Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Great Race

I had intended to post something lighter today. But then a suicide car bomb exploded next to bus #841 at the Karkur Junction between Hadera and Afula. The bus was traveling from Kyriat Shmona to Tel Aviv on Highway 65, the Wadi Ara road that has already seen 8 suicide bombings since war broke out two years ago. 14 were killed and 42 injured.

This one hit us hard. Over the past few months, the number of bombings has dropped from the horrible days of March, when it was one or two a day, to the present situation when a serious attack occurs once a month. Not that that’s OK. But we’ve been able to rationalize it out of our daily thoughts.

The last attack on a bus, 10 days ago at the Bar Ilan Junction, was “small” by comparison, killing “only” one person. That's not OK either. With every murder a complete world is lost. After Marla, we know that as well as anyone. But were it not for the sensational story of the driver who saved the day by pinning back the bomber’s arms allowing most of the passengers to flee, it would barely have registered in the international media. And, not hearing the story over and over on the BBC, we would have neatly compartmentalized our feelings and filed them away.

Not this time. The large number of the dead and wounded, the nature of the attack (a bomb-laden SUV driven beside the bus) brought back all of our old fears:

Don’t ride buses. Keep far from cars, big cars especially. Stay off the streets entirely.

And more: Maybe we should leave? Go somewhere safer. Ra’anana? Des Moines? Australia?

Then introspective panic: How can we be doing this to our children? They didn’t ask for this kind of risk. Will this be the trigger that pushes us past the breaking point?

But then I received this comment on my “Gilo, DC” posting two days ago from my friend David Janus who lived in Israel with his family up until a few years ago:

“After the first couple of attacks,” he wrote, “My father (who was never a huge fan of our living in Israel) called to check in (the first two shootings were within blocks of the kids' school). I told him we were fine and that, if this keeps up, we were going to have to move back to Israel, where it's a bit safer. I don't think he appreciated the humor… Maybe we're just destined to live in places that are subject to periodic outbreaks of random violence.”

The nature of fear and the steps we take to increase our perception of safety are deftly analyzed in this article in the Washington Post, "Be Afraid of Being Very Afraid."

But what is "safety?" What is "security?" I am reminded of our vacation in North America last summer. On the day we landed in Toronto, July 4, there was that shooting at the El Al Ticket Counter at LAX that left two Israelis dead. Two days after we left Toronto, a religious Jew was killed in a pizza parlor by a skinhead. We went on to Chicago where we met our friend Dean who, three years ago, was gunned down while leaving shul on a Friday night in Chicago. He took five bullets; two still remain.

And then there’s Bali, Finland and Paris. Snipers, anthrax and shoe bombers. What has happened to the world we live in? We were supposed to have total world peace by now. That’s what I was led to believe when I was growing up. I demand a rewrite!

This reaction, honest and certainly understandable, is based on a particular assumption: that life is a great race to be finished at all costs. Michael Even-Esh, who edits Xlivnot – the alumni email newsletter for past participants of the “Livnot U’Lehibanot” ("To Build and Be Built") program in Israel, wrote the following just after Marla died:

“The purpose of life is not to finish 'the race' and say - when you're old, lying on your deathbed surrounded by your family – ‘ah...I made it...I didn't die by terrorism or war or crime or even lung cancer...I died from natural causes...I won the race!’”

Rather, he continues, “The most important thing in life is to live it right, to live it with meaning, to live it with purpose, to live it with gusto…As A.J.Heschel said: ‘...life without wonder is not worth living.’ Notice that he didn't say 'life without death is not worth living.' But wonder.”

These words made a profound impact on Jody and me in August, and I think they are just as relevant today, after every attack, after every event that doesn’t fit our comfortable preconception of a life goal based on striving for security above all. By no means is that to say that security and safety should be ignored. I’m not about to take my family for a leisurely drive through Tul-Karem or Ramallah.

But what’s important, and what I think I’ve been pretty consistent about when writing this column, is the question of how you live your life right now. If you were to die tomorrow, could you say: “I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished, with who I’ve loved, with what I’ve left for the future and future generations?”

I’m not saying I’m there yet. Or that I’ll ever be there. But isn’t that something to strive for, now more than ever, in a world that is increasingly dangerous and shows no signs of turning towards the long-suffering path of universal peace anytime soon?

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