AN ENDURING UNDERSTANDING
Oct 11, 2023 Jan Katzew
By Rabbi Jan Katzew
“I am a stranger and a resident among you.” (Genesis 23:4)
גר ותושב אנוכי עמכם (בראשית כג:ד)
Ever since Abraham identified himself to the Hittites so that he could bury his wife Sarah in the land that would become Israel, Jews have lived with a dual, ironic identity. How can a person be both a stranger and a resident, not at home and at home at the same time? Defying logic, this enduring contradiction defines Jewish life. In a polarized either/or world, Jews are a composite, a both/and people simultaneously insisting on our uniqueness and universality. We have chosen and been chosen to orient our lives as Jews in relation to “a land that flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) and five verses later “a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32).
I am writing these words while sitting at the dining room table of our dear in-laws in Herzliya on October 10, 2023, three days after the unimaginable happened, a living nightmare, a 21st century pogrom, a series of terrorist massacres, that have already resulted in a thousand murders, three thousand wounded, and millions of traumatized Israelis and Jews throughout the world. Although there are and will be political and military lessons to be learned from the war that Israel is now waging against Hamas, its sponsors, and its allies, I am writing to you as a Jewish educator, an Israel educator, a rabbi, a parent, a grandparent, and person who is safe physically and wounded psychologically.
As an educator, I am thinking about imprinting. What do I hope learners will remember 40 years from now? What will our current students be saying to their children and their students about October 7, 2023, and following? Already there are insightful observers who have endeavored to provide an historical context for a war that has been named “Iron Swords.” The Worst Day in Israel’s History? Probably. The Day on Which More Jews Died since the Holocaust. A Pogrom. An Eerie Similarity to the Yom Kippur War.
All of these efforts help us to gain some perspective on the magnitude of the evil to which the world is a witness. Once we become witnesses, then it becomes our collective responsibility to bear witness, to tell the truth, the horrific truth of October 7, 2023, so that it will be remembered, and lessons learned that it will never be repeated.
Technology is amoral. Human beings are responsible for its moral use and immoral abuse. As educators, we have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to model and teach ethical technological practices and to expose instances of technological malpractice. Social media has become a weapon of war and it has turned a terrorist massacre into a global conflict, blurring the lines of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders.
As a grandparent, I look at our one-year-old grandson with hope and wonder what he might say about his life in Israel 75 years from now. What will it take for this war to be the “war to end all wars”? We are condemned to relive history if we do not learn from it.
As a parent, I look at our two daughters, one of whom is a Jewish educator and one of whom made aliya, and I ask myself, how can I help them, support them, and challenge them to accept that human beings are both beasts and angels, that we have the capacity to make moral judgments, and therefore, we can and do choose to do good and evil, and that to live as a Jew means to choose to hope that the best is yet to come, even when a situation seems hopeless.
As a rabbi, I think of the various roles rabbis have played in times of crisis—teachers, comforters, martyrs, leaders, interpreters, inspirers, conveners, counselors, planners, guides, goads, confidants—and we need all of them now. There is no single ‘right’ rabbinic response in this moment. Rather, it is a time to draw from internal and external spiritual resources, to engage in empowering, centering practices, e.g., prayer, study, tzedakah, joining expressions of communal solidarity, prioritizing unity, and reaching out to potential partners and allies for support.
As a Jewish and Israel educator, I realize that my primary relationship to the people and State of Israel is personal, passionate, and subjective. My family is here. Relatives stopped by our children’s apartment on the way back from a funeral, one of hundreds of funerals taking place today throughout Israel. We know people whose relatives were abducted and taken as hostages to Gaza. We have friends who are caring for their grandchildren while their children are working in essential jobs and others whose children have been called up to serve in the army, navy, and air force. They are my family, and I believe they are your family, too. How can we help each other relate to the people of Israel as family members? Why does it seem to take an unfathomable tragedy to unite people and put their differences into another perspective entirely?
The first thread in Hillel’s timeless and timely teaching applies now:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? (Mishnah Avot 1:14)
אם אין אני לי מי לי? (משנה אבות א:יד)
We begin with ourselves, our values, our needs, our interests, our memories, our hopes, and our goals. We do not end there, but we are taught to start there.
As a Jew and as a human being, I realize that even though I am safe physically, I am wounded psychologically. I am trying to pay close attention to how I am not functioning normally, out of sync, not thinking clearly, not eating properly, or sleeping well. Each of us processes crisis uniquely, and as educators we are responsible for assessing and accessing the state of our students’ souls to help heal them as we seek to heal ourselves. Our Sages who created a prayer for healing the sick were especially wise in expressing to God a desire to heal our souls and our bodies in that order.
The word tikvah, (תקוה), hope, appears more times in the Book of Job than in any other book in the TaNaKH. The memoir of the last individual to whom God speaks in the Bible, who suffered throughout his life, nevertheless is the one with more mentions of hope than any other. As David Arnow teaches in the title of his book, Choosing Hope, hope is a conscious act, an act of faith, a conviction that we translate into our behavior, an attitude that influences our character, and that enables us to see ourselves as strangers and as residents, as not at home and at home at the same time in our volatile, unpredictable, uncertain world. “Jews chose hope throughout history—hope af-al-pi-khein, “in spite of it all,” as Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum explains. ״[I]t means confronting the difficulties of maintaining hope in dark times and sharing experiences that affirm hope.” (David Arnow, Choosing Hope, p.221) To paraphrase Amanda Gorman, we must not only see the light, we must be the light.
לאסירי תקוה אחרות ואחכים—From one Prisoner of Hope to Others,
Rabbi Jan Katzew is a senior consultant to The iCenter.