The Internal Enemy on 9/11 – A D’var Torah reposted from Rabbi Laura Geller

This post is reposted from a post by Rabbi Laura Geller, our rabbinical colleague at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA, from We present it to you as a reflection from Torah on September 11, eleven years after the tragic day in 2001 when our nation was struck by terror. May we never forget.

This 11th anniversary of 9/11 falls during the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the Jewish New Year. Our work during this time is Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul, as individuals and as a community.  Each morning, we hear the sounds of the shofar, the ram’s horn, calling us to wake up and consider our acts.

We also hear words from the Torah that we read in the weeks leading up to this anniversary. Among them is the Torah portion called Ki Tetze, from the Book of Deuteronomy. The opening words “Ki Tetze” are usually translated as “When (or ‘if’) you go out to war against your enemies.” It continues by describing some of the laws of war. One regards a woman who is taken captive by a soldier.  The Torah permits this but circumscribes what would otherwise be a rape. The soldier must bring the woman into his home, allow her to mourn for 30 days before he can touch her, and then, should he still choose to “marry” her, she has certain rights and protection against him later deciding to throw her out.  The next verses describe a man who has married two women, one he loves and one he hates. It goes on to make clear that even if the first born is the son of the hated wife, he still must be given the inheritance due the first born. The final law of the opening section concerns the “rebellious son” who will not obey his parents.

Rashi, the medieval commentator, ties these three laws together. He explains that war often leads a soldier to want to take a woman captive. The Torah is warning us: this will lead to having a hated wife and that will lead to having a rebellious child. The warning seems to be: Don’t go out to war unless there is no other alternative, because war leads to personal and communal disruption and unpredictable and costly collateral damage.

As Rabbi Aryeh Cohen points out, these verses read through the interpretive tradition of Jewish commentary, force us to focus on what war does to us. It cautions us to not respond quickly to any given stimulus, but to take time, be deliberative and understand there are life long consequences to actions that occur during war. Would that our leaders had considered those consequences before responding to the terrorist attacks by waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan!

There is an anomaly in the opening verse that offers the possibility of another kind of understanding. The word for “You” –“when you go out to war…” — is written in the singular. This suggests to some commentators that it is not really about physical war at all. (If it were, the text would be addressing an army in the plural form of the word YOU.) These interpreters understand the enemy as our Yetzer HaRa, our evil inclination. They read the verse to mean: “When you go out to fight against that internal enemy, you can take it captive.”

I asked my congregation to reflect with me on what are some of the ways we have allowed the yetzer hara to win the internal war. One said: “the rising tide of Islamophobia.”  Another said: “the polarization between right and left in the country.”  A third said: “not really admitting the ways in which we have looked the other way or been complicit with violations of civil liberties.”

What would it mean to confront our internal enemy? On the simplest level, it would mean that I should respond to, instead of simply deleting, the forwarded anti-Islam e-mails I regularly receive. Peace making requires more than ignoring the hateful rhetoric; it requires confronting it and those who spread it.  Peace making also requires a conscious effort to build personal relationships between Jews and Muslims, as we are doing through our ongoing Muslim-Jewish dialogue with our partner, the King Fahad Mosque of Culver City, under the auspices of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Peace making requires that we know each others’ stories and imagine what it would be like to stand in each others’ shoes. Peace making also requires remembering our own history, those times in this country when others fought the construction of synagogues.  It requires standing with the Muslim community when their right to build mosques is challenged.

Peace making begins with me, with examining my own stereotypes and my own instinct to look away from injustice or to assume that leaders know what they are doing. It starts with me — and then it expands. As the Talmud teaches: “All who can protest against something wrong that one of their family is doing and doesn’t protest is held accountable for their family. All who can protest against something wrong that a citizen of their city is doing and doesn’t protest is held accountable for all the citizens. All who can protest against something wrong that is being done in the whole world is accountable together with the citizens of the world.”

Peace making begins when I am accountable.

May we remember during this month of Elul that chesbon hanefesh is both intensely personal and powerfully communal. May the sound of the shofar remind us of all of those whose lives were lost in the attacks on 9/11 and also in the wars that emerged in response to those attacks, both soldiers and civilians. May these sounds challenge us to ask what we have done over these years to bring healing to our world.  May these sounds empower us to work together for peace.