08/27/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Birthday of the World

On September 4th, Jews will begin celebrating Rosh Hashanah, which in the traditional liturgy is called "birthday of the world." Actually, in the traditional view of the calendar, it is not the birthday of the universe, which was created in the preceding "six day" process, but the birthday of Adam and Eve -- of the human world as we know it.

An important distinction. Moral choice came into being on that day. We don't have a stellar record in that realm -- so that the Jewish sages, thousands of years later, asked whether humans should have been created at all. The wise men debated the issue for two and a half years, concluding it would have been better that we were not created -- but, since we were, the main job is to examine our deeds and correct them.

It's a good mood for Rosh Hashanah, certainly this year. I received a link to an editorial by Ari Shavit in the Israeli newspaper, HaAretz, in which he discusses not the birthday of the world in the mysterious gardens of the ancient Near East, but the end of the world, starting in Damascus. The editorial declares that when civilians can be gassed to death, "we face the end of a world that purports to be moral and enlightened."

Yes. But it was not so long ago that another such world, previously considered the epitome of civilization, ended on exactly the same note. Seventy-two years ago, in September 1941, the first gassings of civilians in specially built trucks took place in Germany -- not yet the Jews, but mentally ill patients, so that the "lunatic asylums" could be cleared out. It took two or three months before the same treatment was adopted for the "killing operations in the East," as the murders of Jews came to be called. From there, the whole world went downhill. December 7, Pearl Harbor. December 8, the first exterminations of "undesirables" began at Chelmo, using gas. No longer just death as in the labor camps from disease, exhaustion, but direct murder.

What astounded me, when I first read the news of Damascus, was that people were still talking about other news. The titillating indiscretions of politicians, the ruminations of teenagers on Facebook -- how can this distract us even for a moment? Where is our collective roar of protest? Do we think it is an accident that this happened exactly a year ago this week, after this murderer was warned not to cross this line? Of course, it happened before, on a smaller scale -- a few rebels. Also, the lunatic asylums came first -- the obviously undesirable.

Please wake up. This is not war, terrible as that is. This is murder. Mass murder. Gassed in the night. Children in their pajamas. Have we lost ourselves entirely? Is our empathetic imagination completely frozen? What if we woke up to discover, a few blocks away, people running with foaming mouths and twitching limbs toward a hospital in our neighborhood? Trucks loaded with sheeted bodies hurrying to the morgue? Surely, we are stifling our screams.

It is all too easy to push away the horror, categorizing "them." When we do talk about it, it is mostly about others' responsibility. Our government is dallying. Obama can't put teeth behind his words. The Europeans are just blabbering. It's the Middle East, after all -- dictators. It's a civil war, Muslims against Muslims. You know the routine.

We do, unfortunately, know the routine. Cain, the son of Adam, asked cynically, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Perhaps, since it was the first time, he really didn't know? God's response, however, was unequivocal. "What have you done?! The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!" Then, the curse: "Cursed are you from the ground, which opened her mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand!"

The only way to escape this fate is to say, with all our hearts, "No!" to the murders and the murderer. Our mouths must open and speak back, making clear that, we do not accept, we do not tolerate, and we will not forget this violation of the most basic rule of the cosmos, of the earth herself, of every religion and philosophy worthy of the name: you shall not murder.

Speak. Write. No politics. No ideology. Simple, clear. No.

Some people have the custom, on their birthday, of committing to something new and positive in their lives. Let us each take time to reflect on what we can do to create a new world in which the horrors that are being committed today become a thing of the past.