Last week I had dinner with a man whose son was beheaded by Islamic extremists. Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, is an Israeli scientist who loves to talk about artificial intelligence and world music but has, because of his son's brutal murder, found himself abandoning computers to speak to the hearts of people.
It has been almost four years, and the mourning process for Judea, for his wife, for his daughter-in-law, has been one in which they have tried with all their strength to turn anger and rage into kindness and compassion.
The foundation they set up in Daniel's name is symbolic of their attempt to remember Daniel and perpetuate his legacy: It helps journalists to understand different cultures, promotes peace through music education and performance, and fosters Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Judea himself has traveled across the United States with Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, to help people to understand both the similarities and differences between Muslims and Jews. The foundation's work is deeply inspiring — and on a personal level, meeting Judea forces the question "Would I have the strength to work for peace if I were in his shoes?"
In synagogues around the world, we recently chanted the story of Noah and the great flood. Noah, we read, was "great in his generation." It sounds like a wonderful bit of praise, right? But the rabbinic commentators make the point that it was relatively easy to be righteous in such a generation — when everyone around you is murderous, virtue is simply keeping one's hands clean.
The great Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, takes this idea even further. The Zohar says: "When God said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh is come before Me,' Noah said: 'What will You do with me?' But he did not pray for mercy for the world, as Abraham would pray for the city of Sodom. This is why the Flood is called 'the waters of Noah' (Isaiah 54:9) — he is culpable for them, because he did not appeal for mercy on the world's behalf."
How can we understand this mystical teaching? In a world bloodied by terrorists — those who purposely kill the innocent to send a signal of their ruthlessness, we may have a tendency to be like Noah and simply worry about our own hides. Abraham calls us to ask, "What does this mean for humanity?" Abraham is not from Sodom. For him, the Sodomites are foreigners, strangers, other. Yet, he prays that they will be understood.
The more the world edges to the "end of all flesh," the more we must be like Abraham, pleading for mercy on behalf of humanity. Meeting Judea Pearl, I got a glimpse of someone who is doing just that. It gave new meaning to my daily prayer "Blessed is the Holy One, shield of Abraham."
For more of the pieces I've penned for UPI, click here.