It has been a horrific period. We are reeling from the massacres in Israel and the reality of war. I’ve heard myself and others starting to say: “There are no words.” And it’s true. The brutality and evil defies anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. It’s hard to know what to say.
And yet, words are our avenue for human connection. Words are the tools we have to comfort each other, to reach out and show our support and our worry. Words are how we mourn for our dead, and pray for our wounded and missing. And words are our avenue to stay informed, to learn and to advocate for Israel.
Words are never the whole picture. But we can start with our words, to process what we’ve witnessed, to strengthen each other for the difficult period ahead, and to work tirelessly for what seems impossible today – peace and security in our homeland.
It is no coincidence that in the Torah portion, Breisheet, that God created the world with words. God could have simply waved a magic wand and all of creation could have sprouted into existence. But it was through careful, specific words that God ushered each element of creation into being.
I was talking with some rabbinic colleagues and asking them what words they were using to describe the current situation. To me, “war” doesn’t capture the brutality of slaughtering innocent civilians in their homes. And “terror attacks” doesn’t capture the longevity and complexity of the conflict ahead. We came up with “war in response to the massacre of civilians.”
One important spiritual exercise I suggest is spending time formulating our own words and narrative around what what is happening. How are we going to describe October 7, 2023 to ourselves and others?
Do we throw up our hands and say: “The world is a mess, what we can do?” Do we place blame or make excuses? Do we look for context and cause and effect? There are no easy answers here. There is no one right way. But there certainly are facts and there definitely are Jewish values. Formulating our words can clarify the truth and express our values.
Genesis speaks clearly about bringing order out of chaos.
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם
Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
God brought about order and trusted humanity to cultivate order in our world. Chaos serves no one. Terrorists seek chaos and destabilization. Jewish values expect us to work towards order and stability.
Our Torah also originates the idea of human dignity, that all human beings are created in the Divine image.
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ
And God created the human in God’s own image,
Massacring innocent civilians and then celebrating in the streets is about as far from human dignity as we could imagine.
As many have said, we now have a choice between humanity and inhumanity.
Those are our Jewish values: civilized order and human dignity. We can speak them clearly and with deep pride.
One of the images I will always remember from this period is that of a plane full of men – Israelis living abroad – who were flying home to Israel to join their IDF units. They disembark from the flight looking tired, scared, dishelved, and understandably anxious.
When they pass through the doors to the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion airport, they are swarmed by people. Some family and friends but mostly strangers … fellow Israelis welcoming them home, thanking them for returning, boosting their morale for the missions ahead. Quickly their tired, anxious traveling faces break into smiles. They begin to sing and dance together – in an airport, after a long flight, on the eve of going into war.
I can imagine the words of comfort, gratitude and strength that passed between that impromptu community. The power of that encouragement, that singing and dancing gives me hope.
Human beings are the only creature of creation given the gift of words. Our tradition teaches:
A person’s tongue is more powerful than his sword. A sword can only kill somebody who is nearby; a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away…
There is much to do in the face of this crisis. Weapons already are being deployed. That is necessary. But the more lasting tool, as our tradition frequently reminds us, is our words.
I pray that as we continue to gather and speak out to support Israel, we can comfort each other with words healing and compassion. And at the same time, we can seek out words that can help us usher in a brighter, more peaceful world.
Rabbi Amy Rader