2,992 people

 Shabbat Ki Teitse 5771

Ten years ago this weekend our world changed.  In an unimaginable, pre-meditated, monstrous attack, two thousand nine hundred and ninety two people lost their lives.  Two thousand nine hundred and ninety two families lost fathers, sisters, sons, mothers, brothers, daughters.  Firefighters, office workers, executives, cleaning staff.  Young people, people of every race and culture and language.  Beyond the loss of two thousand nine hundred and ninety two lives in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania that were lost, it was a fearlessness that was shattered.  A national identity.   A sense of invulnerability.  

Americans stood on top of the world in 2001.  Our army had defeated the Nazis, we won the Cold War, our country was the strongest in the world.  We were mighty, we were proud, we were unafraid.

As scores of volunteers searched the rubble looking for survivors, or at least remains, the cloud of shock eventually lifted and fear set in.   Over the next months and years, at least 10,000 New Yorkers suffered from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, due to 9/11.[1]  Even those of us living on the other side of the country were afraid of tall buildings, afraid to go out in public, afraid to fly, afraid of the next attack.

Magazines and news shows warned us of danger all around us.  There could be terrorists hiding anywhere, they said.  They could be our neighbors, they could be plotting right now to attack us, to destroy us.  How could we find them?  How could we be safe?

Once we were afraid, we changed.   To protect ourselves from sleeper cells, we allowed government surveillance of civilians.   To protect ourselves from hijackers, we allowed searches and seizures at airports.  To protect ourselves from known terrorists, we allowed indefinite detention and waterboarding.  To protect our freedom, we became less free.  September 11th changed architecture, as building designs started to account for various modes of attack.  It changed our language, with expressions like “jihadist”,  “homeland security”,  “freedom fries.”

And, in our fear, in our desire not to be afraid, in our need to prove our strength, we went to war.  More than 9,000 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (more than three times the number of Americans who died on 9/11).  More than 120,000 Iraqis and Afghanis have died so far.[2] 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitse, opens in the midst of the Torah’s ethical limitations on war.  It’s as if the Torah recognizes what fear does to human beings, what war does to human beings.  It’s as if the Torah is warning us about how easily we can be swept up, lose ourselves, lose our moral bearings in war.  “Should you go out to war,” the first words read, and you take a beautiful woman captive and you desire her, you cannot have your way with her. 

Who have we become?  We are the same people who just a few verses earlier are preserving trees on the battlefield, a few verses later returning our enemy’s ox if it has gone astray, leaving the corners of our fields for the widows and the orphans and the stranger.   A people rooted in ethics and mitzvot.  But here, we are carried away by fear, anger, aggression, lust.  You cannot have your way with her, Torah teaches.  She must be given time to mourn her family, time to adjust to her loss.  Only then can you marry her. 

From this disturbing passage, the Torah then considers two forms of strife that happen in a home.  A man who hates his wife.  A rebellious son. 

What do these have to do with one another?  Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, the great Medieval commentator, quotes a midrash which finds a causal link among these three laws. The midrash says that the Torah is speaking against the evil inclination. According to Jewish tradition, human beings have pure souls, but have two inclinations: the inclination toward good and the inclination toward evil.  The evil inclination is the source of our aggression, lust, and greed.  Because it’s natural and it’s in all of us, it behooves us to avoid the conditions that allow the evil inclination to rise.  If one goes out to war, the midrash warns, it will come to pass that someone will want to take a captive woman to wife.  And this will lead to having a hated wife.  And this will lead to having a rebellious child.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen says “this week’s portion forces us to focus on what war does to us.”  How people who one day are leaving food on their fields for those who have none, who are worrying about the trees on the battlefield, the next day find themselves traumatized, changed by killing and the fear of being killed.  So that a beautiful woman, innocent and captured, seems like something to be taken.  And then, once the soldier and the captive woman are married, because there never was love there, hatred grows between husband and wife, and their son grows up full of resentment, looking for a fight.  And what happens when he has his own children?

This is not hypothetical, and it’s not only in Torah.   More than 144,000 American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.[3]  They have forever been changed by the continual fear of roadside bombs, by the excruciating loss of fellow soldiers, by the often impossible task of distinguishing between combatants and civilians, by the act of killing.  They come home with PTSD, with depression, with strange ailments.  Some come home angry, some come home wounded.  Some find it difficult to adjust to home, to holding a job, to raising children, to loving their spouse.  The war does not end when they come home.  There is addiction.  There are divorces.  There is abuse.  There is much suffering. 

            The suffering is not limited to soldiers and their families.  So far, the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has cost $3.7 trillion.[4]  It is the only war in American history that was paid for without an increase in taxes.  As unemployment hovers above nine percent and Congress is reluctant to respond because of our national debt, the pain of these wars is felt by everyone.


It all started with a handful of men who boarded planes intent on destroying American life.  Ten years later, hundreds of thousands of people have died.  Hundreds of thousands of children have grown up with trauma, more likely to look for a fight.  Hundreds of millions of people have lost freedoms, starting with the freedom to be unafraid.   


The cycle goes on until we stop it.  The cycle goes on until we find another way to respond to our fear.  The Torah warns us: look at what war does to you, to your families, to your children.

As we remember the two thousand nine hundred and ninety two people who died on September 11th ten years ago, let us look for another way. 

[1] NY Times, September 8, 2011

[2] New York Times, 9/11 Wars by the Numbers; UN Report on Afghani casualties

[3] New York Times, War by the Numbers, September 8, 2011

[4] Huffington Post, June 29, 2011

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