January 19, 2024
This past Sunday marked 100 days from the horrors of October 7th, and 100 days in captivity for the remaining 136 hostages in Gaza. The magnitude of human suffering in Israel and in Gaza over these 100 days defies comprehension, and as the war drags on, and the hostages’ fate remains unknown, the pain and shock has for many of us turned into a dull, throbbing ache. The citizens of Israel – Jews, Arabs, Druze, and immigrants from around the world – may be thousands of miles away physically, but dwelling as they do in a land to which our people has been bound for millenia, they are also incredibly close. Each of us has our particular relationship to the land, people, and history of Israel – some of us have close family or friends living there, some of us have lived there ourselves, some of us have visited many times, some of us not at all; some of us struggle mightily with what it means for our people to have our own state, military power, and now, the most profound existential threat to the existence of that state. Some of us see this war as just and necessary, some of us demand a cease-fire, and some of us feel that would be suicide for Israel, as the jihadist group on its border has assured us time and again that they will continue to attack Israel’s civilians until the state has ceased to exist. Some of us are asking the question: Are we fighting a just war, justly? Some of us do not believe that this war is just. The internal conflicts within our people, as this war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, are not going to dissipate or disappear as the days, weeks, and months drag on. And so we live in a moment in which we are called, as we have so often been throughout Jewish history, to hold despair and hope all at once. Our hearts need to soften and stretch to contain the horror of the experience of Kfir Bibas, the baby taken hostage by Hamas with his mother, toddler brother and father, whose first birthday was marked around the world. Even as so much time goes by, we cannot rest, we cannot be silent, we cannot forget them and we must cry out to demand their release. Our hearts need to stretch and soften to include the unimaginable suffering of thousands of innocent Palestinians. Terror and fear seek to harden us, freeze us in fear and despair. But our tradition demands of us that we find softness, openness, and the ability to move forward, even in the times of our greatest threat and our deepest pain.
A hardened heart blinds us to each other. The forces of terror and of antisemitism now threatening our people in Israel and throughout the world are dangerous not only on a physical existential level, but because they can harden our hearts, and blind us to each other. What has happened in Israel, and what is happening now in this war, triggers powerful, visceral emotions for so many of us, and in true Jewish fashion, we are not all feeling the same emotions in the same way, for the same reasons. And our hearts can harden and we can be blind to each other, at a time when we most need to see each other in order to move forward as our ancestors did into freedom and into the responsibility that freedom brings.
Both a hardened heart, and blindness, are central themes of this week’s Torah portion, Bo. The final three plagues are brought down upon the Egyptians so that Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” will soften enough to release the Israelites from bondage. The penultimate plague is choshech – darkness. God says to Moses: “’Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see his brother nor get up from his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:21-23) Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman, a contemporary Torah commentator, writes of this plague: “Depression causes people to feel alone, as if no one cares about them and in turn leads them not to care about others. This phenomenon is quite literally described in the biblical verse – ‘no one could see his brother.’ An even more extreme form of depression occurs when people are completely sunk in the abyss and virtually unable to move. They are stuck in a state of physical or emotional paralysis. This phenomenon is also quite literally described in the biblical verse – ‘nor could anyone get up from his place.’” (Orchard of Delights, 2011)
Pain – of depression, of fear, of heartbreak and grief (and in a moment like this so many kinds of pain are mixed together) – makes us turn inward. It can be hard to see beyond ourselves, especially when we feel threatened on so many levels. In order to move forward, we must see each other and reach out to one another. It takes seemingly impossible bravery to do this when the pain is so deep, but it is our sacred responsibility. When something feels impossible, we can start with the smallest movement. Our Torah portion warns us about the danger of blindness, of “stuckness” – not being able to see others and not being able to move at all. This is the 9th plague – second in gravity only to the final one – the death of the first-born Egyptian sons. How can we find softness, openness, empathy, movement in a time of such pain?
The hostages in Gaza are in physical darkness and unable to “move from their place.” Those of us who still have our physical freedom must find a way to see each other and to soften enough to reach toward each other, which is a kind of emotional freedom. Can each of us commit to one small act of acknowledging, of seeing, the pain of another even in our own terrible pain? We the Jewish people are called to fight the plague of blindness and “stuckness” that God used to fight Pharaoh’s own hardened heart, his emotional bondage, in order to free us from physical bondage. Never in our history, I believe, has the call to see and to soften even in the midst of our own fear and grief, been more critical or more difficult. I am with you in the challenge. We will move forward together.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman