…and a time to speak
שמעון בנו אומר
כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים
ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה
ולא המדרש הוא העיקר אלא המעשה
וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא
Simeon, son of Rabban Gamliel, would say:
All my days I have grown up among the Sages, and
I never found for the body a benefit better than silence.
And it is not the interpretation that is essential, but the deed.
And all who multiply words invite transgression.
—Pirkei Avot, The Chapters of our Ancestors, 1:17
I have always been challenged by Simeon’s teaching. I am a rabbi; most of my days are filled with speaking: conversations, counseling, teaching, preaching. I had to learn to be comfortable with silence; it has taken me time to understand that there simply are moments when words do not suffice.
The past few weeks, with war raging in Israel and Palestine, I found comfort in Simeon’s counsel. I have read reams of newspaper articles, scanned scads of facebook posts, been sickened by countless graphic pictures of violence and death. There are so many words written, spoken and shouted now about a part of the world I hold dear that now suffers such tragedy. Not knowing anything positive to say beyond an existential moan of woe, I have chosen to keep silent. But war wages on, with its morass of death and destruction. As the casualties and injuries mount, as flags and banners are waved more fiercely, we are not just bereft, but perhaps even adrift. I feel I am not alone in looking for some foothold in this swamp of devastation; a sure place to stand is hard to find in the highly charged theater of war. And so I feel it is time for me to raise my voice.
Mindful of Simeon’s closing comment, I write these words not to proliferate shrieking shouts nor to deepen divides, but rather to try and find space for those of us who feel the face of real human tragedy is no place to posture politically. There may be those who will accuse me of the phantom sin of moral equivalency since I will not spend my time trying to assign blame and responsibility for the current situation. But the morality I have learned from my Jewish tradition commands me to feel the pain of every single human being suffers; that includes those who are dying, those whose children are being killed, and those who watch–suffering immeasurably in sympathy and concern–from very far away.
I do not know how to stop the violence and end the destruction that plagues families and children on both sides of this conflict. I neither know nor pretend to understand the motives of leaders that perpetrate this vicious cycle of violence that has lasted generations. But I do know that I have a profound personal connection with the State of Israel, for all its faults and foibles, and for its achievements and aspirations. The State of Israel is the only other nation that has ever been my home; it is the place to which I bring my family, the nation in which I feel among family. I internalize the pain and fear and outrage and hopelessness running up and down the streets of Sderot and Jerusalem. My kinship with Israel is so deep that the land is literally part of the fiber of my identity. I am suffering when a loved one suffers.
I am also suffering for families is Gaza. No one should rejoice or seek to justify children being blown to bits while playing soccer on the beach. Times of tragedy require a response; in my opinion, a response of understanding and regret in place of reason and explication. While there are countless narratives recounting the origins of the situation, there is no doubt that many decent human beings are suffering in Gaza. I cannot be a Jew if I do not feel their pain as deeply as my own.
What to do in the face of, experiencing, such suffering? First, not to turn away: despite the despair, I continue to follow the events unfolding as closely as possible, from a variety of sources. It is certainly my responsibility to remain informed; in a highly polarized media environment where reporting often becomes commentary, I find it most helpful to form my own opinion by making sure I am not taking the opinions of others as certain fact.
Second, I try to sensitize myself to how vastly different my life is from the experience in Israel and Gaza. I did choose to put the Red Alert app on my iPhone, set for Jerusalem: now, whether in my office or walking down State Street, I will be interrupted whenever the residents of the city I called my home for two years are called to run to shelters. I hope my actions aren’t perceived as virtual voyeurism; I simply want to be in touch with the experience of a place incredibly close to my heart. Each of us can find our own personal paths to making sure we move from the judgmental arena that surrounds us to one of empathy: we can be in touch with friends and family in Israel, we can seek out causes to support those who suffer on either or both sides of the conflict, we can even choose to travel to Israel and Gaza ourselves.
I do prefer, personally, to try to feel and then to abet human suffering rather than to engage in political discourse or to participate in group shows of strength or solidarity. My choice, in my career as a rabbi, has always been to try and build genuine connections to the State of Israel, based on its remarkable promise, aware of its unfortunate shortcomings. While I have my own political opinions, I believe it is not my obligation to provoke debates, but to build meaningful dialogue. In my first year at Chicago Sinai Congregation, I have already planned a very high-level, thought-provoking, non-judgmental series of classes to help my community deepen its connection to Israel in a meaningful, intellectually honest way. Those classes will culminate in an April trip to Israel and the West Bank to test in reality what we discuss here on American shores. I hope that experience transcends the morass of political bickering and moves many members of my congregation into more meaningful, supportive, and sustained relationship with Israel. Each of which, I hope and know, will be remarkably different and distinct as the individuals who build these relationships.
At this point, I have likely multiplied words beyond merely inviting transgression. In breaking my silence about the war in Israel and Gaza, I may not have said anything of great consequence at all. However, Simeon might be correct: there is not much to say in the face of true tragedy. When sorrow befalls a friend, we are present and remain informed. We do not always know when is the time for silence and when for speech; hopefully those who suffer know, at the very least, they they do not suffer alone. I will do my best, in word and in deed, as fits my perspective and experience, to remain in touch with the suffering of war, and to commit myself to a continued connection–for myself, my family, and my congregation–to Israel in the future.