There is a quote which is widely attributed to either Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln, although the exact origin of the truism is unclear. And while, in all likelihood, neither one ever said it, it is pretty probable you have heard some variation of the saying. Last week, something happened that was kind of tailor-made for that aphorism — no matter who it was who said it.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the staff and families of the U.S. embassy there. In his remarks, and in contrasting this terror attack with those perpetrated in Paris last January, he said something so incredibly foolish that the backlash was inevitable. In last year’s attack, he said, “there was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.”
Cue the outrage.
Ted Cruz called on Kerry to resign for serving “as [an] apologist(s) for radical Islamic terrorists.” Some right-wing pundits echoed this call — but even those who did not go so far as to call for his ouster expressed their indignation at his having excused the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.
I find myself, however, in a place I am not used to occupying. John Kerry’s statement was indeed disgraceful and indicative of his incompetence as a diplomat — which may, in itself, be reason to demand he be replaced. But remember, he is whom we thought he was. This is a man who, while running for president of the United States, explained a vote against funding the troops during a time of war by saying “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
But I don’t think what he meant to say was all that big of a deal. It’s clear to me that he was inartfully trying to make a point that I entirely agree with, strange as that may seem. And I suppose that most of those on the “right” side of the spectrum would agree with it as well.
There is a difference between the attacks on the satirical magazine (which the terrorists claimed offended them), and those that occurred this month. People could turn a blind eye toward January’s attacks by rationalizing that, because the terrorists only attacked those they deemed offensive, they themselves remained at a remove from those attacks.
The same idea applies to the recent terror wave in Eretz Yisrael. When the attacks were being carried out by terrorists in the so-called occupied territories, people who did not live there could explain them away by saying only those who lived there needed to worry. When there were bombings of buses and large crowds, people could convince themselves that if they avoided those places, the intifada need not have any direct effect on them. But the randomness of the recent spate of killings, and the idea that even one Jew standing on a street corner is considered a target, makes it harder to not feel the fear.
The yetzer hara works this way as well.
Harav Yisrael Salanter used to say that when someone dies, instead of learning from the death to get hisorerus, people tell themselves that there is a “chevrah fun shtarbers — a group that dies,” — meaning this death isn’t something that has anything to do with anyone outside of that group. Thus the yetzer hara can convince us that we don’t need to engage in any sort of introspection.
Harav Yosef Leib Nandik, Hy”d, who served as the Mashgiach in Kletzk before the war, explains the passuk (Yeshayah 42:25) “Vatelahateihu misaviv v’lo yada, vativar bo v’lo yasim al lev — and it blazed around him and he did not know, and it burned him and he did not take heed.” Yediah is a much deeper level of understanding than simas lev — which is, essentially, just taking notice. In the beginning of the passuk, explained Rav Nandik, when the fire hasn’t yet burned among them, they still have the ability to reach a deeper level of understanding as to why Hakadosh Baruch Hu is doing what he is doing. But once the fire is burning among them, not just around them, it is impossible to do anything more than merely take notice.
The proper thing to do, the Mashgiach told his talmidim, is to engage in introspection precisely when the fires are burning around us. Because if we listen to the yetzer hara, and push it off until it burns among us, it will end up being too late. Hakadosh Baruch Hu affords us these opportunities; when tragedies strike around us, a Yid must always use them to ask what lessons to learn from them, not dismiss them as irrelevant to us in our lives.