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At the Confluence of Death and Land

At the Confluence of Death and Land

This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion entitled Chayei Sarah ~ Sarah’s life, though it begins with her death. Torah tells us that Sarah was 127 when she died, however given the length of biblical lives in Genesis (B’reishit), her age is unremarkable. The proximity of her death to the story of the binding of Isaac is read by our sages as her death resulting from the shocking news that her son had nearly been sacrificed at knifepoint. We then read of Avraham’s desire to bury Sarah properly where she died (in what is now Hebron) and his insistence on paying the Hittites for the land, including the Cave of Machpelah, where he would bury her (and where subsequent ancestors would be interred). Avraham speaks of his status as a “resident alien” (ger toshav) without an ancestral burial plot, and insists on ethically acquiring burial land for his family. This is the first purchase of land that we read of in Torah – land which we know commonly today as either the West Bank or Judea/Samaria.

Each year, we read Torah again – we read the same stories, yet we are in a different place each year. So, this year, how could I read of Sarah’s death without seeing it through both the ancient lens of shock and grief as well as my current lens of shock and grief? And how could I read of the first purchase of land in Canaan, ancient Israel, Eretz (Land of) Yisrael, without aching over the current crisis in modern Israel, Medinat (State of) Yisrael.

What a painful struggle it is to hold, in our hearts and minds, all that is occurring in the world. I began to write, this week, in the plural; however, I have chosen to speak of my own experience so as not to assume yours ….

As a rabbi, a Jew, an American, a justice-seeker and peace-lover, I was shaken to my core by the massacre, on October 7th (Shabbat and Simchat Torah), of over 1,200 people going about their lives within Israel. (The number of deaths has been recently revised and may continue to fluctuate for some time, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.) That day was a catastrophic event unlike anything I have known in my time on this planet. And unlike other horrific events that I have experienced at a distance, this was personal to me as a Jew and a peace-lover, as most of those slaughtered identified as both Jews and people who supported a peaceful co-existence with Palestinians.

Compounding the grief, we learned over the following days that there were more than 240 people, ranging in age from 9 months to 85 years, who were abducted and taken hostage into Gaza on October 7th. Their families are left to wonder, each moment of each day for the past 35 days, whether their loved ones are alive and what they are enduring. And then, who can fathom all of the funerals, all of the terror and trauma inflicted on the young and the old, including Holocaust survivors, and the bodies yet to be identified and properly laid to rest in the sacred ground.

After the initial horror and incredulity, the emotional flatness of shock set in – another novel feeling. Despite my intellectual understanding of atrocities and the human capacity for cruelty, I still wrestled with the existence of evil as I learned of the absolutely heinous and barbaric acts perpetrated by many of the terrorists who entered Israel on that fateful morning.

And before I could even begin to wrap my mind around the reality of the situation in Israel, I felt called to respond to the proliferation of statements that the terrorists were “martyrs” and that, in some twisted version of reality, Israel is to blame for the horrific massacre. Overnight, I went from feeling free to express my anger with Israel’s current political leadership and anti-democratic actions, my dismay with the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, and my support of Israelis demonstrating in the streets for democracy for nearly a year, to attending vigils and praying for the hostages, the dead, and the safety of Israel and her security forces.

This was just the beginning of the complicated internal dialogue that continues to feel unsettling. And even as I tell myself that I must have an informed opinion, I also remind myself that I am neither a war strategist nor a peace negotiator nor an historian with deep expertise in Israel and the Middle East. Every day, I read articles and opinion pieces from trusted sources, go to webinars, and speak with colleagues, and still, I wrestle with the complexity of feelings I have about what my Israeli friends call ha’matzav (the situation).

I am devastated as I watch the death toll rise in Gaza and hear the reports from doctors and journalists about the conditions that people in Gaza are experiencing. The death of children, whether Palestinian or Israeli, is horrible, and I don’t feel any better when I tell myself that children in Gaza wouldn’t be dying if Hamas didn’t use the Palestinian people as human shields. There is nothing about war that feels good if we are to maintain our humanity and sense of the sacred dignity of every innocent life.

As if this weren’t enough to process, there is an added layer of confusion and a sense of betrayal that I continuously need to monitor. For decades, I have been deeply committed to many social justice causes. I have primarily been active in climate justice, immigration reform, anti-racism activism, and reproductive justice. In the past five weeks, I have been deeply hurt by friends and colleagues who are expressing outrage at Israel’s “colonialism” and “attempted genocide.” They are marching in pro-Palestinian rallies and filling their social media with statements like “from the river to the sea,” which, even if not their intent, emphasize the stated goals of Hamas and other terrorist organizations to completely eliminate Jews from the Middle East.

It is painful to hear such erasure of my Jewish narrative in spaces where I was once a welcomed participant and a valued leader. It makes me question whether my Jewish identity was truly appreciated or merely convenient at the time, and this is not a good feeling. I have always been quick to trust the friendship of others and slow to allow a difference of opinion or belief to impact a friendship. And … I am deeply frustrated and angered by the ease with which my progressive American friends call for eliminating American aid to Israel because their uncomplicated sympathy for Palestinians doesn’t require them to wrestle with the terrorists who control Gaza. Ideological purity allows us to take a moral high ground that crumbles under scrutiny … scrutiny that doesn’t exist inside echo-chambers. And without a nuanced understanding of history and politics and the reality of life in the Middle East over the past century, it is easy to fall prey to an anti-Israel narrative sitting atop deep antisemitic roots which has been carefully crafted to fit into an American social justice agenda that we used to share. I mourn the current loss of spaces I used to inhabit so freely.

Rigorous and well-informed debate can be healthy and productive. What I can not abide is the flattening of the last 80 years of history into a simplistic narrative of oppression of Palestinians. There is a great deal to be gained by conversations across differences and these have been happening for years between Israelis and Palestinians who are waging peace. Meaningful conversations need to be had about the best strategies for achieving the release of the hostages in Gaza, the elimination of radical Islamic ideologies of Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremists (including the end of extremist ideological leadership in Israel’s government), and a path forward for a peaceful coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state amidst the normalization of relationships in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, November 14th, I will go to the National Mall, along with Jews and allies, as part of “Americans March for Israel, March to Free Hostages, March Against Antisemitism.” I have never been particularly comfortable in traditional Jewish institutional spaces and organizations, and I plan to join the Peace Bloc being created by organizations to which I belong and those which align best with the values that I still hold dear. As a rabbi and life-long student of Judaism, I trust the tremendous capacity it has to hold multiple truths, even and especially conflicting truths. Stay tuned for an update before Shabbat Toldot about Tuesday’s march.

A Gift from the Arts at a Dark Time

I never cease to be amazed by the glorious emotional release that art and nature offer us. This week, Broadway musicians representing 30 nationalities put together this video dedicated to bringing the hostages home to Israel. I have always been moved by this music from Les Miserables which is filled with a parent’s hope and desire for the safety of his child(ren). This video brought me the gift of tears and emotional release even as I know that there are so many in Israel who are still holding their breath this Shabbat. I share it with you as I wish you the peace and renewal of Shabbat.

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