Among pulpit rabbis, I suppose, this is the challenge that separates the pros from the pretenders.
Friday afternoon, July 28, was two weeks into the mourning period that culminates in the nine days of self-critique and introspection inaugurated by the new moon of Av. Two days into the nine, on the eve of the Sabbath on which we read the first chapters of Deuteronomy, reminding us of all the times in which our ancestors let God down.
For these two weeks we've been transfixed and horrified by events in Israel and Lebanon. In less than a week we'll enter the Ninth of Av itself, the day when more tragedies befell the House of Israel than most of us can count on two hands.
What congregational rabbi did not have one humdinger of a sermon 'in the can' by 4 p.m. this past Friday for delivery on such a weighty Shabbat?
And then 'the news.' Maybe it came through a phone call, during a quick troll of the Internet or on the car radio: the news that would bring the most well-prepared sermon in the world crashing down into utter besides-the-pointedness. The shooting at the Jewish Federation offices, resulting in the death of Pam Waechter and the wounding of five colleagues, changed much more than rabbinic sermons. It changed the lives of every Jew in the Pacific Northwest in ways still too soon to describe.
Now, before the dust even settles, may be a bit too soon to offer interpretations of these events' meanings. But perhaps a few preliminary comments may be appropriate. I offer them for what they're worth.
It will be easy to read Pam Waechter's murder as another episode in the 'war of fundamentalist Islam against Israel, the Jewish people, and the West.' All the pieces are in place for anyone desiring to reconstruct the well-known puzzle. But in this case, the pieces, I fear, belong to quite a different picture.
The assassin, for one thing, is no robotic suicide bomber from Jenin's alleys, nor a Lebanese displaced by war and wanting revenge against a symbolic representation of Israel. Instead, from all preliminary appearances, Naveed Afzal Haq is an American , of Pakistani parentage, a 1994 graduate of Richland High, a convert to a fringe version of Christianity, and recently showing disturbing signs of severe psychological imbalance.
For another thing, this recent convert to Christianity identified himself to his victims as a 'Muslim-American angry at Israel.' Pay attention to that hyphen. It's the marker, not of the hater of America and its values, but rather of one who pledges allegiance to them.
The murderer did not murder 'in the name of God, the All-Merciful' or even in the name of Islam, but in the name of some warped sense of what he felt America ' his America ' should be, but was not. Presumably America was not sufficiently hostile, in his view, toward the Jewish State. In this ' let's face it ' he does not stick out beyond the American mainstream, even if he is, thankfully, not yet entirely typical of it.
What distinguishes him from millions of hyphenated (and non-hyphenated) Americans who, in past weeks have confessed to being 'mad at Israel' is that he didn't simply write an angry letter to the local paper, or carry a sign at an 'anti-Israel' rally. No, what he did was this: he loaded his gun, marched over to the offices of a prominent Jewish organization identified with Israel, and opened fire.
Just like the neo-Nazi skinhead a few years ago, who shot up a Jewish daycare facility in L.A. And not unlike the 'lonely' guy of Capitol Hill who only a few months ago murdered children associated with the rave scene, whom, he felt, enjoyed life a bit too breathlessly for his taste.
No, it may offer an odd comfort to see this attack as opening a new front in the Islamic war against the Jews; but, odd as that may be, it is also false. Comfortable because it seems familiar, like something we've seen before; yet false because it lulls us into thinking we understand what we haven't even begun to look at.
This attack is as American a thing as it gets. It inhabits an American reality that starts with Rambo fantasies and works out its sick logic in everyday reality in places like Columbine and a dozen other spots where some Joe-Average-'pretty quiet and kept to himself'-suddenly loses it and 'goes postal.'
Where but in America could such an idiom arise, and who but a speaker of American English could know what it means?
Pam Waechter's murderer went postal in his own little way. He may have been a Muslim. He may have hated Israel in that absolute way that sickens so many of us. We know nothing of his personal culture. But what we do know is that he solved his problem all-American style. By shooting up the bad guys with his trusty side-arm.
As an American ' and as a Jew ' I find this more troubling than the fiction that this 'thirty-something' from the Tri-Cities was somehow doing the will of Osama bin Laden. His was an anti-Semitic crime, no doubt. But this violent attack upon Jews germinated in the indigenous American culture of loner-violence, not in the heated fantasies of Islamic fanaticism, even if an Islamic idiom gave to this act its distinctive stamp.
But, as frightening as this is, it's also a cause for hope. Because when the enemy is us, we at least have a fighting chance.