This teaching discusses violence in Israel-Palestine. If you are uncomfortable reading about violence, please take care of yourself.
Shachar and Shlomi lived in Kibbutz Holit near Israel’s southern border with Gaza. They met in music school, got married, and had three children: Shaked, Shir, and Rotem. They founded a bilingual school that taught children in Hebrew and Arabic, under the slogan: “Jewish Arab Education for Equality”. Two years ago, when Hamas sent balloons from Gaza into Israel strapped with explosives, Shachar and Shlomi organized a peace festival, releasing balloons with messages of peace back to Gaza.
Earlier this week, I received a WhatsApp message from Shachar’s brother, my friend Abie. He wrote that on Oct 7, Hamas gunmen broke into Shachar and Shlomi’s house.
They ran into their safe room with their 16 year old son, Rotem. Shachar directed Rotem to get under a pile of blankets, and she laid on top of them. Moments later, Rotem heard a grenade explode and the sound of gunshots. He heard his parents scream, and then came a horrific silence, broken only by the gunmen laughing. Rotem laid under those blankets for over eight hours, soaked in his own blood from a bullet wound on his leg, as well as his mother’s blood seeping through the blankets.
Shachar’s brother shared that in 1919, in what is now Ukraine, their great-grandmother also used her body to shield her child during a pogrom, pushing her under a bed to hide her while she was murdered. That child lived and became Shachar’s grandmother.
My friend Ilana is a veteran peace activist, working for decades doing incredible work to build co-existence and understanding between Jews and Palestinians. That same day this week when I read Abie’s message about his sister, I read Ilana’s message of meeting young Palestinian children in 2008 who lost their parents, grandparents, siblings, and their homes when Israel bombed Gaza in 2008 in response to rocket fire on Israeli cities as part of Operation Cast Lead. Some of those children she met 15 years ago were among the attackers in this month’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians.
Why am I telling you these stories? Because over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed myself descending into generalities when discussing what is happening in Israel-Palestine because I’ve been so worried about saying the wrong thing. I’ve been worried that if you knew that my father and three brothers live in Israel, you might assume things about my biases and interpret what I say through that lens. Though I spent years working for the US State Department and Defense Department, supporting our government’s efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and security assistance and humanitarian aid, I was worried you might dismiss my words as polemical or uninformed.
So I’ve been hiding behind things like, “We send healing to all who are suffering in Israel-Palestine” – mild platitudes that I hoped would offend no one. But I’ve also found these platitudes unsatisfying – and frankly, cowardly.
My spiritual teacher asked me this week if I was embarrassed by my actual positions. No, I told her, but they are complicated. She responded: Trust your community, they can handle complexity. So I said: Nobody wants to hear nuance at a time like this. And she responded: That’s exactly what people need to hear.
And so at the risk of saying the wrong thing, here is my invitation:
Can we simultaneously hold the truths contained in both of these stories – my friend Abie’s sister Shachar, and the Palestinian children witnessed by my friend Ilana?
Can we mourn the innocent Israelis killed in the Hamas attacks this month and mourn the innocent Palestinians killed by Israeli military incursions into Gaza?
Can we support Israel’s right to self-defense, to prevent future attacks like this by destroying terrorist infrastructure – and also recognize that the collateral damage caused by those incursions will likely fuel more hatred and future violence?
Can we acknowledge that Hamas specifically hides its weapons in hospitals and schools, and hold them accountable for the subsequent deaths of Palestinian – and also demand that Israel do whatever it can to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians in that complex environment?
Can we decry the injustice of cutting off food, water, and electricity to Palestinian civilians while also recognizing that Hamas uses those same humanitarian channels to transport weapons?
Can we condemn the injustice of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while condemning any acts of violence against civilians in protest of the occupation?
And can we support the rights of both Jews and Palestinians to self-determination, to live in safety in their ancestral homeland, treated with equality and dignity?
In that same meeting with my spiritual teacher this week, we were discussing the importance of holding all this complexity in a time when people are feeling pressure to “pick a side.” She said to me, “It’s important to bless your community for being in the in-between place, to be okay being in that place of not-knowing.”
At first I resonated with that advice; this is one of my most frequent messages – it’s okay to not know, or as we say in our tradition, “Ad D’Lo Yada.” We can surrender the need to always have the answers. We can embrace the mystery.
After meditating on that for a few minutes with my teacher, I felt myself getting angry, and I blurted out, “No! Holding this complexity is not a form of not-knowing, it is knowing.” I know that all of these things are simultaneously true.
Seeing the truth in both “sides” (and recognizing there are more than two sides) is not a symptom of an inability to pick a side. It does not mean that you need to do more research so you can make a decision. It is not a temporary way-station on the path to a clearer truth. It is the destination. It is true. As voices on all sides of the conflict pressure us to choose one side, one victim, one narrative – holding the full complexity of the conflict is not a lack of choice, it is a choice. And in my opinion, it is a noble choice.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, God looks around at the depravity and evil that has permeated the human race in only 10 generations since their creation, and decides to destroy them all with a flood, except for Noach (Noah) and his family. As we witness the brutality of the past week, perhaps we can get a glimpse of the human darkness that inspired God to wipe us out and start over again. But what precisely did God see? God tells Noach:
קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י
I have decided to put an end to all flesh
כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס
Because the earth is filled with Ḥamas
Ḥamas is a difficult word to translate; it appears in different contexts across the Torah to mean different things. It is most often translated as violence, but what kind of violence?
Many of the classical commentators define Ḥamas as Gezeila, stealing. Reb Chayim Ibn Attar, the Or Hachayim, the 18th century kabbalist from Morocco, asks: If Ḥamas means robbery, why are the victims getting killed in the flood as well? Why not kill just the robbers? He answers that the robbery that was perpetrated in Noach’s generation created a cycle of violence, in which the victims were so incensed by being robbed that they decided to retaliate and became robbers, to the point when every victim was also a perpetrator, and we could no longer determine who the real victims were anymore.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein teaches that Ḥamas represents a kind of violence that is perpetrated by people who have no hope for the future, and so they only think about their immediate needs in the present moment.
The next place this word Ḥamas appears in the Torah is in the story of Avram, Sarai, and Hagar. When Sarai (Sarah) is struggling to have children, she offers her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to Avram (Abraham) as a concubine. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai feels that Avram is looking down on her. She calls Avram to accountability:
You are responsible for this Ḥamas
יִשְׁפֹּ֥ט בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽיׄךָ׃
Choosing between me and her
Rashi, the prolific medieval Torah commentator, explains that Sarai is upset that Avram, in the way he treated her and Hagar, created a dynamic that pitted them against each other.
So we see across these interpretations that Ḥamas is tied to seeing the world as a zero-sum game, where people are looking out only for themselves. Choose: Is it me or her? Us or them? It’s this kind of narrow-mindedness, tribalism, and false binaries that led the world to become so irredeemably violent that God wants to destroy humanity and start over.
So as we grieve the loss of thousands of lives over the past two weeks, and anticipate the many more that will likely be lost, and as we pray for the safe return of the hundreds of kidnapping victims, I invite us to heed the warnings of this week’s parsha – that refusing to embrace the complexity of our reality can be a driver of violence.
I think of the words of Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish, a Palestinian physician who lost his three daughters to Israeli tank fire on his house in 2008 and now another 25 family members in this latest round of violence. This week he said: “The only real revenge for murder is achieving peace.”
Holding multiple narratives at once can be hard. Simplicity can be tempting. But you have the capacity to embrace complexity. To see nuance is not a sign of not weakness, but rather a sign of strength.
Many of us may want to follow Noach’s impulse and cloister together with our tribe in a fortified ark to weather the storm of violence – to turn inward and batten down the hatches. And that is what God commanded Noach to do – to create a space of safety. That impulse is natural, and it is holy. Protect yourself and your loved ones.
But in God’s instructions for building this floating wooden fortress, God insists on a specific modification:
צֹ֣הַר תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה
Make an opening for daylight in the ark
These three words are amongst the favorites of the Jewish mystics, spurring countless heart-opening teachings. For today, I see it as a reminder that when times are tough, when we are under attack and feel threatened, we can find solace behind our protective walls, but we must remember to build a Tzohar – a small window – so we can see beyond ourselves. We don’t need to let our attackers into our ark, or get into someone else’s ark, but we do need to let some outside perspective in. Our safety actually depends on it.
May we all be blessed with safety that allows us to build a window in our ark. And when we look out that window, may we be blessed to see the light of a new day, a day of peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and all people.
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