At our October 20th Virtual Friday Night Shabbat service, Rabbi Lizzi shared poetry and Torah to try to make sense of the destruction ongoing in Israel and Gaza. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.
This was not an easy week to think of something to share about the parashah. I will be honest, I am very emotionally exhausted, as I imagine many of you are as well.
I want to give us a sense of solace tonight, like calm in the midst of the storm, but I feel unable to do that with words, knowing that everything that was happening yesterday is happening today. There are points of light but so much more darkness and pain, and even my peacemaking friends who live in Israel, both Palestinian and Israeli, are really, really scared. They are in post-traumatic shock and grief, and while they are not the ones giving the directives to drop bombs on Gaza, they don’t really have a sense of what the right response is to the horrific attacks Israel suffered two weeks ago. I don’t either, and in talking to many of you, I have gathered a deep sense of loss and despair as you consider options for what comes next. So, of late, I have been taking comfort in poetry, in Torah, in song, in this community, in knowing that members of this community have been traveling all week, some across the country, some across the world, to be of service, to help people suffering in whatever way they can, to be malakhim, messengers, angels.
So in the spirit of rest, I want to bring some poetry and Torah into the room, maybe not the most uplifting poetry as you’ll see, but we’ll see how taking a step back might open our hearts tonight, help us cry and help us heal and help us know and allow space for that still, small voice to emerge with a sense of what the next step might be.
The Diameter of the Bomb
By Yehudah Amichai
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.
This week we open Parashat Noah, you know, the one where God sends a flood to wipe out Humanity because violence, Hamas, in Hebrew, was rampant on the earth, and God deemed this Hamas so pervasive that it needed to be completely washed away. (To be clear, Hamas the organization is not Hebrew, it’s Arabic — an acronym meaning Islamic Resistance Movement, but the similarity in sound isn’t lost on Hebrew speakers). Anyway, Noah was righteous and blameless in his generation — tzadik v’tamim haya b’dorotav, and is the one guy who God picks to survive this deluge. And one of the first instructions in building the ark, God tells Noah to put a Tzohar, in the ark.
צֹ֣הַר ׀ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַתֵּבָ֗ה
And the commentary writers over the years wonder what is a tzohar. And some say a window to let in light in the otherwise completely dark and sealed ark… And some say a pearl or gem that was translucent during the day and lit up at night like a night light. But from a simple close reading of the text it seems clear that it was an actual window, letting in not just light, but visuals. Because after the flood has raged for 40 days and 40 nights the text tells us Noah somehow knew the water had receded and the mountaintops had become visible. Noah opens a window to let out the raven, and then the dove. He had a window. God REQUIRED him to have a window.
I’m struck by this essential feature of the ark, baked into the architectural plans in the Torah. This window meant that as the flood waters rose, and all of human and animal life on earth was drowned, Noah could see it happening, in real time, frame by terrible frame. But he could only see what was outside his window. He could see a whole family drowning, but probably only one family at a time. This animal, that destroyed home, one at a time. Perhaps there was wisdom in God giving Noah one window, through which he would see everything, just see it in doses he could take, and still function.
And this of course is the difference between Noah’s limited perspective and God’s Limitless Circle of perspective, Noah’s ability to take in a little suffering and go on living quasi normally inside the ark, feeding the animals, caring for his family… And God’s ability to absorb limitless emotional damage all over the world all at once. And I think God had wisdom in giving Noah only one window, because seeing the suffering of others affects us, makes us hurt too, especially if that suffering is people we love and are connected to, especially if that suffering is our family. But even if not our family — our human hearts are evolutionarily designed to empathize when we see pain, to try to help if we can. But if we see too much of it we begin to shut down, or malfunction, in the presence of too much pain and suffering. Any of us who live in the city right now, with the homelessness and migrant crises happening simultaneously — knows what that feels like. And it’s not good, not for us, and certainly not for folks we might want to actually be helpful to. And I sense that is beginning to happen for many of us as we witness the events unfolding on the other side of the world in Israel and Gaza, let alone having seen and heard about war for the past year and a half in Ukraine. Let alone the daily sufferings that we are witness to, or experience ourselves, trying to manage day to day life and relationships in our homes and friendships. For many of us the weight of the world feels not like we’re seeing it through a window in manageable doses, but like we’re in the deluge itself.
Of course — we aren’t. If you’re here in Chicago or listening from somewhere in the states. Many of our people don’t have the choice to only take in a little at a time, just one window full — on Simchat Torah they were completely overtaken and are still in a state of shock and grief… But from here, from Chicago, we in wanting to be close to them, are following a breadth of news, perspective, articles, stories, op-eds, commentary, opinions, images, images, images, images, cries, stories, WhatsApp groups, email chains describing in detail the destruction on the level that really only God could possibly absorb and not break. And that was true when it was just our people, when we were reeling after the Simchat Torah massacre, and it grows even more now that we are confronted with the images of whole neighborhoods flattened in Gaza and the body count rising there.
And almost everyone I know, including me most days, is close to breaking, as we watch from our ark, but with far more access to the diameter of the bomb, so to speak, than Noah ever had. We are not God, and so how this destruction fits neatly into a narrative of cleansing and healing for the future, doesn’t readily emerge, and we sit with paradoxes and questions to which we don’t have answers, which makes the loss and destruction that much harder to look at. This week in our community Slack channel, where we try to have conversations and share articles or musings in a supportive and curious space, I asked you for the questions you’re sitting now, as these days unfold. Here’s what some of you want to know:
- What is the endgame for Israel?
- What is the endgame for Hamas?
- Is there a world in which this war will result in increased peace for Israelis and/or autonomy for Palestinians?
- What is going on behind the scenes with Egypt and Israel?
- When will Israel allow in humanitarian aid? Will a politician emerge in Israel who can actually look for Palestinian partners and make a real peace with them instead of undercutting such efforts?
- What will happen with the West Bank?
- Will my nephew survive the war?
- How many hostages will be released and how many will die? Is Israel correct or short sighted in the belief that they must completely wipe out Hamas, no matter the cost to lives in Israel and Gaza?
- Will this long term fighting between Israel, Palestine, and the neighboring countries ever be resolved? What will Israel need to do to foster some type of peace and co-existence with its neighbors?
In the face of these big questions — good questions, questions that need answers that we just don’t have yet — I want to invite us over this Shabbos to join our brothers and sisters in Israel, to do what people do when grieving. We show up, and we shut up. We allow the grieving to tell us what they need and we tend to the living. And tending to the living means being a malakh, and angel, a messenger. Not here to do everything, but to do the one thing you can do.
The one thing you can do this Shabbes, might look like making art, as students at Tel Aviv University did by putting up the faces of all of the kidnapped, or disappeared or killed, in the auditorium, to continue to put diplomatic pressure on leaders to bring back the hostages. Or like the artists who put out an empty shabbat table set for 200 people outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum, with high chairs, seats for children and sippy cups and the white roses alongside some of the plates. The one thing you can do might be calling a friend or someone you know who’s impacted closely by all of this, to check in, as I have spent the week doing, and as a result I’m on the verge of tears basically all the time (as some of you well know). But it feels a lot better to have my heart open, and broken, and to be sitting in paradox, than to be a voyeur of suffering, which most of us can’t help but be in this world. I’ve spoken to many of you who have resigned from your post as keyboard warriors and deleted Instagram, realizing that the one thing you thought you might do — change someone’s mind or educate someone in a comment thread when confronted with some ignorant or even antisemitic stuff on your screen — is maybe not the most emotionally healthy one thing for you to do morning, noon and night. The one thing you can do might be signing a petition, like I did right before logging on tonight, thanking our Secretary of State for his role in bringing home Judith and Natalie Raanan and to prioritize bringing home the rest of the hostages, as well as getting humanitarian aid to Gazans. There are so very many ways to do one thing.
As Rabbi Tarfon famously said, You don’t have to finish the work, but that doesn’t absolve you of the need to do something. In this case I think we all know how hard it is to feel like our actions have an any effect at all, that makes it even more imperative to take those little steps, because if you don’t who will?
When confronted with the enormity of the weight of the suffering of the world, a task too big for God yet given to us… We need to find the spaces that help remind us that while we may be made in God’s image, we are not, in fact God, and cannot in fact, incessantly take in the suffering of the world without a break. We need time to process, to sing, to grieve, to walk, to dream, to feel our feeling, to let the small voice inside rise to the surface.
I want to bless you with that, this Shabbes, and hope that your rest helps you tap into the angel you can be.