“We are not safe.” That was the resigned and terrified refrain echoed in the media following the bombings at the Boston Marathon. It was as if we were collectively saying we should have been safe following September 11, when we became hyper-vigilant about security. We should have been safe after spending all that blood and treasure on two wars fought in the name of ensuring our safety. We should have been safe because we tortured for intelligence, denied captives due process, and killed terrorists with unmanned drones. We should have been safe because we shot dead Osama bin Laden. This past decade has been about us doing whatever it took to not be vulnerable.
But no matter who the culprit was, the devastation in Boston shatters any illusion of our invulnerability. It forces us to wonder, “What more could we possibly do to be safe? What more intrusions do we have to endure to make sure this doesn’t happen again? How much more sacrifice can we bear?”
One natural response to these questions is despair: The bombing proves that the world is essentially chaotic. Danger lurks at all times. Evil people flourish and constantly threaten to destroy. Attempts to be safe and prevent the impending doom will be futile. We are not safe, even - or perhaps especially - in those places where we hope to feel safest. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein noted in a magnificent sermon, this is the view of the “Enuma Elish,” the creation story of our ancient Mesopotamian ancestors. It has its voice in the Bible as well, particularly in Ecclesiastes.
But that is not the only valid worldview. Another goes like this: We indeed live in a world where menace is always present. Despite this, the world is primarily ordered, and the universe’s most powerful force is that which brings peace out of violence, cosmos out of chaos. True, unpredictable dangers sometimes break into organized creation and destroy. The power that can keep out the terror is not absolute, and there are times when nothing can be done to prevent calamity.
But unlike with the first view, the triumph of chaos is not inevitable. We may never be fully safe, but we are also never totally vulnerable. And what’s more – we have the ability to make our world better, safer and more peaceful. This is the worldview of the priestly author of parts of Genesis and the book of Leviticus, which, according to Mary Douglas’ “Leviticus as Literature”, echoes the former’s emphasis on order and peacefulness.
Each of these responses has a moral dimension. In Ecclesiastes, everything we do is hopeless. In that kind of world, the only reasonable approach is to “go joyously eat your bread and drink your wine with a glad heart” (Ecclesiastes 9:7). Just do what feels good, take care of yourself, and ignore others, because nothing really matters.
On the other hand, in the priestly narrative, chaos is the exception, not the rule. Since what we build today will likely be there tomorrow, we can form real relationships, dream, and hope. Acts of compassion, justice, and peace matter. There is indeed “darkness over the surface of the deep,” but God’s presence is always fluttering over the chaotic primordial waters, speaking light into being, driving out the darkness (Gen. 1:2-3). The same creative power that relentlessly works to make cosmos out of chaos invites our partnership to ensure that cosmos wins out.
Of course, real and devastating tragedies will happen; our power to control them is limited. This means we must not be consumed with trying to prevent them. But we also need not be defined or paralyzed by them. We need not live in fear. Instead, we can work to create conditions that elicit goodness, and eradicate those conditions that obscure it. We, like God, can bring forth light to dispel darkness.
At the risk of generalizing, I argue that the Jewish people, and Israelis in particular, have internalized the priestly view. Millennia of persecution never crushed our resilient belief in an ultimate redemption and pursuit of a better world. And no war, suicide bomb, or rocket has stymied Israelis’ hope of building a free, prosperous, democratic, and peaceful Jewish state. In this sense, we have fulfilled our destiny of being a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).
Back in Boston, stories of brave first responders running into harm’s way to rescue victims, marathoners continuing past the finish line to donate blood, strangers reaching out to help each other, and resounding vows not to be intimidated by murderers show that we Americans are not giving up on the priestly narrative, either. But this is a crucial moment for us. Once again, we are called upon to choose a narrative. Both affirm that, tragically, we are not safe. But only one invites us to build a better world.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow. You can follow him on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/rabbiknopf