Israel At War

By Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue of New York.

Ein Milim. There are no words.

This was the refrain I heard over and over from Israeli family and friends as I reached out to them in the days following what we now know was the largest, most vicious massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Hamas terrorists seized elderly Holocaust survivors, raped women, set entire families on fire, kidnapped children and beheaded babies. There is no depraved act you could possibly imagine that they did not do.

Ein Milim.  There are no words. 

As this murderous rampage unfurled on Shabbat, Jews around Israel, not yet knowing exactly what was happening, were unfurling the Torah for Simchat Torah–reading from Devarim, the last book of Deuteronomy which describes the death of Moses, and beginning again, Bereshit, with Genesis and the story of creation.  

In a cosmic, haunting echo of what was going on around our Israeli family, the Torah cycle moved from Devarim, which literally means “words,” to a world that was tohu vavohu–”formless and void with darkness over the face of the deep.”  Israel, and the Jewish world, passed from Devarim to Ein Milim.

But then, Bereshit describes how God initiates the creation: Vayomer Adonai Y’hi Or, Vayihi Or.
God said: “Let there be Light” and there was Light. 

God creates light–creates the entire world – with WORDS.

As a the Jewish people, we understand the power of WORDS to create a reality.

Words bolster nations, build bridges, and bring healing.  But words can also become barriers, curses and weapons.  And we also know how silence –the absence of words–  can enable evil, and chaos.

As I sat heartsick and devastated by the deadly violence in Israel, I was shocked by the words that kept appearing in response to this attack.  Words like “Resistance,” “Decolonizing”, or “Freedom Fighters”:  words that valorized –and even celebrated– Hamas terrorism, words that  perversely found a way to blame Israel for these monstrous attacks.  

Also upsetting were the muted, opaque statements from the people we look to for moral leadership– University Presidents and faith leaders who have made a career out of words, and know their power.  Instead of taking principled stands, again and again, we saw them choose words that made false equivalencies, blamed the Jewish victims, and implied moral ambiguity where there was none. It was chilling to realize how many people – often those who generally have the most compassion for victims of oppression, and violence simply have a blind spot when the victims happen to be Jews. 

Never before have I felt how important words are for creating realities.  

But words matter, because the truth matters.

And because words are so powerful, we must take care to use the right ones. 

Do not equate Hamas with the Palestinian people. 

Unlike our enemies, I mourn the death of ALL innocent lives, Israeli and Palestinian, lost in this war. For us to lose sight of that is to lose our own humanity.  

And we must not let Israel’s enemies use words to stigmatize Israelis. It is Hamas’s explicit strategy to paint Israelis as rootless, settler colonialists. That’s a lie. Jewish history and sovereignty on that land goes back millennia, and most modern Israelis are Jewish refugees from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and around the world, who have returned to the only Jewish home we have. 

In the Beginning…when God created light, God separated the light from the dark. Now, as Israel is forced to forge a new Bereshit —  a new world for Israel–the light was separated from the dark. The world saw what pure evil looks like.

Evil is the barbaric massacre that Hamas carried out on Israeli soil. Evil is Hamas using billions of dollars of aid not to build schools and infrastructure to uplift Gazans, but to build a militia and tunnels to kill Israelis. Evil is Hamas breaking all international laws of warfare and embedding themselves in civilian areas wearing civilian clothes, because the death of innocent Gazans is a strategic tactic of their jihad.

Israel has a moral imperative to protect its citizens and to rescue its hostages. Vanquishing Hamas, whose charter purpose is to exterminate Israel, is a just and moral war.  One we didn’t choose, but now can’t avoid. 

Ein Milim.  There are no words. 

But in the absence of words, we turn to each other. And as we create anew, we turn to the prayers of our people that have given us language when we cannot find our own.