It’s Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (if you’re Jewish), two days that celebrate the start of the year 5774. A time when people wish each other a year of sweetness, a year of blessing and peace. The wish for peace was invoked several times during the 2 1/2-hour service we sat through yesterday morning, and each time it rang oddly in my ear. Because I couldn’t help thinking: How does one seek peace when war is once again erupting into the headlines–and once again, the United States is this close to becoming part of it?
It’s easy enough to say we shouldn’t get involved. I’ve heard all the excuses. It’s not our fight, we can’t be the world’s policeman, we don’t know who the “good guys” are, violence only begets more violence, we can’t fix someone else’s civil war. The deeply fringe-y, “it’s a false flag, engineered by the military-industrial complex/fossil fuel industry to fatten their profits/take over this pipeline/that oilfield/those natural gas deposits.” And my favorites, variations on a theme: “We kill innocent kids with drones, so we’re just as bad as Assad,” or, “You’re just as dead from bombs and bullets as from poison gas.” Both offered as reasons that not only should we not get involved, we have no right to get involved. No right to mourn those killed by sarin gas, or to be outraged at the atrocity of that weapon’s use because we’ve winked and nodded at–or been guilty of–other atrocities in our day.
I am not comfortable with these excuses or formulations, even though many of them have a point. Several have very good points, in fact. And yet it seems just as facile to talk of “punishment” and “sending a message” by lobbing a few cruise missiles toward selected hard targets in Syria and calling it a day. What does this really do that’s of any earthly use? Whose lives can it save? Whose lethal toys does it take away so they can’t do any more damage? What justice does it serve, and how in the name of any God or Goddess in whom humans might believe can it possibly bring peace closer?
I don’t have an answer for this. Many people wiser than I don’t have answers for it, either. And yet we have to choose, we have to act. That phrase includes not acting, by the way. Doing nothing–militarily or otherwise–is an action, a choice, in itself. For those who believe we can and should do nothing except wag a finger in Syria’s direction at the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians, that may end up being the least awful of the choices available–but please don’t pretend that it isn’t a deliberate choice and won’t have negative consequences of its own.
So what do we do with this awful situation, on the birthday of a new year when we devoutly wish for peace? What peace, what blessing, what sweetness can we hope for in the face of the choice ahead? For it is our choice, too. Not just President Obama’s, not just Secretary of State John Kerry’s, not just Congress’s. Ours as well, because we are citizens of this country, and on a decision of this magnitude, we must do our best to make our voices heard.
I find myself going back to something else from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. A phrase in Hebrew: Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom. Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. This day, and all days when we face the obligation to weigh terrible choices, to pick from among them, and to speak out. Such power we have, and the responsibility to use it with wisdom. We may make the wrong choice; we may rue the consequences. But we must think things through as best we can, and then we must speak up.
I pray for wisdom on the part of our President, our Congress, and those whose testimony in the coming days will directly affect the choices our leaders make. And I will add my voice, small though it is, before the time to speak runs out.
I don’t have an answer yet. But I will try to find one. Will you?