A Friday Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 12.1.23

December 1, 2023

A couple of nights ago, around 40 of us gathered together, on Zoom and in person, to discuss how we were processing the war in Gaza. I didn’t note it at the time, but looking back, the fact that we met nearly a week into the temporary halt in fighting barely registered. In other words, the catch-your-breath moment of cease-fire (or whatever we’re calling it) certainly materialized for the desperate citizens of Gaza and for the IDF forces risking their lives there, but for most of the Israel-supporting world, news of the released hostages became all-consuming. There was no cease-fire, no respite from the emotional whirlwind.

The first hostages were released a week ago today. The story of their release was met with a torturous blend of inexpressible relief and agonizing sadness. The cathartic scenes of hostages reunited with family members had many of us in tears on a daily basis. At the same time, stories of hostages who returned to find that other members of their families were killed or kidnapped, or that they no longer had homes to return to at the very moment when they most needed home, caused tears of another kind; not to mention the stories of time in captivity that have been trickling out, and the color that lends to our imagining those who are still there. The nation is reeling, acutely, from a shock that will take many years to absorb. 

I introduced our Wednesday night gathering by reiterating (and hopefully “giving permission” for) the flood of feelings that I imagined many of us were having. I mentioned this in the emailed notice about the meeting:

We find ourselves processing a dizzying number of complex and difficult issues and the emotions surrounding them: the ongoing trauma to Israelis and the agonizing stories of the hostages and their families; the heartbreaking devastation in Gaza, with thousands of innocents dead, among them a staggering number of children; the troubling remarks coming out of Israeli government ministers; the geopolitical ramifications of the war; the international response; the abandonment of communities we looked to as allies here in NY and in the US; the drastic increase in antisemitic incidents. The list goes on.

The fact is, it is extraordinarily difficult to process the information that continues to flood in, on all these fronts. The many people who spoke up on Wednesday night touched on all of the above-listed topics and introduced others as well. And there was a sense in the room that many people were struggling with this uncomfortable juggling-act. And so I felt (and still feel) it incumbent on me to remind us all that there is no rule that says that I can only feel one way. I should bear no expectation that I have to position myself in this camp or that camp, that I can’t have a complex cocktail of emotions, that I can’t grieve loss of life both Jewish and Palestinian, that I can’t ache for a lasting cease-fire even while I can’t see its feasibility. I also don’t have to feel the same way on a Tuesday that I did on Monday. 

I ended our discussion with an anecdote about some dear friends, Steve and Kimba, experienced hikers, who came to visit from California a few years ago. As we were doing a difficult hike in the Poconos, any time someone tried to slow down the walking party for one reason or another, Steve would say “hike your own hike.” What he meant was, each of us is having a separate experience – each of us has his or her own needs in this moment, each of us is concentrating on his or her own breath, and you shouldn’t expect me to be where you are at just as I don’t expect you to be where I am at. But we can have those separate experiences together. 

Tomorrow morning, we will read parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43). It is a Torah portion remarkable (particularly in this moment) for the number of Gaza-war-related themes it raises: old and festering animosities, mis-readings of antagonists, moral issues around sanctity of life, sexual violence, and others. I will be addressing one of these issues tomorrow morning – I hope you can join us at our Shabbat morning service (in person or on Zoom). In the meantime, if you are someone who is engaged with the goings-on in Israel and Gaza, make sure you are ingesting a balanced diet of information, come to informed conclusions, attempt not to be doctrinaire in them (ok to change your mind the next day and adjust as new information comes in), and most of all, hike your own hike.

Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom um’vorach, a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Shalom al Yisrael,

Rabbi Sam Levine