the kaddish pray for a "great peace upon us" from the "Maker of peace in the heavens." Why the heavens? Gazing at the night sky, with naked eye or telescope, we see hundreds and thousands of stars and planets, constellations galore, complex pathways without number -- and, amidst all this wondrous motion, there seems to be order, pattern, harmony. That is the kind of peace for which the kaddish urges us to pray on earth -- and for which it urges us to work. A dynamic rather than a static peace. An order that actively brings diverse individuals and groups together, not one that aims for sameness and homogeneity.

This too seems wise to me and offers both hope and consolation. We don't wish, in the face of tragedy, for everyone to think or believe as we do. We pray that we, and they, will have what it takes to bring great peace in and through our difference--even when it hurts, even on 9/11, even at ground zero.

This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.