At our October 13th service, our first service since the High Holidays and our first in-person space for grieving following the October 7th terrorist attack on Israeli civilians, Rabbi Steven shared a vulnerable drash imploring all of us not to lose sight of the fact that all of our neighbors are made in the image of God. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast.
The rabbis have a debate: if you had to pick one verse from the entire Torah, which would you choose? Rabbi Akiva goes first, “V’ahavta la’rei’acha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself. This is the greatest principle of the Torah.” In fact when Hillel (one of the preeminent scholars of our tradition) is asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he paraphrases this verse by saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is simply commentary.” And this is a powerful and provocative verse, a command that not only calls us into loving relationship with the people we live near, despite our differences and disagreements – but also one that asks us to think seriously about who is (or really, if anyone is not) our neighbor in an increasingly globalized world.
But then Shimon ben Azzai offers a different verse, “Zeh seifer toldot adam – this is the record of those descended from adam, the first human.” This verse from the first chapters of Genesis, he says, is an even greater principle of the Torah. It sets aside the arguments about who is and who is not our neighbor to point to our belief (and what we now know is a fact of science) that all people come from a common source. And if this is true, if we are all descended from adam ha’rishon, that first human, then each of us has inherited the legacy of being created in the divine image (an equally audacious claim derived from our Torah reading this week).
I know this is Torah that I often come back to – and if I had been asked to participate in that debate, I probably would have chosen: “Vayivra elohim et-ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem elohim bara oto – And God created the first human in the divine image, in the divine image God created them.” But the reason that I keep circling back to this verse is that it is an incredible assertion of human dignity and worth. Among all of the claims that our creation myth makes about the world around us, this is one of the few that is not empirically observable. Yes, we know that Genesis is not an accurate reflection of history – but it does a good job conveying the order of the natural world: the celestial bodies that illuminate day and night, the separation of land and sea, even the order in which living organisms evolved from fish to reptile to bird to mammal. But what cannot be seen or held is the statement that human life is good (very good in fact) and human life is sacred. This must be believed, rather than observed. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg once taught that it is the mission of the Jewish people to have the vision and commitment to move the world from how it is to how it should be. As a foundational belief of our tradition, the inherent dignity of each person is something we — as Jews — are tasked with recognizing and protecting.
This week, the world has been a poor reflection of our tradition’s claim of humanity’s goodness and worth. What many of us would have once called unimaginable, at least since the dark days of the Holocaust, is now very much our reality. I wish it was otherwise. Over 1200 Israelis massacred. More than 150 Jews taken hostage and brought over the border into Gaza, including at least two local Jewish women from Evanston, including a recent graduate from Deerfield High School, including family members and friends of people in this community. The scenes of terror and brutality are hard to witness. And because our community is so interconnected, because people that we as Jews think of as our “neighbor” live in places around the world and especially Israel – I know that each of us is only one or two degrees of separation from someone who is dead or someone who is missing. I am heartbroken. I am scared and I am angry. I am overwhelmed by the prospect of what is going to happen and what this means for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of our people. I imagine you are too.
I want to talk about where our tradition might give us guidance at this terrible moment. But before I do, because of all the noise that is happening around this tragedy and our tendency – when we are on guard – to read between the lines (I am guilty of this too), I feel the need to say that I unequivocally condemn the acts of terror committed by Hamas. There is no justification for harming or killing civilians – especially children. None. This statement of course extends to all human beings… and also, as Jews, the pain of other Jews speaks to us in a particular way – punctured, as it is, by our shared history of loss and our excruciating awareness of how small a people we really are. It is impossible to not see myself, my friends and loved ones, each of you reflected in the faces of the missing or the dead. These are our people, connected to us through blood and culture and belief and language and land.
Yes, and land – because Israel (as messy and complicated as this relationship may be) is our home. For thousands of years – even as we have been displaced and dispossessed – Israel has been the homeland of the Jewish people and the sacred center of our tradition, the direction we face in both times of celebration and times of mourning. And of course Jews living in Israel today have parents or grandparents that come from somewhere else because for most of our history we have had no choice but to be from somewhere else. We are European and Indian and Ethiopian and, yes, Arab because century after century we have been driven from our homeland at the point of a sword or a gun. When looking at the creation myth in the opening verses in Genesis, this week’s parashah, the medieval commentator Rashi poses the question: why does our sacred text begin with the formation of the entire world, why not start our story a few chapters later with the introduction of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews? He writes that this is to remind us that the world belongs to God, not to people – and that God chose the Jewish people to settle in the land of Israel and call it home. Lest anyone claim that we stole it, lest anyone doubt the fact that we belong there. The Jewish people have a right to exist and to be safe in the land of Israel.
And, from the beginning, we were never the sole inhabitants of that promised land. When Abraham and Sarah arrive there, they encounter other families who also call that place home – families that would eventually grow into tribes and nations who, like us, have nurtured a relationship with that land across generations. The Palestinians are one of these people. They also have a right to exist and to be safe in the land of Israel, which most of them call Palestine.
Jews have been trying to figure out how to live side by side with our neighbors in this land since we first stepped foot in it. Sometimes we have done this well. And sometimes we have not. Sometimes the failure is our fault, sometimes it’s theirs – but truthfully, most of the time it is a complicated mix of the two. There is plenty of blame, historically and in the present moment, to go around for how we arrived at the awful moment that took Israelis by surprise this past Shabbat. That context matters, as difficult as it may be to acknowledge in this moment. The occupation and the current right-wing Israeli government driven by a messianic ethno-nationalist vision for the future, tearing Israel apart from the inside and making it vulnerable to outside attack, are part of the story that we cannot leave out when conducting an honest analysis of how we got here. But no amount of context excuses the acts of abject terrorism and brutality that Hamas committed last week. They must be condemned by anyone with a heart – which is, all of us. The pursuit of liberation at the cost of others’ lives is at best lacking imagination for how these aims might be achieved and at worst what happens when people allow the breadth of their compassion to be circumscribed by hate. And, the same must be said about maintaining the safety of our people. War demands that we choose sides, it is humankind at its most polarized: us versus them, the lives of our people or the lives of theirs – but this is not the only way. It can’t be. The mission of the Jewish people is to have the vision and commitment to move the world from how it is to how it should be, from the proposed necessity of armed conflict to the possibility of peace.
To this end, Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote this week, “I am asking us to dare to hold the humanity, the heartache, the need for security of the Jewish people while also holding the humanity, the dignity, the need for justice of the Palestinian people. For too long, these two have been set up as incompatible, but this is a false binary.” This is a false binary, as much as those promoting rebellion or retribution may abide by it – one that is invalidated by the opening chapters of the Torah. Zeh seifer toldot adam – this is the record of those descended from adam, the first human, all of us. Our humanity is one and the same. Our liberation, our safety, our wellbeing must be bound up with one another, and especially with those who are our neighbors, with those who call our home their home.
I’ve made the mistake of spending too much time on social media over the past week (my boyfriend has regularly come over to see what I’m fixated on and, if I’m doom scrolling through people’s stories on Instagram, puts me on a phone ban until I can promise to look at something else). As someone who exists both inside and outside the Jewish community, my feed has been a mixture of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine posts – different in presentation, but the message is largely the same. See our pain. Our pain and not theirs. How dare you try to hold their hardship alongside ours – look at our dead, look at what we have lost. There is no equivalency here, our inherited suffering and the heartbreak we hold right now is worse. You either stand for Palestinian liberation or not. You either support the right of Jews to be safe or not.
Why is this polarization so tempting? I like to think that my friends and the folks that I choose to follow online are rational, smart people – the kind who think critically to avoid sharing misinformation, who seek out different perspectives to temper and refine their own, who have what our tradition calls a heart of many rooms: able to hold justice and mercy, grief and compassion together because life is complicated and human beings are complex.
But then if it was my mother who had been taken hostage, if my brother had been killed dancing at a music festival or my sister called to fight at the Gaza border – would I want to raze it all to the ground? Would I also choose to pick up the weapons of violence in the name of self-defense and justice? Holding complexity and nuance is never easy, even if we know that both we and the world cannot be broken down into simple binaries. How much more difficult the task when our hearts have been torn open by the kind of tragedy that we, as Jews, thought was a relic of history.
I’m going to be honest with you. There is very little that any of us can do to change the course of what the coming weeks will bring (unless someone has a direct line to Bibi’s office, but I’m assuming that’s none of us, and even if we did I’m not sure it would make a difference). As hopeless as it might feel, we need to be humble about how much power we actually have. But we do have some power.
We have the power to be the guardians of our own moral compass. As overwhelming as our pain is, we cannot allow it to dull our compassion. Our tradition calls us to be capacious in our empathy – to hold the humanity, as Rabbi Sharon Brous challenged us, of both Palestinian and Jew and refuse the narrative that we must choose between our wellbeing and theirs. I know this isn’t easy, especially now. But when we say that the purpose of our spiritual tradition is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, sometimes afflicting the comfortable looks like pushing back against the easy response, the tempting response, even if it’s the understandable response. Grief can lead us to believe that we must build higher walls to protect us, that we must seek out and destroy the cause of our pain. But grief can also reach across the lines that divide us. Heartbreak is a universal, deeply human experience. It is so much more powerful than the ideologies that separate humanity into us and them.
And this is our other power: to connect with one another. Amidst the statement making and lack of statement making, GIFs and memes, posts, stories, op-eds, analysis, blame, and debate focused on this tragedy, I noticed a quieter, more powerful conversation happening: people checking in on one another. My Jewish friends calling to say hey, how are your people, are they safe? My non-Jewish friends texting: I don’t know what to say, this is all so hard for me to take in and I can’t imagine your experience – but know that I’m here for you. And another friend who is Palestinian-American, who hasn’t been able to see his family in Gaza for nearly a decade, who is scared for what the future holds for them and for his people, reaching out to me to say I’m hurting so much. You must be hurting too.
It is an incredible and incredibly human ability to allow our brokenness to become the source of our empathy, allowing the parts of ourselves that resonate with and understand the pain or loss of another to guide how we treat them. What an act of profound love. You don’t have to agree with their beliefs, or the posts they share, or the rallies they attend. You don’t have to agree with what they think the solution to this crisis is or how we might come about to a lasting (and hopefully peaceful) resolution to this moment. But that’s the thing about our humanity, about our shared lineage that allows each of us to trace back our origins to adam ha’rishon: when we create space to recognize and honor the divine image in one another, we find that this sacred imprint transcends across the divisions of family or tribe or nation – and it is in this place of holy connection and commonality that we might actually find the pathway to a better future for us all.
I hope this will be the case. For now, all we can do is to do what we can. To calibrate and be guided by our moral compass. To be gentle with each other and ourselves. To reach out to those we know. To pray for those we don’t know, caught in the crosshairs of this conflict.
I want to pray for the safe return of all those who are being held captive, including and especially our elderly and our children.
I want to pray that the families of those who have died find comfort in time.
I want to pray for the soldiers and officers of the IDF, not only for their safety but for moral clarity as they are forced to make difficult choices in the weeks ahead.
I want to pray for the people of Gaza, not only for their safety but for freedom from all forms of oppression.
I want to pray for the people who have so little hope, who hold so much brokenness that they are driven to violence. I pray that their hearts may be transformed, so that the work of their hands might be healing instead of hurting.
I want to pray that Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their allies have the will to seek a peace that lifts up and values the lives of all people who call that land home.
And I want to pray for us, that we might be the people who see the world as it is become the world as it should be – when swords are beaten into plowshares, guns into pruning hooks, and our grief into joy.