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Toward Shabbat: Bamidbar

ובכל הלילות בכל הלילות
שאלתי רק ארבע קושיות
הלילה הזה יש לי עוד שאלה
הלילה הזה יש לי עוד שאלה
עד מתי יימשך מעגל האימה
רודף הוא נרדף מכה הוא מוכה
מתי ייגמר הטירוף הזה

On all nights, all nights,
I would ask four questions
Tonight I have another question
Tonight I have another question
How much longer will the circle of horror last?
The chased chases, the beaten beats,
When will this madness end?

These lines, taken from the stirring version of Had Gadya by the great Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, convey what so many of us have been holding these days of violence and death in Israel and Gaza.

The destructive cycle of vengeance and retaliation has left us in utter dismay, heartbroken and with an overpowering sense of hopelessness. Some of us have been talking with family and friends in Israel this week, worried for their safety and out of a sense of deep empathy and solidarity. In those calls, we’ve heard about the fear, not only at the eerie sound of the rocket alarms coming at any hour of day and night, but the fear that this time things have gone too far, that the genie of hatred and violence can’t be put back in the bottle.

At this point, it seems no longer relevant where the present cycle actually started. Whether it was the dog that bit the cat, or the stick that hit the dog, now the Angel of Death has come along and there are dozens of innocent people dead, among them many children.

The dead will not return, and the social fabric of Israel is being torn, perhaps beyond repair. While rockets and bombs fly across the Israel-Gaza border, violence is raging in the streets, Jews attacking Arabs and Arabs attacking Jews. Jewish right-wing extremists are holding rallies in mixed cities such as Lod, Akko, Bat Yam, and Jaffa in order to provoke and clash with Arabs. They have been enabled and empowered for years, they are filled with hatred and are thirsty for blood. Who can stop them now?

Just one month ago, I watched the 16th Global Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony. It was a remarkable and moving ceremony co-hosted by Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle-Families Forum, broadcasted simultaneously from Tel Aviv and Ramallah and watched by 250,000 people worldwide. Each year, at the joint memorial ceremony, Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families grieve together for the losses that they have all have suffered. It is shared grief and the recognition of each other’s pain that opens the door to deeper empathy and understanding, and ultimately to the path of reconciliation, peace, justice, security, and dignity for all.

Gili Meisler offered one of the testimonies at this year’s ceremony. His brother Giora was missing for two years after the Yom Kippur War. I’d like you to read his words:

    “When the war ended and Giora did not return; when a month later the POWs returned and Giora was not among them; when for weeks and months they searched and investigated and did not find anything I felt something new growing inside of me that I had not known before; like a coal forming and developing inside of me like a hot red stone burning on the inside, burning my stomach and tearing my heart out.

    It took me many years to recognize that this coal, this feeling, is simply called ‘pain.’ This pain burned me and required treatment. And the most available remedy was, simply, revenge. Throughout the first year of my brother’s absence, who became the famous MIA of that war, while my parents roamed between meetings, offices, and various IDF bases; I chose to act by joining radical right-wing movements and participating in demonstrations.

    As the search continued and the investigations closed and reopened and Giora was still missing, the need for revenge had already been deeply rooted inside me. I knew exactly why the Arabs should be fought and why all the land of Israel belonged to us.

    I believed that giving up revenge would be like losing him again and betraying him. But then, just before I finished high school, by chance I met Ali from East Jerusalem and the strong friendship that developed put my whole worldview to the test. Ali became the friend I could talk to about my life and about life in general, and suddenly I experienced truly knowing ‘the enemy’ and friendship with ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger,’ ‘the fearsome.’”

No one knows when the present horror will end. I pray—we all pray—that hostilities cease soon and calm be restored. Yet when the violence stops, the feelings of hatred and revenge will have greatly increased among Jews and Palestinians. Tensions will be high across the land, Jerusalem and other Jewish-Arab mixed cities will be tinderboxes, the occupation will remain a source of oppression of the Palestinian people and further frustrate their national aspirations. And grief will be all around.

Where, then, will hope come from? Perhaps one day Israelis and Palestinians will finally get to share their accumulated grief—the grief of decades of unnecessary death—and build the foundation of mutual trust that will lead to peace. Like for Gili and so many others already on that path, maybe the transformation will begin that will lead to the writing of a new story for Israel and Palestine.

I know it won’t be any time soon, but watch here the song that can emerge when people are finally able to reach that place.

On Sunday evening we will begin our celebration of Shavuot. May they be quiet days of rest, of breath-taking and reflection, and of receiving the Torah that will guide our brothers and sisters in Israel, their neighbors, and all of us on the path of pleasantness and peace.