My dear, beloved community: This is so hard.
It has never been easy to be Jewish, and for many of us who are younger, it is more challenging to be Jewish now than it ever has been in our lifetimes.
These days, every time I see someone wearing a kippah on the train, I keep an eye out for them. I worry for them. I hope that they’ll get wherever they’re going safely. I hope that they won’t become the object of someone’s hatred. I pray that they won’t be verbally or physically assaulted. And, unlike most of the time in New York City, when I trust most New Yorkers, right now I’m having a difficult time believing that we will look out for each other.
And oh, wouldn’t that be enough to contend with?
But we know that there’s more. Because no systemic oppression exists in isolation. Islamophobia is rising alongside antisemitism.
So these days, when I see someone wearing a hijab on the train, I keep an eye out for them. I worry for them. I hope that they’ll get wherever they’re going safely. I hope that they won’t become the object of someone’s hatred. I pray that they won’t be verbally or physically assaulted. And, unlike most of the time in New York City, when I trust most New Yorkers, right now I’m having a difficult time believing that we will look out for each other.
Since October 7, I have been floored by the untamable rage I’ve witnessed in two communities I hold dear: the Jewish community and the progressive community. I’ve been astonished by social media posts from colleagues and friends — people I love and respect, people I’ve organized with, people I agree with on so many topics of importance — calling for or justifying rampant slaughter of civilians on one side or the other. I’ve also been grieved by posts saying that anyone who doesn’t believe exactly what the poster believes is wrong. Is a “bad Jew.” Is not a “real” progressive.
This time would be terrible enough with two small and deeply interconnected communities — Jewish and Palestinian — in fearful mourning. But the vitriol makes it considerably worse. My heart breaks for the lack of empathy I’ve witnessed for nearly four weeks. “Israelis are all genocidal colonizers.” “Palestinians are all genocidal terrorists.” “This is what decolonization looks like.” “This is what destroying terrorist organizations looks like.” “Even the children will grow up to be soldiers and so their deaths, while tragic, are justified given the alternative.”
To this rhetoric, I say: I will not lose my compassion for all: Israeli and Palestinian, Arab and Jew. I have found myself for these last weeks living in the “and,” and I want to invite you to live there with me.
The word for “and” in Hebrew is a single letter. Vav. When written in script, vav is just a single straight line like a lowercase English l. It’s easy to overlook, easy to pass by on the way to the next clause. And I believe that it’s also the most important letter, the most important word, for our times.
Fully acknowledging the “and” is challenging — more challenging, in many ways, than picking a side and letting empathy for the other go. And it’s the only way forward. We have to live with these ands. We have to build a better world with these ands.
We Jews, we humans, are capable of holding multiple things at once. Multiple understandings, multiple narratives, multiple hopes.
We can grieve the horrific acts of Hamas and also grieve the 8000 and counting Palestinians, including thousands of children, killed by Israeli bombs.
We can believe in our heart of hearts that the only people with the right to the land of Israel are Jews. We can advocate for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and say that the very notion of Palestinian identity is a 20th century invention. And even as we do, we can acknowledge and grieve the abject horror of being murdered in your home or on your street when you have nowhere safe to run.
We can believe in our heart of hearts that the state of Israel is a land stolen from the Palestinians. We can advocate for right of return and the expulsion of Israeli Jews and stand firmly against Zionism. And even as we do, we can acknowledge and grieve the abject horror of being murdered in your home on the final Holy Day of the most sacred Jewish season.
The choice to mourn some deaths and condone others is just that: a choice. I want to invite us to instead choose compassion. To help us, I turn to the very first Jew, Abraham.
This Shabbat we’ll read Parshat Vayera. Like many early Genesis Torah portions, this is a big one, rich with plot, and in it we see a warning of what can happen when we don’t cultivate compassion.
At the start of the parsha, Abraham is the epitome of welcoming, greeting strangers who pass by with food and drink and even washing their feet. Shortly after, Abraham becomes the man who argues with God to try to keep God from destroying Sodom and Gemorah, cities known for wickedness. He protests with love to try to prevent the deaths of strangers.
And in this same parsha, Abraham is the man who, with barely a protest, exiles his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar to the wilderness. He considers their well-being but ultimately capitulates to his wife’s Sarah’s insecurities and as a result will never again see his older son, the father of Islam.
And in this same parsha, Abraham is the man who, with no protest at all, takes his son Isaac to the top of a mountain to prepare to sacrifice him as a burnt offering. He does not speak to God even to ask why God is demanding the sacrifice of his most beloved child.
In just a few chapters, we see Abraham evolve from compassionate to completely closed off from compassion and from his family. He does not speak to Sarah or to Isaac again after Isaac’s near sacrifice. One could say perhaps the lesson to take is that compassion is weakness, and Abraham’s hardlining was the right choice. But I don’t think so. Because when he dies, in the next parsha, Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael — who have plenty of reason to be angry at their father and at each other — place compassion first and foremost once again, and reunite to bury Abraham.
If Isaac and Ishmael could come together across their differences, I have to believe that we can as well. I have to believe that we can live in the “and” of this horrific time together, no matter how different our hopes and dreams are for the land. I have to believe that we need not silo ourselves from one another, even if we hold profound disagreements. I have to believe that our tradition teaches us to stay in community with one another, and, with open hearts, to seek a future in which all innocents are worthy of life.
This Shabbat, I will pray:
May we be like Isaac and Ishmael.
May we gather our hearts across our divides and mourn together.
May we see in one another’s eyes a shared past and the hope for a shared future.
May we and our children all live in peace, soon and in our days.