Why I Drive a Prius

Sermon delivered August 24, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Almost six years have passed since that terrible day, when our nation, the United States of America, was viciously attacked by a wicked enemy. Since September 11, 2001, our nation has been at war, whether we like it or not. Much is worthy of debate. We may rightly ask, for example, whether Iraq has much to do with this grave global conflict.

But make no mistake: America is at war. Had the September 11 attack been carried out by a sovereign state, Congress would have declared war the next morning, as it did in December of 1941. This time, though, the enemy is vast and amorphous. We may focus on al-Qaeda, on Osama bin Laden. We would probably be more correct to identify our enemy more broadly, as the radical, nihilistic, life-hating perversion of Islam so pervasive in the Muslim world today. Hundreds of millions adhere to this twisted version of a great monotheistic tradition. The overwhelming majority of these misguided believers, though, are desperately poor and uneducated, led astray by evil they do not really understand.

So where does the blame lie? Some will claim that our own country and the western world are responsible for our predicament. They argue that American favor toward Israel, or our support of repressive Mideast regimes, has brought hatred upon us. Some would insist that our national prosperity has come at the expense of people in less developed parts of the world, so we have brought enmity upon ourselves. To be sure, we should always look at how our own nation can do better. Critical introspection, though, must not pervert justice and truth. Jewish history teaches us well: Terrorist murderers, and the states that support them, are evil; the victims are not to blame.

Ironically, and perversely, some of our closest allies have perpetrated the greatest evil against us. The Saudi royal family pursues only its own interests, to stay in power and to continue controlling their great oil wealth. In order to stay in power, the Saudi King and Princes correctly reason, they must keep Muslim extremists at bay. And yet, this royal cabal is not our partner in fighting evil. Instead, they imagine that they can pay off the murderers. The Saudi monarchy provides vast financial support to our nation’s greatest enemies. Among the United States’ supposed friends in the region, the Saudis are not alone in this cynical endeavor. Not coincidentally, these same so-called allies of America have sought the destruction of the State of Israel from the days when they befriended the Nazis to this very day.

This week’s Torah portion concludes with stern words. The Israelites are admonished to take a harsh stance against enemies who have sought their destruction. The Torah portion concludes with the command: Lo tishkah. “Do not forget.”

Friends, we Americans must not get lost in a haze, even of important debate about the side-show in Iraq, and forget the enemies who attacked us on September 11. They threaten us every day. They seek our destruction.

Do not forget: All but one of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis.

Do not forget: The Saudi royal family, with its billions, lavishly funds the Wahhabist ideologues, who teach terrorist methods and murderous hatred of America and of every value that we cherish, all in the name of religion.

Do not forget: We Americans spend our money, every day, purchasing imported oil, in part enriching the Saudis and other repressive mideast regimes that fund our enemies.

Do not forget: The War on Terror has brought no tax hike; you and I are not paying for our side of this conflict. At the same time, we are generously providing vast financial resources to the enemy.

Our Torah portion teaches: “When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward.” The specifics are somewhat graphic. Basically, our ancestors are commanded to construct latrines outside of their military camps. Their own fortresses must remain pure.

Friends, today, fortress America is wallowing in its own slop. The two chief executives of our nation, the President and the Vice-President of the United States, like many before them, soil our national fabric through their slavish loyalty to the Saudi regime. America is not responsible for the nihilistic hatred seeking our own destruction. By our own misdeeds, though, we have provided the means by which we are attacked.

We were warned. Nearly thirty years ago, when our Saudi allies and others treated us to financial strangulation, the President of the United States told us that we had to change our ways. We would have to use less energy. Detroit would have to produce more fuel-efficient cars. We would have to sacrifice.

The American people did not want to hear the message. American automakers insisted on continuing down the path that has led to their own ruin. And the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yes, Congress and the President agreed upon energy legislation in recent weeks. We could, over time, see some improvement. And yet, a single cynical congressman from Detroit, a powerful committee chair, prevented the inclusion of fuel efficiency standards, and the Speaker of the House let him do it. We do not need a prophet to tell us that his action, and Detroit’s continued intransigence, will lead to the final destruction of the very automakers and the end of the same jobs that Mr. Chairman seeks to protect. We do not need a seer to explain how continuing to guzzle gas on the roads will just provide more revenues to the extremists who would destroy us.

In some ways, the individual American can do little to change the situation. Many of us need cars that are big enough to carry families, to drive carpool. Toni’s SUV is not the worst gas guzzler but when I bought a Prius in June, she wanted one, too. She drives mine every chance that she gets. Unfortunately, for now, Prius is the only true hybrid available. I’m not applying for sainthood as a Prius driver. My fellow Prius driver, Dr. Michael Stern, President of Temple Chai, drove without air conditioning all last summer, to improve his mileage even further. He said he was “schvitzing for Israel.” Not I.

The Prius is actually a fun little car. It drives great. It’s comfortable, even in the back seat. It will hold plenty of groceries, but not much more, unless you don’t need the back seat. And it won’t handle the carpool.

Only when American lawmakers have the nerve to fight this war, and to ask us all to join in the battle, will we have fuel efficient cars that can carry our kids and their friends, that can haul a reasonable amount of luggage and gear, lumber and cinder blocks.

No, I don’t think I’ve made any huge contribution to the war effort. Judaism, though, urges us all to act. What we do is so much more important that what we think. A Prius is much more patriotic than two yellow ribbons and two American flags, stuck to the back of a Hummer, even if a Prius has an anti-war bumper sticker, which mine does not. And yes, Mr. Chairman from Detroit, I wish that the Prius were a Chevrolet; I would have gladly gone to Lockhart to get it. But American automakers have violated all that our Torah tells us this week to be true. Don’t forget the enemy. Don’t mess up your own camp.

Oh, and by the way, the Torah also does tell us that we are guardians of the Earth. Global warming is a problem. Scientists have proven – to my satisfaction, at least – that human beings have warmed the Earth, that the results could be catastrophic, and that only we can reverse the trend. I’m glad that my Prius pollutes less. But that’s another sermon. I commend anybody who drives a Prius for the environment. I’m driving mine to pinch the wallet of a Saudi Prince, to cut the funding to a Wahhabist Imam.

Here we are, in August of 2007, and the 2008 Presidential election is already in full swing. We hear constant debate about the war in Iraq. That’s important. At the same time, let our leaders, and those who would lead us in the future, join together in honest acknowledgement that we are at war. We do have enemies. We must not forget. Aiding the enemy is treason, yet we all do it, every day, as we send them our American dollars. I look forward to the day when an American SUV or light truck, or even a comfortable sedan with a big trunk, gets more miles to the gallon than my Prius. I’ll meet the Messiah in Lockhart.

Amen.