Six Days and Everything Has Changed
What the past days of fighting have broken, both physically and conceptually.
This past week we read Parashat B’reshit, the first portion of the Torah that recounts the creation of the world. The Kabbalists teach that in the moment of creation, God filled ten vessels with divine light. However, these vessels were too fragile to contain such an overwhelming powerful light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars.
Just as these vessels shattered due to the sheer power of their contents, so have so many Israelis and Jews around the world been shattered by the indescribably horrific reality of the attacks that began only six days ago. Every conversation opens the same as it did before this war: mah shlomcha - how are you? But that question has become rhetorical. We are all broken in a manner that we have not been before.
Much has been written about the atrocities carried out, the loss of life, the shattered families and communities that can never be put back together. Please, do not turn away from this, inform yourself as much as you can about these horrible acts. I would like to focus elsewhere and share with you some thoughts about something else that has been shattered in the past days. Many deeply held conceptions and paradigms that Israelis and Jews around the world held have been turned upside down. The spiritual wound this has inflicted and will leave will play a central role in what will be and the work we must do once this terrible war comes to an end.
The first conception that was shattered is that the defense establishment, including its armed forces, intelligence service, and security apparatus, can and will defend Israeli communities on sovereign soil. The names of communities like Nahal Oz, Be’eri, Kfar Aza and others serve as terrifying memorials that this is not the case. Families hid for hours in safe rooms as terrorists moved with impunity through their communities, texting friends, even journalists begging for intervention by the army. No help came. In effect, for the first time since the 1948 Independence War, Israeli communities fell to an invading force. The consequences of which were paid by women, men, children - people of all ages who were tortured, murdered, and worse by Hamas terrorists. What can the Israeli nation do if the “strongest army in the Middle East” is not responsive to potential threats? As we now know, there were intelligence reports that something out of the ordinary was taking form in Gaza? What can the Israeli nation do if, when a crisis comes, the response is not swift and devastating from those tasked to protest them?
The second conception is that of the responsiveness of the Israeli state. The Israeli state since its inception in 1948 has positioned itself, and is seen by its citizens, as the ultimate problem solver for issues facing Israeli citizens. Even through decades of right-wing, more capitalist, less interventionist governance, this conception of the role of government in all civilian matters from housing, to the price of goods, to security still holds. What we have seen is that the government with all its resources and ministries who are supposed to be the ones responding to a crisis, are simply not. The level of incompetence of so many of the individuals chosen to serve as ministers, tasked to serve the public and place its needs before all else, has been appalling. Since its establishment earlier this year this government (of which I will readily admit that I am not a supporter) has been focused primarily on issues that, whether you support or oppose, exacerbated already existing divisions in society. Their focus on promoting their own parties’ ideological interests or demonizing their political opponents has come at the expense of doing the actual work that they were asked to do. And, when crisis came, they were not and are still not able to respond in a way that the citizens deserve. The only bright spot through this failure is the incredible work that the Israeli citizenry took upon itself to organize, to unify, and to aid those who are most in need at this time. As my good friend and colleague Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem wrote: this awful government does not deserve its wonderful citizens.
The third conception which has shaken me and so many of my Jewish friends and family is the stunning silence of so many that we considered friends and ideological partners. It began as the terror attacks unfolded and shifted and became more grotesque as the gruesome details came to light. Many of the same people with whom we had marched, prayed, and cried in the face of injustice and war in recent years fell silent. When it was Jewish lives that were stolen, when it was the Jewish State that faced threats from an enemy who abhors the West and all of the progressive values we cherish - the silence was stunning and damning. Those who we look to for moral leadership from university presidents, journalists, politicians, and other public figures, for so many of them a simple statement that ‘Hamas is a terrorist organization and we condemn their actions’ was suddenly an impossible challenge. As images and videos of killings, abuse, and kidnappings were published for the entire world to see, there were individuals who claimed to be on the side of justice and human rights who came to contextualize those acts. Even worse, they cast doubt that they actually had taken place, as if they were part of some grand conspiracy to gain sympathy for Israelis and Jews. Perhaps the writing has perhaps been on the wall for some time now. In so many so-called progressive spaces there was room for all, except for Jews. I will admit that I, like many of you perhaps, tried to overlook this reality because of ideological convenience. But no longer. The antisemitism that has been allowed to perpetuate in these spaces can no longer be tolerated and there must be concerted efforts to weed it out.
So much has been broken, shattered in the last week. The seventh of October, 2023, will go down in history as an inflection point in Israeli history and in Jewish History. What was is not what will be. While we may be shattered in this instant, we will build and begin to collect the many scattered pieces of our People. Indeed, as our tradition teaches, we are commanded to put as many of the broken pieces of the vessels of creation back together as we can in a process known as tikkun olam - repairing the world. May Shabbat B’reshit present us with the opportunity to begin to build the world anew. May the one who blessed our Mothers and Fathers grant his people Israel strength to do what we must in the challenging days to come, and bring us swiftly days of peace.