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10/26/2023 09:04:42 AM


Cantor Joanna Alexander


What does it mean to be witness to unfathomable tragedy and have no real means to comprehend it or combat it? Why is it that my heart is more broken for one set of parents or orphans than for another? Is there a limit to how much we can feel? Is our capacity for empathy and sympathy finite? 

I will be honest; it feels like the most real and logical thing. I believe that one can only absorb so much tragedy. We must after all, for our mental health, turn off the tragedy and turn toward real life if we are privileged enough to be experiencing it from afar. Whether earthquake, hurricane, school shooting, terrorism, or war, if we are not personally in danger we must and we do limit our exposure time and our emotional turmoil over other people’s tragedies.  

But we also sometimes feel guilty about this, we feel privileged and guilty and sometimes wonder if we are responsible or could we do more to help. Sometimes I wonder, why do I care about this war in Europe but not that war in Africa? Does that make me a racist? This is a fraction of the argument and second-guessing I have had this week. And it is lonely.  

Some people seem so sure, they see the world in such secure black-and-white terms, they do not question right and wrong, or where their empathy should go. Some are unscathed, this tragedy is nothing to them, they have other concerns on their mind. And some people are celebrating murder, massacre, and terrorism. But I feel torn, willing to fully condemn but unsure about supporting the response. I feel torn, questioning why I care about that baby’s murder but cannot quite have the same sadness for that other baby’s death. Are they not both babies, are they not both innocent? Are they not both created in God’s image and worthy of the breath of life? 

This has been my brain every day for the last 2 weeks. Every time I make a moral argument, I counter it in my head. I find I am jealous of the surety of others, yet also feel instinctively that they are wrong. I believe that sureness and righteous vengeance and lack of hubris are dangerous qualities I do not wish to emulate. Righteous anger is in fact the sin of sinat chinam, the causation for the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Our surety that not only were we right, but we had every justified reason to hate and distrust our neighbors, allowed the dissolution of society, and allowed the Roman Empire to murder and exile us. 

I feel guilty that I care at all for the innocent Palestinians who have died and been made homeless in the Israeli air raids, and I feel guilty that I don’t care as much about them as about: the thousands of Israelis who are made refugees in the own country; or the whole families called up to war, sending 8 or 11 grandchildren to the front at once. Making re-settlement and supplies difficult because the truck drivers and grocery store workers and gas station attendants have gone to the army. I care that my cousin’s only answer to me when I ask about his family is “It’s been a nightmare. Too many funerals. So terribly tragic.” 

But this of course is precisely why I care. It is not that I do not care for the innocent Palestinians whose rights and hopes have been dashed by the terror organization that leads them. It is not that I am unfeeling for their babies and grandmothers who have been killed because they are living as shields for Hamas headquarters, or even been killed accidentally with a mis-strike, or die from a lack of medication and sanitation. I care about them, but I do not KNOW them. My empathy is directly related to my connection to a place or a people. I care about Palestinian lives in the same way I care about any anonymous stranger struck by tragedy be it natural or man-made, they are humans and deserve my sympathy and support if I can manage it. But Israel is my home, my brothers, my family. One of the Kibbutzim attacked, the JFO teen tour and I were at just this past December (just 10 months ago), we stood at the “peace fence” on the border with Gaza as our guide explained how their children sleep in the family safe room, and life is 90% paradise and 10% hell. I lived in Jerusalem for a year, while the security wall was being built, during that year were the last 3 bus bombings in Jerusalem. I will send my kids on Israel tours, we plan and hope to be there this coming summer, I have colleagues and cousins, who even if they are distant are still personal relations I KNOW and feel for.  

So, if I let myself off the hook and I know that I can care for the innocent Palestinian but understand why I feel more for the Israelis, to the detriment of those innocent, where do I turn next? I have been reading and listening a lot to the people I trust who I know have similar struggles as I. I’ve been learning a lot from the Shalom Hartman Institute, and from the world of Progressive Jews (which includes URJ, IMPJ, WUPJ…etc). These organizations and the people in them, I know they struggled mightily with the direction of the Netanyahu government, I know they desire a two-state solution, I know they care deeply about humanity and do not wish to act on vengeance. And they have taught me to think about what is and how one can operate a Just and Moral War. 


Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute writes: ““Just wars” are not just because they are easy or victimless. Just wars are just because they are morally necessary because pacifism in the face of an unfettered evil is an untenable moral position.” 

Hamas has unleashed unfettered evil, the alternative to war is to allow Hamas to continue to invade Israeli homes and murder and kidnap people from their own homes. No government and no army would allow this terrorism to happen without response. On October 8th or 9th, I asked myself and my friends, what is the purpose of an army if it is not to defend its citizens and go get the ones kidnapped into enemy territory? NO COUNTRY would allow that, responding on a war footing is moral, just, and necessary. 

But Kurtzer continues: “The fact that this is a just war based on a just cause is no guarantee that it will be conducted justly.” And this is where my bleeding heart comes in. What is the just way to conduct this war? How does one leave thousands of men, women, and children dead, injured, or displaced, in a moral way?  

I honestly have no answer, and I know I am not expert enough in the field of international law, war strategy or even politics to begin to answer this question. I also know that there is great danger in judging the way someone else balances the safety of their soldiers and citizens with that of the location they are invading. Monday morning quarterbacking is a guarantee of being righteous without taking any of the personal risk. I have none, my personal home was not attacked, and my personal family is not in danger, what right do I have to question military tactics? And yet, just as I feel kinship to my Israeli brothers and sisters, so too, do I know that the actions Israel takes will affect the entire worldwide Jewish population. I must balance my desire to leave the decisions to those most affected, with my insistence that the Jewish army not be responsible for war crimes, genocide, or generalized revenge. 

Last year at a JFO Beit Midrash on Israel with Rabbi Yoni Dreyer and I, we strongly disagreed with each other on the nature and necessity of defense. We both agreed that Israel is in need of a defensive army, and we agreed that each citizen has the right to defend themselves and their homes. But we disagreed on whether all actions of the IDF are indeed defensive, and we vehemently disagreed on whether there is moral equivalence of an Israeli family defending itself to secure the safety of their children and a Palestinian family doing the same.  

I have strong disagreements with the actions of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu, the government’s actions for the future of Israeli democracy, and the government’s actions on the nature of defense compared to offensive military moves. I still do not believe, as I stated on that night with Rabi Dreyer, that I could personally kill another human, even to defend my own family. But my personal pacifism does not and should not prevent me from seeing the moral need for Israel and the IDF to defend itself and its citizens following this horrific attack. I fear the nature of these defensive acts will not uphold the spirit of Tzahal, the ethical rules of engagements the IDF teaches and swears by. But fearing ethical breach is not an excuse to continue the status quo of terrorists at your doorsteps. I pray the Palestinian people will be liberated from Hamas so they may advocate for true peace and prosperity. I pray the IDF will conduct this war standing on their highest ethical principles despite the anguish experienced that leads to a desire for vengeance. And I pray Israel’s leaders will be swayed by humanity, even as they are required to protect their citizens at the expense of others. May we someday know true peace in our homeland, peace for ourselves and for our neighbors be they like us or unlike us. May we know that strength is not in being the successful warrior but is in overcoming our own evil inclinations. 

 I do not know where my finite empathy will always land, and I will continue to struggle between questioning and surety, I will continue to second guess my empathy or lack thereof. But I pray as Rabbi Zohar’s interfaith clergy group representing Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druez Israeli’s of the upper Galilee pray, may we: “cry out for a quick salvation for all those missing, for the immediate freedom of all the captives, and for a complete recovery for all the victims.” (Rabbi Or Zohar and the Spirit of Galilee interfaith clergy group). 


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784