I am deep in the heart of wedding season, and some of the lessons that come from wedding ceremonies seem to seep into the rest of our lives. When I discuss the symbolism of the breaking of the glass, I often speak about the connection with the destruction of the temple—asking people to hold in the hearts the sadness of loss in moments of utter joy, so that when they face moments of utter loss, they can access those moments of joy.
I am heartbroken often these days, mixed with moments of happiness and an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I experience blessings and curses, and try to find a way to balance both, to be able to hold in my mind both joy and sorrow.
I also remind the wedding congregants that their job, both at the wedding and as the couple’s lives unfold, is to be their support, as every person and relationship needs. That seems truer this week than it usually does. As I hold Robin Williams’ family and friends in my heart, and wish his memory to be a blessing of laughter, I pray that we all remember our responsibility to support our loved ones in utter joy and hopeless pain.
The heartbreak I feel started at the time of the kidnapping of the three boys on their way home from yeshiva and continues to today, as I read that Hamas has stated that, even if it agrees to a truce, it is really just a truce until “next time” as they continue on their quest to destroy Israel.
Israel is hard. It’s complicated. It’s long lasting. It’s ancient and modern. It’s the one topic Jews, who talk about everything, have the most trouble talking to each other about, especially when they disagree. It’s emotional, it’s existential, it’s deep.
It’s the Promised Land, the land flowing in milk and honey. It’s the place we speak of each Passover—“Next year in Jerusalem!” we sing. It’s the desert blooming. It’s the haven from European antisemitism and pogroms and the Holocaust.
And yet, it’s also the land of occupation of another people. It’s the land where women aren’t allowed to practice Judaism as equals. It’s the place where Jews treat others as The Other, the same way we were/are treated as The Other in so many other places and times.
And it is the place where Arab nations have tried to wipe us from the planet, into the sea, time and time again. And the place where groups send suicide/homicide bombers, rockets that leave people in constant states of alert and stress, to kill us or maim us or damage us psychologically.
Since the first Zionists landed in the land, both Jews and Arabs have been, in the terminology of Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, each legitimately able to lay claim to the title and blame the other for its situation.
Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are each famous for never having missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace for their people. It took until 2011 for a Palestinian (or Arab) leader to acknowledge that the Palestinians would have been better off to accept the partition back in May 1948. And Prime Minister Netanyahu most recently squandered Secretary of State Kerry’s enormous effort to broker peace, after so many other efforts also ended in failure.
I don’t have a solution—I’ve given up even imagining what it would look like. I support two states and an end to the occupation and even moving some of the settlements on the West Bank and definitely swapping lands to create a livable space. But I am also not so naïve as to believe that this would solve the problem and peace would break out. It would just take away some of the animosity, but not all of it by any means. Hamas’ own charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
I believe, based on my reading of Jewish history, that Jews have genetic post traumatic stress disorder (and apparently I’m not alone—and Leonard Fein z”l comments that the “post” might be premature). A well-known joke about many of our holidays encapsulates it: They tried to kill us. We survived (or we won). Let’s eat. Yes, we laugh (a whole other topic about the uses of humor by people who are the other). But we respond to every threat as though it were existential. Of course, our recent past in Europe shows how easily it can become existential—that becoming too confident can lead to genocide. But right now, Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers.
And Hamas does an amazing job of successfully triggering Jewish PTSD with its rockets and its tunnels. In reality, it is more like the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight than an existential adversary.
And yet, we cannot take away the power of being regularly triggered: every time a family in Sderot has to stop their day and move to a shelter and wait for the blast to hit and worry about whether their home will still be standing, the whole nation is triggered. Good thinking never comes from that place. Stress is known to lead to poor decisions. And these abound.
Every time a neighborhood in Gaza buries entire families, or sees more of its children arrested and placed in Israeli prisons, more hatred is created.
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply inside himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” Thich Naht Hanh
Injustice flows from both sides, because their part of the truth so blinds them to other parts of the truth and makes it hard to see the other’s pain stemming from their truth. We can’t listen to each other over the voices in our heads screaming to be heard. We can’t find the peace of mind, in between or during the rockets flying, to hear them.
One of my favorite Jewish teachings comes from the Talmud (BT Eruvin 13b): when the students of Shammai and students of Hillel, two great teachers who couldn’t agree on anything it seems, argue for three years, a bat kol, literally daughter of the voice, or a heavenly echo, chimes in—“These AND these are the words of the living God…but the law follows Hillel.” Why does it follow Hillel? Because his followers were humble enough to acknowledge the position of their opponents and state them first. I do not believe that there are always two sides of the truth to every argument, I admit. But I do believe that it happens more often than I might like to believe. And anyone who has read deeply about the Middle East knows that no one has all the truth on their side, and everyone has made mistakes, and everyone has treated the Other badly.
I want Israel to survive, safely, free from bombings, regular warfare and antisemitism. Of course, every Jew knows that this likelihood (once I included freedom from antisemitism, especially) is unlikely. Just look at what’s happening in Europe right now. And I also want the Palestinians to have their own space so that they might develop a culture that is alive, creative and works toward helping their citizens be safe and free of violence. Looking at the Arab summer that followed the Arab spring, I am also not so hopeful that this will happen any time soon, even if Israel gave them everything they asked for, short of our own destruction.
So I keep wondering what it would be like if we all followed Thich Naht Hanh’s teaching, that we recognize that those causing us suffering have suffered and are suffering themselves, and they deserve our help? We know there are a few successful programs that bring Israeli Jews and Arabs together—in schools and village, in dance classes and competitions, in mourning circles. And we know that these efforts are small, and require incredible attention and focus to survive. How can we make it broader, available to more people, help people to listen deeply?
How do we ask people who have been injured so deeply to trust again? To forgive? As we move into the period of reflection before the High Holy Days, those days of cheshbon nefesh, spiritual accounting, these questions will permeate my thinking, percolate in my spirit, and hopefully help me open to the pain and suffering of others. The more we can talk to each other, even when we disagree, the more we can hear the pain of others, be able to listen, the more we can share their pain, and work to minimize our share of the cause. This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, offers us a suggestion: we should circumcise our hearts, cut away the calluses that numb our ability to feel our own pain and the pain of others.
I don’t have answers. I do have questions. But I keep returning to the simple song line of the “holy rabbi” Tom Paxton who sang years ago,
My own life is all I can hope to control.
Let my life be lived for the good of the soul.
Let it bring peace.
May we live our lives that way.