for Isabelle’s Bat Mitzvah
SEPTEMBER 15, 2001
Last Tuesday when a weeping clerk at the co-op told me how hijackers had crashed loaded jets into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon music began to play loudly in my head: Morning has broken like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
All day as I waited for news, picked Isabelle up from school, and spread mulch under the azaleas I heard the song: Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden. By evening I became conscious of this radio in my brain and wondered, “Why this song?” and the answer seemed easy. It was the first song we planned to sing at Isabelle’s Bat Mitzvah. I was grateful for the soothing monotony of the rhythms like a Tantric chant, the Rosary or reciting Kaddish, a ritual of words that kept my anxiety at bay.
By Thursday the song had ceased playing on an endless loop but still reappeared for a few minutes every time I looked at a headline or heard a television commentator recounting stories from the disaster. Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning. Now I began to wonder more seriously, “Why this song?” Well, there was the word “broken” right in the first line. And joy and hope, both of which I needed. Praise for the singing. Praise for the morning.
Then yesterday Isabelle and I were chatting as we usually do only after we’ve been to Friends’ Meeting where a message from one speaker or another will inspire a discussion between us about some spiritual, political, or social issue. Over the years Isabelle and I have defined a vocabulary between us that easily frames difficult abstract ambiguities and not solid, out there, sit at our table realities.
This particular moment, however, Isabelle was questioning why Friday was a national day of mourning and yet kids had to go to school We talked about how the nation’s wish to show the terrorists that their tactics can’t stop us from going on with our lives, won’t bring commerce to a halt, the modern world to an end, was in conflict with our very real desire to weep endlessly in a dark room. Then, of course, I was finally able to recognize why this song now. It twists upon the interface between morning and to mourn. Between the promise of a future and the reality of death.
As we talked, I was suddenly struck by Isabelle’s empathy for all sides in these many religions. Then I remembered how she is constantly struggling to resolve the conflicts which plague her friends and family – even to the point of scheduling a weekly session with a pair of girls at school who though best friends are constantly embroiled in dissension.
The marvel to me is that Isabelle (I think because she is half-Jewish) brings to these endeavors the self-confidence, organizational skills, and wit which are often so lacking in Quakerly types like myself who prefer to remain in the periphery and to provide support staff to other more public voices. Also, like so many of the young people in this group today, Isabelle has been blessed with good friends from widely varying ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, most particularly in her case the Borough boys who lived with us for nearly two years.
From these exposures she has not only learned to tolerate religious and political differences but to take pleasure in them. Being tolerant is work. Taking pleasure is cousin to love. All this is not to laud my child but to challenge her and all those sitting among us today who have been blessed with gifts of personality and friendship that you consider what is happening in the world and ask yourselves: Are you comfortable remaining a cultural Jew, Muslim or Christian in a world in which those terms are increasingly defined by the rhetoric and actions of the most fundamentalist/orthodox voices?
Is the endless reciprocity of retribution (what Isabelle refers to as “ping-pong death”) a game that you consider an inevitable side-effect of what you believe is a greater goal? Are you willing to sacrifice not only yourself but also your children, grandchildren and other loved ones for that goal? When you revenge an evil with evil is it possible to avoid becoming an equal to your enemy?
To my mind none of these queries have easy or simple answers but those in the best position to initiate the discussion are the people, young and old, who have deep roots into different branches of the Judaic family tree. Let those roots, whether genetic or from friendship, compel you to recognize how the ultimate goal of all sides is often simply to provide a better world for their children. And finally let these roots reveal how individual behaviors may be different but the needs they satisfy are the same.
When Jews wrap themselves in their shawls and chant ancient prayers in an often unintelligible language, when Moslems bow to Mecca on their rugs and chant from the Koran, when Christians sing their traditional liturgies or shout out a steady echo of ‘amens’, they are all doing what I do when I sit in Quaker meeting, wrap myself in silence and wait for the spirit of interconnectedness to inspire me to that holy place, that sacred zone, that recognition of the infinite pattern of balance within atoms, electromagnetic waves, cellular structure and planetary motion.
I understand that the angry God so fervently worshiped by many contemporary orthodox Judaic, Muslim and Christian sects, is the god that they feel they need. But that eye-for-an-eye god and tooth-for-a-tooth god lies at the heart of a religious conflict which reduces three great religious groups to teenage brothers fighting among themselves because they are each too much like their depressed and angry God-the-father. Like all children, they must come to grips with the parent within themselves or they will never differentiate, never become truly adult, only evolve ultimately into a reincarnation of their angry vengeful parent.
By confronting that parent within yourselves, both as individuals and as members of religious groups, you will gain both the opportunity to take the best not the worst, from your parents, and the opportunity to deny the God of War who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and embrace the God of Vision who gave Abraham back his child.