(RNS) — The coincidences are simply too stark.
Afghanistan fell to the Taliban within days of the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul, during the prelude to the season of repentance — precisely at those moments when we were already blowing the shofar, in order to acclimate our ears to its piercing sounds.
The Talmud contains a debate about the exact meaning of the shofar blasts.
It is either a cry of mourning, or a cry of warning.
First, let us evoke the cry of mourning.
I am in mourning over this tragedy — a tragedy that we might have foreseen, but a tragedy nevertheless.
Many would say that the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban was bound to happen. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, and has been since the days of Alexander the Great. Why should the American “empire” be any different?
Many see this as a failure of American power, or even a grim counter-celebration of American hubris. It reminds many of us of 1975, with images of American helicopters, hastily and chaotically, departing the U.S. Embassy as Vietnam fell to the Viet Cong.
But, to quote Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington: “The left is now in a bind between ‘end the endless wars’ and values like feminism and human rights.”
That is why I am also in mourning over what some of my friends and colleagues are saying.
“Yes, the Taliban are awful, but the United States has, and continues to support people who are worse.”
We have been through this before. It is called “whataboutism.” It assumes that because the world cannot be perfect, it is useless to even try.
It reminds me of the story of the man walking on the beach, bending down to throw beached starfish back into the ocean. An observer asks him: “You surely don’t believe that you can save all the starfish on this beach? What makes you think that what you are doing matters?”
To which the man replied: “It matters to this one,” and then heaved it back into the surf.
Whenever and wherever did we learn that the cliché tikkun olam, repairing the world, means that my small, minuscule efforts are useless — unless I repair the entire world?
“Yes, the Taliban might be awful. But, how dare Westerners criticize them! This is is their culture! We Americans have no right to exert our moral colonialism, and our privileged superiority!”
The Taliban have the right to oppress women, deny them education, and cruelly stunt the intellectual growth of girls?
Are you saying that we do not have the right to criticize anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ, and xenophobic cultures?
Consider these reflections by Nasrin Nawa in the Washington Post:
With reports circulating about Taliban militants raiding the houses of activists, journalists and others, I called my sister and told her to go home and hide all of our identity cards. Then I told her that she needed to destroy her guitar. She said her hands were unable to do that, but I pleaded with her. I told her the Taliban’s hands are capable of killing you for your art. But I can’t imagine literally shattering such an important part of who you are.
This is how the hopes, passions, careers and plans of many young Afghans are crumbling. We already felt betrayed after the United States decided to strike an embarrassing “peace deal” with the Taliban in Doha, but now we see that the international community and even our own leaders have decided to turn their backs on us.
The Taliban are evil, in the same way that the Proud Boys and the miscreants at Charlottesville were evil — as well as a whole bunch of those wonderful, loving people who stormed the Capitol on January 6.
That was the shofar blast of mourning — the mourning of this American failure; the mourning of these moral failures.
But, now comes the shofar blast of warning.
The shofar warns us that we cannot ignore or diminish basic universal moral truths. The Jewish tradition speaks of the Noahide laws — the laws given by God to the descendants of Noah, i.e., everyone. Those are basic laws of human decency. Some acts are simply beyond the pale of morality, and are not to be explained away by mere local cultural and aesthetic preferences.
Can we agree that the oppression of women is on our list?
The shofar warns us that we cannot ignore or diminish the divine will for people to be free. As the Passover Haggadah puts it: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon every person to see themselves as if they had gotten out of Egypt.” Not just the Jews. All people.
The shofar warns us of what could emerge from the wreckage of Afghanistan.
I remind you of “The Killing Fields” — the story of the friendship between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and the Cambodian photographer Dith Pran. It takes place in 1975, as the Khmer Rouge are taking over in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge, in the name of revolution, instituted re-education camps. And, yes, killing fields, with the bodies of the dead, over which Dith Pran stumbles as he escapes.
Would it surprise us if Taliban creates re-education camps? Or if it even more brutally represses and oppresses women and girls?
The shofar warns us that civilization does not inexorably point in a forward direction. “Behold, the Middle Ages are returning..” Those are the words of the Hebrew poet, Zalman Shneour. In 1913, he predicted that there would be a great revival of medieval-style hatreds, and that liberalism would offer only a faint-hearted response to this descent.
The Middle Ages are always on the brink of returning.
The shofar warns us against complacency.
Will we take to the streets to protest against what will surely follow: a Taliban campaign of torture and repression?
Will politicians, cultural figures, thought leaders speak out?
That is why the shofar is shaped like a question mark.
Because it forces us to ask those questions.