A Shield for Troubled Times
We have just marked the third week and third Shabbat since October 7, a day now indelibly marked on the Jewish soul. A day that will be recorded in Jewish history as the Black Sabbath, a dark day of devastation, and the disgrace of human conduct.
A day that will take its dishonourable place alongside the attempted Persian genocide in 475 BCE, the Alexandrian pogrom of 19 CE, the slaughter of the Jews of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the crusades, expulsions and countless pogroms in every century (just Google the awful timeline), and most recently Hebron (1929), Auschwitz, Belzec and Babiyar (1941-45).
The Jewish people worldwide are still experiencing a range of symptoms associated with trauma and vicarious trauma. There is fear on the streets of Johannesburg (with a Palestinian drive through that took place on Saturday through the (Jewish) suburbs), there is anxiety in Caulfield and trepidation in London and New York as the Palestinian protests grow and anti-Israelism smoothly segues into vicious and threatening antisemitism.
The massacres of Hamas have shaken the Jewish world – it marks a tectonic shift in Jewish consciousness, the repercussions and tremors we are yet to process and understand. Local examples of this are evident in the almost total breakdown in Jewish Muslim relations in Australia, and the concern of Melbourne Jews to express their Jewishness openly. Some Jewish schools have required their students to remove their obviously Jewish school uniforms. I’ve also been asked if it is safe to leave your mezuzot on your doorpost, or travel into the CBD wearing a kippah.
Then there is the disinformation and propaganda war playing out across our screens – filling our inboxes and messing with our minds. It’s unbearably difficult to turn on the radio or TV. It’s damnably difficult not to turn onto social media incessantly. Like so many Jews, I think I am suffering from October 7th OCD and finding it hard to focus on my everyday work.
What makes it even harder is that for most other Australians it’s a concern, but not a preoccupation. How wise was the English poet, William Auden, when he penned the lines:
“About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters: how well they understood its human position: how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.
Hebrew poet, Chaim Bialik, writing after the dreadful Kishinev pogrom of 1903 put it this way: “The earth is as it was, the sun still shines: It is a day like any other day.”
I’m in anguish over the terrible loss of life, torn by my natural impulse for compassion, and my anger at Hamas and thirst for them to be avenged. I say this even as I know that Gaza harbours many supporters of Hamas, those who went out onto the streets to celebrate the mutilation of babies, the killer who texted his dad in Gaza on October 7th saying – ‘Dad, look, what a hero I am, I killed 10 Jews today.’ Even though I know that in any war, especially an urban one, the innocent always suffer, and even as I recall the words of our sages that if you are kind to the cruel, you will ultimately be cruel to the kind; and even as I am informed that the only way to meet the violence of the extremist ideologies of the Middle East is by violence. For all this, I cannot turn my eyes from the horrible suffering, not only of my people but of the hapless population of Gaza caught up in war not of their making; caught in the terrible web that Hamas spins for them as they themselves hide in their safe and well stocked tunnels.
This is not just a case of being a bleeding heart liberal, but of possessing the aching heart and compassionate mind of a thinking Jew. How well our preachers and teachers understood that to lose your capacity to empathise with any human suffering is to compromise your morality and your very humanity. This is highlighted by the example of the very first Jew, Abraham, whom we began to read about this week in the Torah (Genesis 12). It is also echoed in numerous Talmudic texts such as the well-known, save a life and you save the world.
Abraham is characterised by his compassion for the stranger, by his mission for the forsaken, by his advocacy for the innocent – just consider his pleading for the evil people of the city of Sodom. He is recorded as taking on an impossibly difficult mission to save the first recorded captives (in the Torah): his nephew Lot, women ‘and the other people’(Genesis 14,12-17). Abraham is not only the father of the Jewish people, but the founder of monotheism, and one of the first moral voices for a global humanity.
I can understand the anger of the Muslim community, who see the suffering of their compatriots even if their main source of information is the distorted Arab press and the toxic Al Jazeera (especially in Arabic and not the sanitised English version), and the hateful misinformation on social media. Not to mention generations in the Middle East reared on a vicious antisemitic education.
My friend, Michelle Lesh, quotes the response of a former member of the IDF to the events of October 7th which expresses this important and powerful sentiment of Judaism: “At first I wanted to kill them all but then I realised hatred was corrupting my ability to mourn. I can’t grieve our dead and be unconcerned for the innocent on the other side of that wall.”
So what am I to take away from the last three torrid weeks?
- We, Jewish people, are undergoing a collective trauma, and we need to be kind to ourselves and others.
We need to reach out and help wherever we can, and to remember to seek help whenever we need to. I am doing both!
Free counselling services are being offered by several Jewish organisations, including our own Jewish Care Victoria.
- Times of crisis bring out the worst, but they also bring out the best.
The awesome stories of countless acts of charity, kindness and goodness coming out of Israel are simply life-giving. One of my favourites this week is that of the ordinary Jewish grandmother who has set up her modest kitchen to turn out thousands of home cooked meals for the predominantly civilian soldiers of Israel. She is working virtually around the clock and the warm meals and generous hugs she gives to the soldiers coming to pick up the meals just blow me away.
The situation is no different here in Melbourne and across Australia, where people are working incessantly to raise money for the displaced Israelis of both the north and the south, for the ambulances that are required, and for the military equipment that is needed.
- We are not alone!
The outpouring of support from world leaders, and especially from President Biden and the English and German Prime Ministers is unprecedented, even if among most Europeans it will likely be short lived. We have so much support across Australia and every day I receive kind and encouraging messages from my non-Jewish friends and colleagues. I am also proud to be working at Jewish Care where our leaders and colleagues are so very supportive. I also feel so reassured by the protective measures taken by Jewish security, the CSG, as well as the Victorian police force.
- We need to carry on with our daily lives as much as possible.
Don’t forget to do all the things that keep you healthy and well. Take lots of walks, eat healthy and try to do something enjoyable every day. Connect to others – phone that friend, check up on that neighbour, send that message to your loved ones in Israel. And it’s important to give lots of assurance to our Holocaust survivors (and their families), as well as our young kids and teenagers that we will come through this. Israel is a tough and resilient people, shaken but strong and determined. This is not the Shoah!!
- Now is the time to nurture your soul.
Find an opportunity to read some of the timeless Psalms of David and incredible prayers composed over centuries of solitude, suffering and joy. Every day as I pray I am in awe of the contemporary relevance of our ancient prayers. Just this morning so many lines leapt out: “Save our people and bless Your heritage; tend them and carry them forever. Our soul longs for the Lord; He is our help and shield.”
These lines reminded me of the evocative songs of Leonard Cohen when he visited Israel during the frightening Yom Kippur war. In one of his songs, written in Israel at the time, he sings: ‘May the spirit of this song. May it rise up, pure and free. May it be a shield for you, a shield against the enemy.’ Starkly different from the cynical human shield of ordinary people used by Hamas.
Now is the time to join our community in prayer, or an Israel solidarity service. We are continuing with our weekly solidarity services at Jewish Care (on Monday at 1pm). Plugging into Jewish wisdom by learning or reading some of our inspirational Torah texts is seen as a great protective measure for the Jewish people. Giving to charity is, of course, an important spiritual act too – your donations are needed now.
Abraham and Sarah are singled out by God, because they are people of charity and righteousness, people who know how to pass on their fabulous values and tradition to their children. This says God is My Way! God also says these inspirational words to Abraham: ‘Fear not Abram, I am a shield to you’ (Genesis 15,1).
This week is unlikely to bring the kind of Shalom we yearn for, but let’s all take a deep breath and let the Malachei Hashalom, the Sabbath angels rest their palms on our heads and gently bless us.