Ten years after the terrible devastation of September 11, we live in sacred time. All time is sacred, the imprint of a timeless, eternal God—the traces of God’s mysterious presence in the toil and stress, the joy and struggle of history. Jews will celebrate the beginning of a new year on Rosh ha-Shanah at sundown on September 28; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, follows ten days later. Muslims completed the annual season of fasting in the month of Ramadan less than two weeks ago. Catholic Christians celebrated the birth of the Virgin Mary just three days ago; we will commemorate her seven sorrows four days from now. Joy and sorrow, repentance and newness of life throng our days and weeks and months and years.
I lived for twenty-six years in Africa. I was there when the events of September 11 took place. West Africa, in particular, is the default setting of my heart, my imagination. If I may, I want to take you there to visit a sacred place where at least some people think that they encounter a god.
There is a cave in a hilly area of the Upper East Region of Ghana where local people of traditional faith, as well as some Christians and Muslims, seek the oracular guidance of a spirit called the Tong Na’ab. It is not easy to approach the Tong Na’ab. Oracle-seekers, after climbing the rugged hills to the shrine, must remove all their clothing and walk into the deep cave of the Tong Na’ab backwards. As one retreats from the outside light the cave becomes darker and darker. The stones that make up the cave floor are unsteady, leaving the naked-backward-walker triply insecure. Scorpions and rats scurry about in the darkness; bats wing their way through the dank air. It is then, when the oracle-seeker is most insecure, that the voice of the Tong Na’ab is heard: a weird howling sound, unintelligible except to the shrine’s guardian who tells the seeker what offerings he or she must give to the Tong Na’ab to receive the guidance or help petitioned.
What is that terrifying sound? Among the most ancient musical instruments in the world is the wooden object called the bullroarer. Archeologists have found them in digs dating back to 17,000 BCE. They have been discovered in multiple ancient sites throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Africa. Basically, the bullroarer is an object of wood, six to twenty-four inches long, pierced at one end and attached to a string. The player or user of this instrument swings it around at the end of its string and a noise is created that seems to rise and fall as it gets closer to the hearer or moves further away. A bullroarer so whirled about in a cave causes an unearthly echoing and re-echoing. The howling voice of the Tong Na’ab is terrifying; even a naked petitioner in that dank cave breaks into a sweat.
I provide that long description of an African traditional ritual in which a god is thought to speak to contrast it with parallel, but quite different experiences of the voice of the one God bestowed on Moses, the prophet Elijah, Jesus of Nazareth, and the prophet Muhammad. Let me begin with Moses:
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder (Exodus 19: 16-19).
The God who spoke with Moses is elsewhere called ish-milchamah, “a man of war” (Exodus 15:3). This is how Moses and the Israelites experienced God in their deliverance, against all odds, from Egyptian bondage. The rabbis who edited the Babylonian Talmud reflected profoundly on passages like this. In the Tractate Megillah (10B) and in the Tractate Sanhedrin (39B) we read that God, on the night of the Exodus, scolded his angels. When the Israelites were passing dry-shod through the waters and the Egyptians were drowning, the angels wanted to utter a song of praise “before the Holy One, blessed be he.” But God saw reality more comprehensively, rebuking the angels, saying: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea; would you utter songs before me!” The ish-milchamah is also “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
Elijah the prophet had a different experience of God on Mount Horeb:
[God] said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle breeze. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19: 11-13).
The Lord was not found in tempestuous wind, devastating earthquake, or raging fire, all of which Elijah experienced on Horeb. Elijah finally heard the Lord in the sound of a gentle breeze or a tiny whispering sound. The God who was and still is ish-milchamah can and does make peace with his prophets. God is not like the Tong Na’ab, a god who terrifies us through the echoing and reechoing of a bullroarer. There is terror in God’s presence, and yet there is also the assurance of the sound of a gentle breeze.
Jesus of Nazareth, in the aftermath of his dying and rising, returned to his disciples. They feared that he might be a revenging ghost, but he forgave his faithless disciples and even spoke to them of peace:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:19-23).
Christians, and especially Catholic Christians, have tended to read that text too narrowly. It is much more than a commissioning of the disciples and their successors to forgive sins, although it is that. But more generally, Jesus who forgives his faithless disciples and breathes his peace onto them, into them, imitates the God who spoke to Elijah in the sound of a gentle breeze, the God who breathed the breath of life into Adam (Gen 2:7). The forgiveness that Jesus extends to us, we are to extend to others. Jesus forgives those who had abandoned him. He wants those forgiven disciples to extend forgiveness to others, to those who abandon them, and at the same time Jesus wants to set standards for behavior. We are to forgive and we are also to retain. The ish-milchamah and the gentle breeze coexist in God; they coexist in Jesus, as they should coexist in all of us. Forgiveness responds to repentance; repentance arises in reaction to the breath of forgiveness.
Both Genesis and the Qur’an remind us that God’s breath enlivened a clay Adam at the beginning. The Qur’an also insists that God’s breath will enliven the dead in the resurrection on the last day. “Then [God] molded [Adam]; He breathed from His Spirit into him. He gave you hearing, sight, and minds. How seldom you are grateful! They say, ‘What? When we have disappeared into the earth, shall we be created anew? In fact, they deny the meeting with their Lord. Say, ‘The Angel of Death put in charge of you will reclaim you, and then you will be brought back to your Lord’” (Qur’an 32: 9-11). The terrible dust-filled wind that swept through Ground Zero and nearby neighborhoods ten years ago today horrified so many New Yorkers that day, and yet it may also serve as a reminder of the resurrecting power of our God, the God who breathes new life into us and raises us up. In the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, the Lord commands Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones God’s message to the dead: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.... Then [God] said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy mortal, and say to the breath: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (Ezekiel 37:5, 9-10).
God creates peace by breathing peace into you and me. In our sacred times, how do we not only pray for peace but create peace, make peace? I would suggest that we must imitate God, the ish-milchamah who spoke to Elijah in the whisper of a gentle breeze. We must imitate Jesus who breathed on his frightened disciples to bring them peace as well as the forgiveness of sin and the construction of a moral order. We must create a new humanity, a new humaneness, by engaging in what the Jewish tradition has called tikkun olam, repairing this world, imitating God who shaped humankind at the beginning in the divine image and likeness and breathed into our inertness the breath of life.
Genesis tells us that even before God first spoke His creative word, “the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1: 2). In the precreative silence of God, before God spoke, God’s Spirit—the breath of divine life—hovered over the abyss like the dove that Noah sent out from the ark.
The nineteenth-century English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, meditates on the peace of God about to create once again, God hovering over our world today like a dove of peace on this day of meditation and peace-making.
When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?
O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.
O God of Peace, you come with work to do. Come to brood and sit.
This address was delivered at the Kabbalah Center of New York on September 11, 2011. Photo: Scott Hudson.