Dissonance

A colleague mentioned that they are taking time away because of the particular exhaustion and grief of trying to serve a divided community after October 7. I wonder how many of us can relate to that.

There's the pain of October 7: still reverberating in almost everyone I know, whether we're there or here, no matter what our politics. I don't even want to write about the nightmare of that day.

There's the pain of the war that has followed. I know that it's laughable to speak about that from the comfortable vantage of here. But watching what's unfolding in Israel and Gaza hurts the soul.

I don't want to write about that either. Surely none of us need more words about the horrors of what we're seeing. Even from this distance, the images lodge in our souls like emotional shrapnel.

There's the pain of how people here respond to how other people here respond to events there. There's the pain of communities here torn apart by disagreements about what's happening and why.

Generations and friends, not speaking to each other: furious, betrayed. One says: but why don't they care about Israeli hostages? One says: but why don't they care about Palestinians enduring famine?

It's like they don't even care about [Israeli] [Palestinian] suffering at all. And that becomes its own source of moral injury: how am I supposed to be in community, Rabbi, with someone who...  

I want to say: we are all grieving. Maybe that simple, terrible truth can be our common ground when nothing else feels steady. For all of us, hasn't 5784 been a year of constant, unrelenting grief? 

Amidst all of this, on Facebook a poet friend posts a graphic saying "The aim was always ethnic cleansing." I know who's being accused, and I know that by and large, the poetry community agrees.

I don't say: Whose aim? Are you talking about Bibi and Ben-Gvir, or all Israelis, or all Jews? I don't say anything. I'm not sure I have the resilience to take the emotional hit from the argument.

I do search the phrase, "the aim was always ethnic cleansing." The first hit is BreakThrough News, which has disturbing origins. I wonder whether those who share the meme would care.

There's so much cognitive dissonance. And then there's the constant question: is this metaphorical heartache / metaphysical heartache, or do I need to tuck a nitroglycerin under my tongue?


Place of promise

The Presence
has no address,
goes with us
everywhere:
in wholeness
and in exile.

This place
is still
a focusing lens
for our prayers,
though not
only ours.

Stories
land differently
when I can see
the topography
of spring and desert,
valley and hill.

To describe this
place of promise,
I would need
God's voice:
all possible meanings
at once.

 


 

Lately I've been trying to spend less time refreshing the news and more time working on my next poetry manuscript.  The news is grim and there's so little I can do. Despair is corrosive to the spirit. Better to work on making something -- even if that something is just words.

Of course, poetry isn't wholly a distraction from the sorrows of the world. Especially given that this week I've been working on revising a series of poems that originated last year in a trip to Israel / Palestine. (Some of these lines first found form in the blog post Fifty truths, posted last June.) 

A poem is not like an essay or an argument -- at least most of mine aren't. My poems often originate in yetzirah, the sphere of the yearning heart, rather than in briyah, the world of clarity and intellect. For me a poem is more like a painting or a collage, hopefully functioning on an associative level. 

A friend remarked recently that she's never before experienced a situation where so many people are not only utterly divided on an issue, but not even agreeing on basic facts about it. That's another thing that can feel corrosive to the spirit. Another reason that lately I turn to poetry. 

I think of poetry the way I think of midrash: no single poem is "the right answer," but the totality of poetry taken together can offer a glimmer of ultimate reality. That's maybe especially true when it comes to poems about this contested, complicated, beloved place. 


Homeless

Caridad-ramos-quote-please-understand-you-are-not-welcome-here

Bearing hatred is exhausting. So is the constant vigilance of wondering who's going to attack next, and from which side. Of course, I have the luxury of meaning that metaphorically. 

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Palestinians. Self-hating Jew. Why don’t you care about your own people? What about October 7?

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Kibbutz Nir Oz, Kibbutz Beeri, the massacred, the slaughtered, the raped, the kidnapped, the hostages?)

In some spaces Jews like me feel unwelcome because we insist on empathy for Israelis. I was with you until you mentioned the hostages. “We don’t want no two states, we remember ‘48!”

(Do you somehow imagine we haven’t been gutted with grief for the inhabitants of Gaza, their homes turned to rubble, entire families wiped out, hospitals in ruins, starving in plain sight?)

The grief is a tsunami and it doesn’t stop. Neither does the anticipation that every time we articulate care about anyone, someone is going to slam us for caring about the wrong side.

It is unpopular to insist on empathy. Because I won't stand for dehumanizing either Israelis or Palestinians, people tell me I am naïve, ignorant of power dynamics, complicit in atrocities. 

Yesterday Micah Sifry wrote about asking pro-Palestinian activists what they mean by liberation. “[The] end of Zionism in our region… completely, from the river to the sea,” one said. 

I have said for years that opposing Israel isn’t necessarily antisemitic. I meant opposing the actions of its government. Opposing the Occupation. Opposing policies or choices or injustices.

Opposing the existence of the state altogether is something different. But saying Israel shouldn’t exist at all suddenly seems almost normative in progressive spaces and literary spaces. 

And other spaces, too. But those are the ones that hurt, because I used to feel at home in them. Now it feels like there’s a purity test, and anyone who professes empathy for Israelis fails it.

This year’s PEN literary awards were canceled because half of the nominees withdrew themselves from consideration, accusing the organization of "false equivalences, equivocation and normalizing."

Years ago I was put on a Self Hating Israel Terrorists list (lovely acronym, no?) because I oppose the Occupation. It's not news that some on the right will slam any Jew who cares about Palestinians.

But being slammed by others on the left for caring about Israelis is new for me, and it's painful in unexpected ways. It's why Guernica withdrawing Joanna Chen's essay was such a gut-punch. 

This morning I read Yardenne Greenspan’s searing essay We Are No Longer Welcome. Much of what she writes resonates with me. Many Jews have lost a sense of safety, a sense of home.

Meanwhile 1.9 million Palestinians and 135,000 Israelis are displaced from their homes. In the face of actual homelessness, these feelings are irrelevant, of course. But I still feel them.  

Rabbi Aaron Brusso wrote about the fifth child – the one who tries to hold complexity. “She wants to love her neighbor and the stranger but neither are interested in loving her.” 

I am, in fact, the fifth of five children in my family of origin. But I feel like that fifth child spiritually, too. For those who won't curtail empathy, right now it's hard to know where to find home.






Symbols

Symbols

 

Symbols, This Year

The shankbone is for houses across Israel and Gaza
where the Angel of Death has not passed over.

Maror for the hot tearful bitter sharp pain
of hostages held underground and children imprisoned.

Haroset, for mortar: Gaza bombed to rubble. 
The egg is roasted like charred kibbutz walls. 

Everything is dipped in tears like the sea that closed 
when God rebuked, "My children die, and you sing praises?"

Matzah: cracker of liberation and affliction. (Gazans
approaching starvation know only one of these.)

There’s no place on the seder plate for ambivalence, 
survivors’ guilt, history’s persecutions telescoping into now.

In every generation trauma traps us in Mitzrayim.
Will this be the year we begin to walk free?

 

R. Rachel Barenblat

 


This prayer-poem for Pesach is part of the new collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for Pesach 2024 released earlier this week by Bayit. Click through for This Broken Matzah, available as a downloadable chapbook / PDF of liturgical poetry and art, or as google slides suitable for screenshare. 

Featuring work created in collaboration by the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit, this collection includes work by Trisha Arlin, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow, and me. 


Restoring the Name: Shabbat Zachor 5784 / 2024

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Most of Megillat Esther reads like a soap opera, full of banquets and beauty pageants and assassination plots and nemeses. There’s a theme of topsy-turviness. Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai, and instead of being slaughtered the Jews of Persia prosper, and we all live happily ever after. But there’s one part of the turn-about that we don’t typically act out in our Purim play. In chapter 9, the Jews slaughter 75,000 Persians.

The context is this: although Haman himself has been defeated, the King had issued a decree saying that on the 13th of Adar Persians were welcome to kill Jews at will. And he had no way to undo that decree, because in this story the king is comically powerless. Mordechai suggests, “Why don’t you issue a new decree giving us the right to defend ourselves?” The king does that, and the Jews do… that. Every year, I wish that this part of the story weren’t there.

I’m not alone in that. Some communities that hold full readings of the megillah race through those verses as fast as they can. Or they sing them in Eikha trope, the melancholy musical mode used at Tisha b’Av when we mourn the fallen Temples and the brokenness of creation. The folks at The Shalom Center recently released what they’re callling The Chapter Nine Project, featuring a variety of alternative revisionings of that part of the story. 

Megillat Esther was written during the 4th century BCE. It’s generally understood to be a work of fiction, though King Achashverosh may have been a fictionalized version of Xerxes I. The megillah is unusually full of loan-words from Akkadian and Assyrian. Even the character names might be borrowed: Mordechai and Esther could be variations on Mespotamian and Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, and Haman might be a derivative of local Elamite deity Humman.

I don’t have any problem with seeing Megillat Esther as a work of fiction. A text doesn’t need to be historically verifiable in order to be sacred or meaningful. I’d venture that most of us don’t think the universe was literally created in six days, but Torah’s poetic teaching that Shabbat rest is the culmination of creation is deep spiritual wisdom. Esther contains deep spiritual wisdom too – about resilience, about leaps of faith, about what’s hidden and what’s revealed.

In a month we’ll immerse in the story of the Exodus, in which God brings us forth from the Narrow Place with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. In this scroll, in contrast, God’s name literally does not appear. Here God is nistar, hidden. (And yes, that word shares a root with the name Esther.) It’s part of what makes this story feel so modern: there’s no Voice of God here. We can only glimpse God through the miracle of ethical choices and right actions.

Daf-2So what do we glimpse in unethical choices? Jewish tradition writ large supports the right to self-defense, so I can understand the part of the story where we go after those armed against us. And Haman getting hung on his own gallows feels like a kind of literary justice. But the murder of his ten sons feels excessive, and it’s highlighted by scribal calligraphy – meant to evoke “joy over the fact that they were destroyed.” (Maharal, Or Hadash 9:10) Whoa.

Purim is a festival of joy, but this doesn’t feel joyful. (I’m also not convinced that his sons were our enemies. Neither is the Israeli comedy troupe HaYehudim Ba’im, who in one of their sketches portrayed a soldier returning from the war of defeating Haman and the Persians, and saying, “yeah, that Haman was a real piece of —--, but I want you to ask yourselves: what are his children guilty of?”) (Find that here – no English translation though.)

Our tradition also teaches discomfort at the death of an enemy. There’s a midrash that appears in many Passover haggadot describing how, when the Egyptians drowned in our pursuit, God rebuked the angels, “My children are dying and you sing praises?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.) For this reason we spill drops from our second cup of wine. I’m more comfortable with that than I am with this part of the megillah, but both are part of our tradition. 

Today is a special Shabbat, one of the Shabbats with its own name: Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim, and on it, we read a special extra bit of Torah, Deut. 25:17-19, describing how Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the caravan, wiping out those who were elderly or sick or weak. Torah commands us to blot out the name of Amalek, and to never forget.

54141Haman, meanwhile, is understood as a distant descendent of the tribe of Amalek. We’ll “blot out” his name with our graggers tomorrow night. This year I’m struck by the juxtaposition of blotting out the name of our adversary – and the entirely missing Name of that One we call God in the scroll we read at this season. Could there be a spiritual connection between the presence of the massacre in chapter 9 of Esther, and the absence of God’s name in this book? 

It’s as though when we give in to violent fantasies of revenge, we render holiness invisible. Maybe God’s names, which are a stand-in for God’s presence, literally can’t coexist with this degree of gratuitous violence. “Gratuitous” being the key word here, because we know there’s plenty of violence and conquest in other parts of Tanakh. But the massacre of 75,000 Persians feels excessive, even vindictive, in a way that’s hard to bear. Maybe it’s hard for God, too.

This year that part of the story also lands differently because of the ongoing horrors of the Israel-Hamas war. Many of us are still enmeshed in grief for those who were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas at the very start of 5784. Hamas’ hatred of us makes Haman feel too real. And many of us are enmeshed in grief for tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or displaced or starving since then, which makes the violence at the megillah’s end also feel too real.

Maybe the vengeance chronicled in this story landed differently during 2000 years of exile than it does now. For centuries we lived precariously, couldn’t become citizens of most nations, weren’t allowed to hold certain professions. And whenever something went wrong, like the Black Death, we were blamed and massacred. Revenge fantasies turn out to be common where there is PTSD and complex grief. They can offer a sense of control when life feels shattered. 

But that control is illusory. And marinating in revenge fantasies can be spiritually unhealthy. According to psychologist Judith Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence), traumatized people who engage in acts of revenge don’t thereby get rid of their PTSD. Instead they seem to suffer more. According to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, the only real answer is working through the anxiety and grief caused by the trauma in the first place.

The threat of communal annihilation is traumatic. And Jews have collectively known that threat intimately and often, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to pogroms to the Holocaust. We joke about “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” but it’s actually pretty dark. As one passage in the traditional Passover haggadah teaches, “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” That’s a grim worldview. It’s not the way I want to see the world around us.

But maybe the subtext of the Megillah – the fact that God’s very name is missing – can teach us that a violent counter-response to trauma isn’t the right path. I don’t know how the whole Jewish people could go about the psychological and spiritual work of healing the trauma of being hated, of being attacked, of facing annihilation over and over. But I think that if we can do that work, it will bring us closer to making the divine presence manifest in the sacred text of all creation.

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


(Do we know) How to heal

"We are facing a watershed moment where healing from trauma is a generational call. How will we answer it? Will we reproduce old patterns of divide-and-conquer, especially in the face of rising tides of mental health crises and climate change? Or will we re-member and reenvision our interdependence and flow toward collective transformation? The answers, and new questions, are up to us."

-- Jen Soriano, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing


A friend recommended Soriano's book to me as I began to grapple with the trauma I carry as the daughter of someone who fled the Holocaust. The book is excellent; I recommend it highly. (I'm not finished with it yet, but it's already given me valuable new lenses for understanding not only my own history and its implications, but also the histories of many whom I serve.) This quote jumped out at me this morning -- as we all continue to marinate in what's happening in Gaza and in Israel and in us.

My mother the refugee would have rejected the word trauma. She was lucky, she would have said. Lucky to have escaped Hitler, lucky to have made it here, lucky to live in a country that welcomed Jews (and to witness the birth of Israel) and so are her children, period. And her story still isn't mine to tell -- even though she's been gone for five years. Enough to say simply that she would have rejected this frame altogether. I rejected it for a while, too. I kept saying, "but this is normal."

Of course I used to lie in bed and list what I would take with me if the Nazis returned and we needed to flee. Of course my diary was inspired by Anne Frank's, so someday when somebody tried to wipe out the Jews again, maybe my diary would be a testament to how we tried to persist, just like hers is. Of course when I peel a potato and throw the skin away, I think of family in the concentration camps who would have done anything for a potato peel to add nutrition to the watery soup that was all they had.

(Dear anyone who is about to tell me there are innocents in Gaza who would do anything for a potato peel -- I know. That's heavy on my heart too. It is my very next thought, after remembering my ancestors. And... the readiness to make my words about what I carry in my own body into an opportunity to yell at me about Gaza is part of why this moment is so hard.) Why am I writing about this? Because I know others are struggling with it too. I can't fix it, but I can say: you're not alone. 

We're not alone in those constantly-running trains of thought. Most of us who grew up in the shadow of that horror have them. And not all of us would call it traumatic. (Mom certainly didn't.) And yet -- "I lost another friend over Israel and Gaza," someone said to me recently. "I guess I know who I can't ask to hide me, if it comes to that, again." I felt my heart clench as anxiety tried to surge. The internal monologue says, When people hate Jews, it's not safe. Look how much people hate us right now.

A personal essay about coexistence and war, written by an Israeli translator, was retracted this week by literary journal Guernica. Its author translates Arabic poetry into Hebrew and into English. Before the war began she drove Palestinians in Gaza to hospitals in Israel. She seems like the kind of person I would like to know. And yet the hatred and loathing and vitriol directed at her are staggering in their stridency. Like most American progressive Jews, I feel unmoored by the recognition of this loathing.

A week ago I wrote about my hopes for Israel and Gaza. Predictably, what I said made some people angry. I am too hawkish for some, too dovish for others. I keep thinking about a quote from a recent article by Rabbi Jay Michaelson (about what Glazer said at the Oscars): "Admittedly, to many standing in solidarity with Palestine, this can all seem rather milquetoast. // On the other hand, to many in AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, it can seem like a betrayal of the Jewish people."  Yep.

If you only take one thing away from this post let it be this: the tears, the nausea, the death-grip of anxiety, the feeling that nothing and nowhere is safe -- these are trauma reactions. And anecdotally, most of us are living with them. Which means it's no small wonder that my whole town has been metaphorically ablaze with feelings of rancor and betrayal over proposed ceasefire resolutions. We're all inflamed like damaged nerves in the body of our community, and pain is spiking everywhere.

Which takes me back to Jen Soriano's book. Soriano writes beautifully about the effects of therapy and somatic work on her trauma and chronic pain. What's the equivalent of that work for a whole people? We keep lashing out: how could any Jew want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? How could any Jew not want a ceasefire when [insert reason]? Our ancestors fled genocide, how can you say that? I want to ask: how often are our responses shaped by unconscious trauma, and what can we do to heal?

 

Addendum: I was literally finishing this post draft when I got the latest from Jay Michaelson: Israel/Palestine and the Politics of Trauma. Well: as my mother would've said, "great minds run in the same direction." Anyway, go read Jay's post, it's excellent.


Waves

How to be universally loathed: insist on not hating.
Cling to driftwood in the ocean of despair.
God is here, too.

The word dehumanization does not belong in poetry.
Some think we're holding the gun,
others think we're in the crosshairs.

The waves bring our words back.
We're using the same sounds
but they mean something different in different mouths.

 

 

 


If we will it: a note on Gaza and Israel

I usually don't cross-post here to share my "From the Rabbi" columns written for the shul's monthly newsletter. This one is an exception.

 

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

As a rabbi I am here to serve everyone in our community. I aspire to be here for you in sickness and in health, in celebration and in sorrow. I have the holy opportunity to learn and to teach, to rejoice and to mourn, and to build community with each and every one of you. I take this covenant seriously, and it is one of the things I love most about the work that I am blessed to do. I will always strive to approach any differences we may have with curiosity and an open heart. And I always want to hear from you about where you are and what matters to you.

Many of you have asked what I think about what’s happening in Gaza and Israel. In a word, I am heartbroken. Every time I pray, these days, I pray with all my heart for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire, return of all hostages, and an end to enmity between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many calls for ceasefire blame Israel exclusively (ignoring the culpability of Hamas), or presume that Israel is a settler-colonialist enterprise with no validity. I don’t hold those views. I pray for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire along with an end to the occupation. I pray for a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in safety. I believe that the only way for one people to thrive is for both peoples to thrive.

After Hamas’ horrific incursion into Israel on October 7, I understood that a military response was necessary lest Hamas presume carte blanche to rape and murder Israelis at will. I hoped war would be brief, like the 1967 Six Day war or the 1973 Yom Kippur war (19 days). The vast humanitarian catastrophe we have witnessed in Gaza shatters my heart. So too does the continuing suffering of our Israeli cousins, displaced or grieving or afraid. So too does the fact that, because of the Netanyahu government’s choices, world opinion has pivoted so fiercely toward hatred of Jews and readiness to declare that Israel should not exist.

Until now, I have refrained from saying any of this. In our small community, people hold almost every possible view on Israel and Gaza. I understood it to be my job to keep my yearnings between me and God, in order that I might better serve everyone. I’ve come to think that my silence may not be serving anyone well. Better that I should model emotional authenticity and readiness to be in community across disagreement; that’s actually part of my job as your rabbi. I’ve also come to understand that staying silent about strongly-held beliefs feels like swallowing a little bit of poison every day.

Compassion literally means “feeling-with” or “suffering together.” I feel with Israelis and others who are traumatized by Hamas’ massacre and rapes of October 7, and who are agonizing over the fate of the hostages remaining in Gaza. I feel with innocent Palestinians who are suffering terribly. I feel with the people who are horrified by the scope of humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and who are agonizing over the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian innocents. I feel with the people who say: I’ve never felt this much despair. (Some feel despair because of hatred of Israel. Some feel despair because of Palestinian suffering. I feel with both.) I feel with those who call for a ceasefire. And I feel with those for whom a one-sided call for a ceasefire, without condemnation of Hamas, activates PTSD and epigenetic trauma around antisemitism.

The Psalmist writes, “From narrow straits I call to You; answer me with Your expansiveness!” (Ps 118:5) From these narrow straits I pray for a ceasefire: negotiated, bilateral, in which both sides stop fighting and hostages are freed, in which there are no more rockets out of Gaza or bombs dropped by Israel, in which the fighting genuinely ends starting now. I pray for political and diplomatic engagement in building a new and better future for both peoples. The configuration of whatever comes next is not my area of expertise. Two states? One state? A confederation? I don’t know what will work, and it’s not my job to know.

But it is my job to speak truthfully from the heart in a way that’s informed by my Jewish values. I don’t believe that this war is achieving its stated goals of freeing the hostages, making Israel safer, or ending the ascendancy of Hamas. I see unthinkable loss and harm that will continue to reverberate between these two traumatized peoples for generations. I fear that fighting leads to more fighting, and that these vast numbers of casualties will fuel the next wave of Intifada. There has to be another way, and it has to involve an end to both terrorism and war.

I am not interested in calls from either side to wipe out the other or banish them to some mythical other home. Neither the Israeli people nor the Palestinian people is going anywhere. I deeply admire Hand in Hand (bilingual and bicultural schools that teach in Hebrew and Arabic the narratives of both peoples). I deeply admire the Parents Circle - Family Forum (bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have chosen coexistence over hatred). I deeply admire Standing Together (a grassroots movement of Israelis and Palestinians working together toward coexistence and peace.) Organizations like these are where I place my hope for a better future.

Jewish values call us to balance ahavat Yisrael (love of our fellow Jews) with v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha (loving the other as ourselves). I grieve Gaza and Israel’s suffering to the best of my broken heart’s limited capacity. I feel with every grieving parent, every orphaned child, and every displaced human being. I recognize the infinite sacred worth of every soul, Israeli and Palestinian alike. I want a better future for both peoples. I fear that this war will not lead there.

I believe that Jewish values call us to be God’s hands in the world: freeing those who are captive, uplifting those who are downtrodden, and ensuring liberty and human dignity for all. That’s the clarion call of the Exodus story as it echoes in daily liturgy and in the Passover seder we celebrate each year. “All” means all: not just Israelis, and not just Palestinians. Everyone.

We are a long way from that reality. Right now it seems impossible. But hope is central to Jewish life and practice. We are called to embody the hope that tomorrow can be better than today – and to do what we can in service of that dream. I pray fervently for a negotiated bilateral ceasefire and release of hostages, a diplomatic resolution to all conflict, and a future in which both peoples can live in safety and security on that beloved land.

Yours in deep hope –

Rabbi Rachel


Ending

Anxiety-disorder-1024x714

Image by Stellalevi.

Content warning: there's a disturbing antisemitic quote in the 9th paragraph.

 

Maybe it’s because I hang out with a lot of rabbis: I can’t count the number of people this week who sent me a link to the current cover story of the Atlantic, The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending. [gift link] It’s a powerful essay. It has much to say about American Jewish history, liberal democracy, and the resurgence of anti-Jewish hate on both the left and the right. 

It raises big questions. Are our safest years over?  What if the acceptance we’ve taken for granted as American Jews has been a historical anomaly? What if liberal democracy turns out to be a historical anomaly? Is it all downhill from here? Add to these the current question of: does soaring public support for Gaza necessarily translate here to hatred of Jews?

These questions precipitated a slow-motion anxiety attack that knocked me out for most of a day. Maybe you've had this experience too: chest feeling constricted as though by an iron band, no ability to draw a deep breath, tears coming in waves like a storm system that just won’t quit. The next day the heart and body feel leaden. One's insides ache. It takes a while to “recover.”

That word is in scare quotes because I’m not sure what it means to recover from an anxiety attack when the sources of the anxiety persist. Here we are, five months in to the Hamas-Israel war that began on Shemini Atzeret. It has been longer and more terrible than I could have imagined.  I don’t think I know anyone in congregational service who isn’t struggling. 

I have congregants on every “side” of this divide, from ceasefire activists to oldschool Zionists. I feel-with all of them: the one who asks, “how can we not condemn indiscriminate killing?” and means Hamas, and the one who asks the same question and means Israel, and the one who says Judaism feels like a burden now because the world uniquely hates us again. 

Of course, the end of the golden age of being an American Jew (as Franklin Foer writes about it) isn’t “just” about Israel and Gaza. It’s a bigger picture of social trends, the liberal dream perhaps dissolving, Trumpism and more. But the fact that hating Jews has become acceptable both on the Right and on the Left is a central piece of the sense that an era has ended. 

This morning’s email from the Forward included one headline about Israeli hostages invited to the State of the Union, and another about a bar in Utah that refuses service to Zionists, because in today’s progressive understanding people who think Israel deserves to exist are often considered akin to Nazis and white supremacists. The cognitive dissonance is staggering. 

A poet-rabbi friend told me recently about a literary magazine now specifying, "No misogyny, no homophobia, no racism, no Zionism." Is this really where we are? Disavow the right of Israel to exist, or be considered as morally repugnant as homophobes and racists? I remember one of the most harrowing lines of Foer’s article: 

“Are you Jewish?” one mop-haired tween asks another, seemingly unaware of any adult presence. “No way,” the second kid replies. “I fucking hate them.” Another blurts, “Kill Israel.” A student laughingly attempts to start a chant of “KKK.”

Foer may be right: it’s possible that our best and safest years as American Jews are over. And in a certain sense, so what? In that case we’re like the vast majority of our Jewish forebears over the last few thousand years. When has it ever been easy or safe to be a Jew? The last 50 years, maybe. But 50 years isn’t even an eyeblink in the long span of history. 

I used to think that humanity had evolved beyond antisemitism, but that seems to be as false as the white liberal American dream that our nation was evolving beyond racism (a dream in which I also partook, until it came crashing down around us). That doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means the work ahead is long, and the dream of something like redemption is still far away.

What do we do with these feelings? Well, in a few weeks, we dance with them. We make merry. We celebrate Purim – another story in which someone wanted to wipe us out across an empire. (And we wrestle with the violence at the end of the Purim story. Knowing that we’ve been hated for centuries can damage the soul, and so can revenge fantasies, if we let them.) 

Esther has something to teach us this year about the bravery it can take to openly be who we are. To be Jews, even when it isn’t easy. To name the bigotry of Jew-hatred as the cancer it has always been. There is a spiritual lesson here about wresting "light and gladness, joy and uprightness" (Esther 8:16) even from the panicky grip of despair. Even in times like these.

 

 


On Town resolutions

The editors of the Williams Record asked if I would write an OpEd about last week's Williamstown Select Board meeting, the resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza that was brought to that meeting, and the views of the community I serve on that resolution. Here's a taste of what I wrote:

...Before writing any kind of resolution that aims to speak for the whole Town, I think we need to listen to one another. One of the difficulties in doing so is that we’re often operating with different facts. Not because of disinformation, though there’s plenty of that, but because news from Al Jazeera will be different from news from Ha’aretz, which is different from your Tumblr feed. It can be painful to hear someone who views the conflict through a different lens and is getting their information from a different set of sources, but it’s valuable to learn how to hold multiple truths. 

As a Rabbi, I’m committed to the proposition that all of the Jews who live here belong in Jewish community, no matter what path forward we think is the best way to reach a just and lasting peace. This goal requires us to look for places where we can make common cause instead of focusing on the places where we can’t. It’s not always easy, but I think it’s vital...

Read the whole piece here: Creating a resolution that speaks for more of our Town.


Community Means: Terumah 5784 / 2024

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God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts;
you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Ex. 25:1-8)

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, we bring gifts. Everyone brings something different, and everyone has something to bring. Maybe that’s what makes what we build together a mikdash, a holy place. In English, a sanctuary: a sacred space of protection and care. When we co-create safety, then God can dwell among us or within us. (And as always, if the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, substitute something that does: meaning, justice, compassion, hope.) 

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / va’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham / “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell within (or among) them.” The Hebrew שָׁכַנְתִּ֖י / shakhanti, “that I might dwell,” shares a root with the name Shekhinah – the Presence of God with us and within us. It’s the same root as the Hebrew word שְׁכוּנָה / shekhunah, neighborhood. The Hebrew אני שוכן / ani shokhein, “I dwell,” is cousin to the Arabic أنا أسكن / ‘anaeskun, “I dwell…”

Torah spends many weeks describing the Mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God that our ancestors built in the wilderness. The story of the mishkan is always also a story about something bigger and deeper. It’s not “just” about the lavish descriptions of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, the hammered gold and copper, the linen and acacia wood. This is Torah’s sacred instruction manual on creating community. Step one: community means everybody. 

Torah reminds us that we build community together, each with our own gifts. The holy work of building community comes with some obligations. First off, we have to respect each others’ offerings and perspectives. We have to remember that together we are more than the sum of our parts. And we have to remember that the way to build a home for the Holy, for truth and justice and compassion and hope, is to all be involved in building it together.

And there’s a corollary, which is that everyone has something to give. I’m not talking about donations, though every community needs funds to keep itself going and ours is no exception. I mean the inner qualities we each bring to the table. Passion and perseverance. Kindness and steadfastness. Community-mindedness. Patience. The fire of justice and activism, and the still waters of care and calmness. The community wouldn’t be whole without all of us. 

This is an easy platitude that can be difficult to live: especially when we disagree, or when we feel afraid, or when emotions run high. This understanding of community asks us to cultivate curiosity about each others’ perspectives and hopes and dreams, and to resist stereotyping each other or writing each other off. This might sound small, but it’s hugely important. I mean, according to Torah, this is literally how we make space for God in our world. 

We make space for God – for justice, for holiness, for our highest ideals – when we all pitch in to build a community that’s broad and resilient enough to be a home for all of us. That’s our aspiration here. Our Jewish community here is for all of us. You belong here – whether you’re a fourth generation local, or you just moved here; whether you were born into Judaism or chose it yourself; whether your Jewishness focuses you inward or outward.

You belong: whether what brings you through the door is spiritual life and practice, or activism and social justice, or music, or mitzvot, or social life and connections. And you belong no matter what path you think will best bring Israel and Palestinians to a just, lasting, and safe peace. We are a tiny synagogue community. Within our fewer-than-100 members we span the gamut of opinions about Israel and Palestine. I know this because y’all have told me so.

This is an upside of smalltown life. I imagine that in a city, people might self-select to different synagogues. But in northern Berkshire, we’re it. Which means we have to find a way to be in community even when we disagree… even about the big questions, like which tune is the right one for Adon Olam. I’m joking, but I also really mean it. Torah’s whole vision of holy community assumes that we are different, and we figure out how to be there for each other anyway.

I am committed to the proposition that we all belong in Jewish community, and that we owe it to each other to make it work. I believe our diversities are the gifts we each bring to the construction of this sacred community. And I believe that in listening to each other, with openness, humility, and care, we make space for that infinite possibility of transformation that our tradition names as God. When we hold space for our differences, we make community holy.

Torah asks us each to bring our gifts if our hearts are so moved. If your heart moves you to do the work of showing up, I’m here to listen and learn. My ask of all of us, including myself, is: come with curiosity. Assume the best of others. And keep an open heart. Bring your gifts, and appreciate what others bring. That’s how holy community is built: not once, but over and over again, in every interaction. Even when it isn’t easy. Maybe especially then. 

I am so glad to be building this community with all of you.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Statistics

Statistics

 




Rockets launched from XXXX into XXXX since October 7: 10,000
XXXX children killed since October 7: 10,000
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I opened with XXXX suffering: 50
Percentage of people who just wrote me off because I mentioned XXXX suffering: 50
Residential units in XXXX destroyed or rendered uninhabitable: 65,000
XXXX who have moved back to XXXX: 2
Households in XXXX at risk of starvation: 1 in 4
Percentage of children brought to the ER at XXXX hospital now displaying PTSD: 43
Locations across XXXX where women and girls were reportedly XXXX and XXXX: 7
Witnesses who testified to that: 150
Bombs dropped by XXXX on XXXX since October 7: 45,000
Miles of distance in XXXX underground tunnel network in XXXX: 350-450
Square miles in XXXX: 141
XXXX hostages still in XXXXX captivity: 130
Citizens of XXXX displaced by XXXX and XXXX: 200,000
XXXX displaced by XXXX: 1.9 million
Number of opinions held by any two XXXX: 3
XXXX killed by XXXX since October 7: 20,000
XXXX I personally know who support XXXX: 0
XXXX I personally know: 0
Percentage chance that any two people reading this care about the same set of facts: unknown

 


 

I've been struck lately by the realization that part of the reason why we're talking past each other is that we're having entirely different conversations, fueled by entirely different facts. I don't just mean misinformation or disinformation, though God knows there's plenty of that these days. I mean disagreements where each party is working with real facts, but we're getting facts from entirely different sources. Are we reading Al-Jazeera, or Haaretz, or the Jerusalem Post? Are we reading news in English, or in Arabic, or in Hebrew? Which side's suffering is noted in the news outlet we trust, and how much distrust do we feel when presented with the other narrative? How often do we resort to whataboutism? A colleague noted to me a few days ago that people these days are always listening to see whose suffering gets mentioned first -- and if it's the "other side's" suffering, a lot of listeners will mentally check out or write off the person speaking as a supporter of "them," whoever that means. I wrote this poem thinking of Harper's Index (which still exists, it turns out, even though I haven't read the magazine in decades.) Every fact comes from what I consider to be a reputable source (except for the two lines about which readers are ignoring me depending on who they think I support more, which is speculation). I juxtaposed real data, and then blacked it out, making an erasure poem. I imagine that a lot of readers will automatically try to figure out which name or people or term has been obscured: am I making a point about the suffering of these people, or those people? The answer is yes. I'm grieving all of them. I'm grieving all of this. Including the fact that most of us can't have a conversation with someone who sees the situation differently, because we can't agree on which statistics even matter, much less recognize the infinite human suffering behind every number.


Old hope

My parents collected haggadot for Pesach, many of which are now in my library. There is a slim, tattered haggadah from Prague, printed in Hebrew and Czech. A note tucked inside dates it to 1898.

(My mother wasn't sure, in the end, whether it had been a gift from her aunt -- born, like my mother, in Prague -- or something Mom found in a bookstore on one of her visits once the Iron Curtain fell.)

There is one bound in metal with full-color illustrations. There is one that's full of Chagall prints and illustrations alongside the Hebrew text. And there's this one, which just found its way to me:

 

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The cover just says "Haggadah for Pesach."

When I first opened it, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It's bilingual, Hebrew and English. The texts sketch the story of the Exodus in the traditional way, with quotes and snippets of narrative.

The graphic design is neat. The interior flyleaf has a stylized print of swirls and flowers, cups of wine and bunches of grapes. Vines and flowers and grapes twine around the words on every page.

And then I turned to a page that contained a photograph, and that's when I figured out what makes this haggadah different from all other haggadot. (You had to know I was going to go there.)

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The caption reads, in Hebrew and English, "And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased," a line from Exodus that appears on the facing page as part of the story of the Exodus.

Something about this photo (the hairstyle on the woman in the center?) reminded me of photos of my parents in the late 40s and early 50s -- and also of photos of those I grew up calling halutzim.

I flipped to the first page, and found an explanation. Here it is in English. (You can find the Hebrew version here on Flickr.) The haggadah turns out to be from 1954, the year my parents married.

The very fact that for the past seven hundred years, Jewish illuminators and printers have been able to illustrate the Haggada in terms of their own times and surroundings attests to its timelessness and its message for every age. In keeping with this tradition, this new edition of the Passover Haggada has been prepared, illustrated and printed in the State of Israel, in an era which has seen the New Exodus, the Ingathering of Exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish State. And it is only fitting that the eternal truth of this ancient and stirring narrative should be reaffirmed in terms of living pictures of our own land and the people of our own time.

What an artifact. Oh, those capital letters on the New Exodus and the Ingathering of Exiles! It feels soaked in hope, the way baklava or teiglach are soaked in honey or knafeh soaked in rose water.

Like many in their generation (they were young children when the Holocaust began), my parents believed completely in the dream of Israel -- as they believed completely in the dream of America.  

In written instructions for her funeral, my mother asked for "America the Beautiful" and "Jerusalem of Gold:" for the nation that took her in, and the Jewish state she felt privileged to have lived to see.

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Mid-century graphic design... and photo.

This haggadah makes me wistful for the optimism my parents felt both about Israel and about the U.S. -- even as I know that the stories they held dear aren't the whole story about either place. 

It's a complicated knot of feelings: missing my parents deeply, and remembering where we disagreed, and feeling grateful that they aren't here to see some of what's unfolding today both here and there. 

A haggadah is a ritual object, not a history book, though this one feels steeped in history. And that history feels sharp with heartbreak, as it has every day since Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. 

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Had Gadya - a parable in song about all the nations who've tried to destroy us.

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It's the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: "From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!"  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 


Status Update

Dear Most of the Internet:
this is not the Superbowl
or the World Cup, so
wash the face paint off
your social media accounts.
Sit down with one of "them"
face to face, knees touching,
and listen to their losses.
Then do it again, open heart
becoming bruised like a peach.
This is called compassion:
feeling-with, the center
of feeling we call the heart
constantly vulnerable.
I don't want to hear anything
from people who mourn
only one set of children.
Likewise if your answer is
"get rid of all of them,"
go to the back of the line
and think about your choices.
Is your status update helping?
If not, go wash the dishes.
Or send a condolence note
to someone in your community
who just lost a parent. Or
practice on Duolingo
and get one word closer
to understanding
someone different from you.


In parallel

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"Other people don't know what it's like," someone said to me the other day. "Walking around with constant awareness of it all. Glued to my screen. I close my office door so I can cry. And most people here don't even know. The only people who seem to get it are people who have family there too."

I've had that conversation so many times. Most often, with Jews. I'm a rabbi, I serve a Jewish community, there's no surprise there. But I've had this conversation also with people who have beloveds in Gaza or the West Bank. Two diaspora communities carrying grief in parallel. 

Sorrow is not zero-sum. "Their" trauma doesn't cancel out "ours." There is more than enough to go around. It can be simultaneously true that Jews around the world are grieving and that Palestinians and Arabs around the world are grieving, all of us broken-hearted at once.

And there's a sense that others don't "get" why we're cloaked in grief. "The world doesn't care about our suffering or our deaths" is a refrain keenly-felt both by Jews and, as Abdelrahman ElGendy notes in today's Washington Post, by Arabs. Has grief become our most common ground?

A small cause for hope came to me from Aziz Abu Sarah in a message about Meet the Peace-Makers, a series of digital events featuring "women leaders in Israel and Palestine, building the peace movement from the ground up." It takes so much vision and courage to be a peace-builder in a time of war. 

My Arabic study has slowed to a trickle. I am scattered, forgetful, unable to hold new information. Most days I just review, trying not to lose what I've learned. I do not like running. I like reading and writing also. My friend is behind the house. A tiny way of holding fast to my values.

In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, "It's late but everything comes next."

 


Feel

It's all right to feel distracted.
There's a war going on. Well, two.
Also an insurgency somewhere, plus
the uneasy sense that there must be
more conflict in places you can't name.
It's okay that one of these hurts
more than the others do. No one

can feel equally every worldly grief.
Maybe you know someone who is fighting
or someone who was killed. You're
a degree or two of separation from
the horrors of the front lines. Or
there are no front lines, horrors
are everywhere. You're allowed to feel

whatever you feel, including of course
sad, despairing, furious, alone
panic-stricken, unable to breathe, 
unable to sleep or maybe to wake up,
knowing how many will never wake again.
Groceries still need to be bought,
laundry washed, assignments completed.

You may stop stock-still at the sink
washing produce, seized suddenly
by awareness of everyone without water
or food to wash in it. Remember
grief is sticky, like tape attaching
to itself and refusing to pull free
so every sorrow re-opens every other.

I want to say: kindle one candle
and breathe with its light! Inside you
the tempests will settle. But this
may not be true. I can't promise when
the grief will end. Bring light anyway:
our souls are God's candles, even when
we're not sure we still know how to shine.


Encounters: Vayishlach 5784 / 2023

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There are two big spiritual encounters in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach. When the parsha begins Jacob is alone and afraid. He grapples with an angel all night. From that, he gets a new name, Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. (Gen. 32:29) (This is the origin of one of the names our people carries to this day: Yisrael, aka Godwrestlers.) Jacob calls the place where that happened Pni-El, “Face of God,” because of his encounter there with the Holy. (Gen 32:31

The other encounter is with Jacob’s twin brother Esav, whom he has not seen since they parted on lousy terms many years ago. Remember, Jacob (whose given name can be understood as “the Heel”) tricked their father into giving him the firstborn blessing meant for Esav. Then Jacob fled to escape his furious brother. But now, Esav falls on his neck and kisses him. And Jacob marvels aloud to Esav, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God!” (Gen. 33:10)

I love this. The stranger with whom he wrestled all night is a face of God. And his twin brother whom he had feared to meet again as an enemy… is also a face of God. It seems that Torah this week wants us to be thinking about seeing the face of God. Not only in those whom we instinctively like or trust, but also in those with whom we might grapple or struggle. Even those with whom we might be braced for enmity and violence – they too are faces of the One.

Unfortunately, that’s not usually where our sages take this. Esav gets associated with Rome – and knocking Edom (his descendants) becomes a coded way to bemoan the atrocities of Rome. Or: take that moment when he falls on Jacob’s neck. Our scribal tradition places dots over the word “he kissed him,” which Rashi (d. 1105) reads as a sign of Esav’s ambivalence. Midrash suggests Esav was going to bite him, like a vampire, until Jacob’s neck turned to marble!

The Sforno (d. 1549) wrote, “we live among the descendants of Esau: people who are arrogant, consider themselves invincible.” Medieval rabbis often regarded Christian Europe (where it was not great to be a Jew) as the spiritual descendants of Esav. The political realities of each era got read back into Torah. And the rabbis projected their anxiety about Jewish safety, and the trustworthiness of those whom they saw as fundamentally unlike us, onto Esav.

Our sages lived in times of antisemitism and persecution. They read Torah through what was happening around them. Unfortunately, we also live in a time of rising antisemitism, and it’s easy to retroject today’s news headlines into the Torah. Some connect Edom, Esav’s descendants, with the Palestinians. So does the Jacob-Esav encounter have wisdom for us about current events? It could. But the insight it offers is spiritual, not geopolitical, and it’s about… us. 

Torah doesn’t tell us whether Esav genuinely felt love for his brother at their reunion, or whether Esav secretly wanted to bite him in the neck. Torah also doesn’t tell us whether Jacob really saw the face of God in his brother, or whether he was lying through his teeth because that’s what he thought would keep him safe. We get to choose which interpretation we favor. Here’s why I think it’s spiritually valuable to choose to see both brothers positively, especially now.

Genesis is full of brothers fighting. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esav. Joseph and the rest of his brothers. All of those stories are, in a certain way, zero-sum. One brother lives, the other dies. One brother gets lifted up, the other gets kicked out. One brother ges the firstborn blessing, the other gets a curse. One gets a special coat – and then his angry brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery. It’s a whole family tree of favoritism and fighting.

When we choose to see Jacob and Esav’s encounter as genuine, we’re saying: sibling rivalry isn’t the only option. We’re embracing hope for better. We’re affirming that we want to be on a trajectory toward mutual trust, seeing each other generously, creatively visioning a shared future that’s better than our past. We can’t change Torah, but we can change the story of now. Past doesn’t have to be prologue. We can write a different ending.

I read a d’var Torah this week by Rabbi Hannah Jensen called Jacob, Esau, and Jewish-Arab Partnership. She connects how we view Jacob and Esav with an ongoing pattern of “polarization and sides-taking in the name of protecting ourselves and our ‘people.’” I think of my friend and teacher R. Brad Hirschfield’s book You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right. We don’t have to live in a world of us-vs-them. We can make a different choice.

Letting go of us-vs-them might feel implausible, or unsafe, especially now. I get it. And, today is Shabbes. On this day when we live into the as-if, as-if the work of healing the world were complete, I invite us to broaden our imagination. Imagine a world where it’s not about which group “wins” – but rather a future that’s collaborative and cooperative, where the way to succeed is to lift others up. If we can imagine it, it doesn’t have to be a dream.

Jensen cites Sally Abed, co-founder of Standing Together, saying that the best way for us in America to support the Israeli people is to support the Palestinian people. I think she’s saying: it’s a false binary. One will flourish best when the other flourishes too. This doesn’t have to be motivated by altruism; it’s also enlightened self-interest. Spiritually, it’s good to seek the benefit of all. And practically, extremism loses power when everyone can thrive.

I find hope in organizations like Standing Together and Hand in Hand and Roots who teach coexistence instead of mistrust. I’ve started asking myself: whatever I’m about to do, or say, or argue, will it help people there who are trying to build coexistence? Or is it going to fuel the polarization, the zero-sum sense that only one people can “win”? Jacob and Esav didn’t figure out how to live side by side. But I still have hope that their spiritual descendants can.



This is the d'var Torah that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Versus

One of the big questions I've been sitting with is: who benefits when we share horrific news out of Israel and Gaza? When does that serve a greater purpose, and when does it just harden us? I know we share links with the best intentions -- bearing witness, and uplifting voices that need to be heard. (I'm including myself in this!) I'm just... not sure we're bridging the gaps between echo chambers. 

There's a "gotcha" feeling to so many interactions on social media right now. As though anger were a virus, and whoever makes their fury most contagious, wins. Once you read this, you'll hate them as much as I do. I notice what happens in me when I read stories of horror and trauma. The turbulence of emotion, the sickened feeling of disbelief. And I wonder: are these feelings actually helping anyone?

I worry that reading these kinds of articles makes it harder to see people on the other side (or those who sympathize with them) as human beings. It harms our capacity for empathy. That's part of why I make a point of seeking out the voices of both Palestinians and Israelis. (And wow is that painful. I know the distant pain of reading stories doesn't hold a candle to actual trauma. It still hurts.)

And wow, it sure seems as though a lot of people want to discount any stories of suffering that come from "the other side." I hear people saying, that's just propaganda, you can't trust anything they say. Or sometimes, it's their own fault, look who they voted into power. And sure, there's propaganda fueling the war of public opinion. But that doesn't invalidate the horrors that are also real and true. 

If the subtext when we share news or personal stories from Israel or Gaza or the West Bank is, just read this and you'll see how barbaric Those People are -- I don't think it helps. My fear is that the more we marinate in our feelings of righteous indignation and justifiable fury, the more the world's rage and polarization benefit extremists who are perfectly happy to ignore their enemy's humanity.

I don't know how to end this post. It's taken me all week to write 400 words. I want to be a source of light rather than heat. The internet does not need more kindling for the world's angry flames.


Trying for words

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I've been sick (not Covid, thankfully) since the day before Thanksgiving. I don't feel eloquent or wise. But saying nothing is all too often understood as its own statement, so I am trying to find words. The release of each individual hostage during these fragile days has made me weep with gratitude. The Jewish daily blessing for God Who frees the captive has landed differently these last seven weeks.

Until now, I've had the luxury of understanding that blessing metaphorically, spiritually. I have davened it thinking of how God has freed me, continues to free me, from my own life's narrow places. But there's a reason it's been in our liturgy for many centuries. I experience it in a different way, now. Now when I pray it I also mean: may every hostage be released. May everyone who grieves be comforted. 

To the best of my heart's capacity I grieve for and with every Israeli and Palestinian parent who has lost a child, or child who has lost a parent, or anyone who has lost anyone, in these terrible last seven weeks. Grief is not zero-sum. Compassion is not zero-sum. Trauma also is not zero-sum: it compounds. I pray for everyone who carries trauma across that beloved land. I pray for everyone. 

I pray for a just and lasting peace. I worry that those who currently wield power aren't capable of forging one. I find hope in Standing Together, a Jewish-Palestinian-Arab organization that Micah Sifry wrote about recently. But grassroots change is slow. I remind myself: Mariame Kaba teaches, hope is a discipline. I remind myself: Jews know something about long, slow cultivation of hope. 

I pray: Please God, lift up wiser, more compassionate, and more creative leadership who can move beyond this vicious cycle of tragedy. Please God, I don't have words, I need You to turn my cry into the prayer You know is underneath. Please God, out of the rubble and ashes of these days may something better be built. Please God, help us to dream our way to a better future for all of Your children.

 

 


Count

 

It is day 42
of this terrible count

but every day
the same qualities

-- anguish
within anguish.

At Shemini Atzeret
time stopped

just as we prepared
ourselves to turn

from Torah's end
to new beginnings.

The new month
never began.

Grief's fires
are still burning,

blood still crying
out from the ground.

 


 

Today's daily Ha'aretz email had the subject line, "What you need to know -- Israel at war: Day 42." That's what sparked today's poem: the realization that we're in another kind of Omer count, one where the only harvest I can see is grief. 

May the coming Shabbat bring respite and hope to all.