We shouldn’t be here.
We should have disappeared long ago like the Hittites and the Babylonians and the Assyrians and all the other ancient peoples that faded into oblivion. We shouldn’t have outlived great and powerful empires when those same great and powerful empires were determined to destroy us.
We shouldn’t be here. But we are.
I have rabbi-ed my way through the past two months in a fog of profound grief, and it’s been some of the most heartbreaking—and heart healing—work I have ever done.
I was officiating at a wedding as the details of the horrors of October 7 were still unfolding. I stood beneath the huppah (wedding canopy) chanting the seven blessings and felt a new layer of urgency to the words “Let the sounds of joy and happiness be heard throughout the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem.” As I recited them, I couldn’t stop thinking about how at that very moment the sounds in Jerusalem were the very opposite of joy and happiness.
Eight days after Hamas’s brutal attack, I held a tiny, precious baby boy, officially welcoming him into the Jewish community. He was wrapped in his great grandfather’s tallit while I sang the priestly blessing asking God to grant this innocent child peace, even as the world erupted in a war claiming the lives of other innocent children.
I served on a beit din (rabbinical court) for a conversion candidate. We asked her if she was sure, that right now there are people who are hunting Jews down for being Jewish, that perhaps it would be safer for her not to convert. We emphasized that once she immersed there would be no reversing the process. She nodded, said she understood, and declared she would not be deterred. “It’s too late,” she told us. “Mikvah or not, I’m already Jewish.”
Each one of these moments stirred a peculiar combination of contradictory emotions within me—pride, fear, rage, love, anguish, courage. It felt terribly painful and maybe even a little crass to do any of these joyous things in the midst of such unspeakable suffering in our community. But it also felt so incredibly important and heartening to affirm our Jewish lives with these powerful rituals.
This is one of the secrets to the longevity of the Jewish people: we continue to live Jewishly even when Jewish life is threatened. I was reminded of this when I saw Amid Falling Walls, a beautiful and moving performance of Yiddish songs and poetry written by Jews during the Holocaust. The finale is a bold and passionate rendition of Hirsch Glick’s “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“Never Say”). Inspired by the bravery of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this song was adopted as the unofficial anthem for Jewish partisans all across Nazi-occupied Europe.
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leadened skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message—we are here!
We shouldn’t be here. But we are.
We are here and that means celebrating important moments in our lives even as we mourn. We are here and that means we bake challah and light Shabbat candles even though it feels impossible to tear ourselves away from the never-ending news cycle. We are here and that means we study Torah, seeking inspiration and wisdom to guide us as we navigate the uncertainty of yet another unprecedented time. We are here and that means that we know what it is to be exploited, to be strangers in a strange land, and that compels us to leverage whatever privilege we might have to fight for justice for others. We are here and that means that we strive to be a light unto the nations even in the midst of so much darkness.
We shouldn’t be here. But as long as we are, it isn’t enough for us to merely survive. We have a sacred responsibility to wield our legacy. We must steadily march, no matter how difficult, towards a more empathetic, more peaceful world. Only when we truly see every human being as being made B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) and we guarantee that each person is able to live a life of freedom, dignity, and safety, will we rest.
And then we will be here long afterwards, to hear the sounds of joy and happiness not just from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem, but from every street and in every city.
Ken yhi ratzon. So may it be.