In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is not only the start of the year, it is also the day of judgment, when God weighs our deeds, reads our hearts, and inscribes our fate for the year to come. The rabbis taught that on Rosh Hashanah our lives are hanging in the balance, and some of the most emotional parts of the liturgy deal with death: how terrible it can be, how suddenly it can come, how vulnerable it can find us.
"Who will live and who will die; who in his time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire; who by the sword and who by beast..."
The words are somber even in ordinary years. With last week's horrors still so fresh and raw and ugly, they will take on an even more immediate grimness than many of us might otherwise have felt.
But not all of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy focuses on the here-and-now, and not all of it is grim. One recurring passage looks joyfully ahead, to the messianic era when "iniquity will shut its mouth, and all wickedness will disappear like smoke, for You will remove the reign of evil from the earth."
What that will be like -- a world in which evil has lost its power -- is hard to imagine. But then, we aren't being asked to imagine it or to dwell on it -- only to remind ourselves, as a new year gets under way, that one day redemption will come, and in the meantime we have work to do. It has never been the Jewish way to focus on the end times and give up on the present. God made the world -- on Rosh Hashanah, the sages said -- but He made it imperfect, a place with kindness, light, and love, but also with cruelty, darkness, and hate. God made the world, but it is our responsibility to make it better. When we neglect that duty, the result, sooner or later, is catastrophe. Just look, for example, at the New York skyline.
Making the world better means, first of all, making ourselves better. It means being as preoccupied with our ethics as we are with our finances, as quick to worry about a blemish in our morals as we are about a blemish on our cars. It means recognizing that no part of parenting matters more than training children in decency. What happened last week in Manhattan and Washington was caused, among other things, by parents who didn't make the decency of their children their first priority.
But making the world better also means acknowledging that there are those who would make it worse. There are evil people who do evil things -- and evil organizations and evil regimes, too -- and we are obliged to point them out and fight them.
"O lovers of God, despise evil!" King David wrote in the 97th Psalm. That is hard enough to do under the best of circumstances. It is infinitely harder when the very notion of evil is jeered as archaic and unenlightened, when those who denounce evil behavior are themselves denounced as "intolerant" or "extremist" or "judgmental." What obloquy rained down on Ronald Reagan when he labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire." That Moscow ruled an empire no one disputed, that it was one of history's greatest engines of mass murder was beyond contradiction, but for Reagan to use the E-word was seen, in elite circles, as pathetically gauche.
Evil cannot be confronted unless it can first be identified, but for decades our culture has been preaching that good and evil are in the eyes of the beholder, matters of opinion, not fact. In The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back, Hamilton College philosopher Robert Simon described the inability of his students to condemn great evils. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one pupil told him, "but who is to say they are morally wrong?" At Harvard, James Q. Wilson found the same reluctance to call the Holocaust evil. As one of his students said, "It all depends on your perspective."
Even worse than treating evil as an issue of personal taste or as the product of incorrect thinking is treating it as glamorous or sexy or entertaining. Yet from rap songs about rape and cop-killing to TV talk shows that revel in human depravity, evil is winked at, indulged, celebrated. The inevitable result has been an erosion in our capacity to make moral judgments. We have trained ourselves not to judge the behavior of other people, or of other cultures. And as this swamp of nonjudgmentalism has spread, the world has grown ever more dangerous -- and Americans have grown ever more unwilling to make it safe.
The New York Times last week ran a warm and admiring profile of Bill Ayers and his wife, two former members of the terrorist Weather Underground that carried out at least 12 bombings in the 1970s. "I don't regret setting bombs," begins the story on the front of the Arts section. "I feel we didn't do enough." The piece was occasioned by the publication of Ayers's memoir, a book in which he writes: "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon."
The story appeared on Tuesday, Sept. 11 -- just in time for at least some readers in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania to see it before terrorists killed them.
The choice, as always, is ours: To call evil by its name or to pretend not to see it, to excuse it and laugh it off or to face it and fight. As the year 5762 begins, let us resolve that the thousands who perished last week shall not have died in vain. May their memory inspire us to make the world that remembers them better than the world they left.