This episode is being written as we enter the third week since the horrible events of Shemini Atzeret (October 7). In my emails and conversations with people these days, I’m given to starting with, “So, how crappy are you?”
It feels like the right question. Israelis are still burying their dead and running for shelter from rocket fire. Two hundred people taken captive by Hamas are still being held in Gaza. The people of Gaza, too, are suffering, as they have for years. And no one seems to have an alternative that makes any sense.
In addition, many Jews outside of Israel are experiencing a sense of increased antisemitism and isolation. Social media is, as so often, a dumpster fire. Security is up at the Jewish institutions in my neighborhood. There’s a police car outside my synagogue whenever I walk by. I feel a lot of fear in the air.
One thing I find arising is the early days of Covid. There’s this sense that we’re in the midst of something really hard, really painful, really world-changing — and we have no idea when or how it might end. On top of everything else, that indeterminacy is frightening.
And yet, just as in those early days of Covid, the story is not all one of death, suffering, isolation and anxiety. In Israel and beyond, this moment is bringing out incredible expressions of care and concern.
Kids are writing cards to send to other kids they don’t even know, spreading messages of connection and support. Groups are coming together to house displaced people, provide food for one another, and care for each other’s kids.
Just like those early days of Covid, when New Yorkers clapped and rang bells for doctors and nurses every evening, this crisis also seems to be bringing out profoundly life-affirming responses too.
I have five nieces and nephews who live in Israel, and three of them are either on active duty or were called back to their units. My niece Maayan married a wonderful young man named Be’eri. Like Mayaan, he is poetic, artsy, philosophical. As you might imagine, we hit it off. In the current fighting, he’s been recalled to his tank unit.
Last week he managed to find a few minutes to share an update on Facebook. His words are so moving, I want to take a moment to share them with you. He wrote in Hebrew, and I’ve edited the translation slightly in order to convey the spirit of his words.
Be’eri wrote: “There are some good things in this horrible war. “Suddenly it’s so easy to tell strangers, ‘Thank you, brother, thank you, sister, for your care. I love you.’ I’m a soldier — I’ve proven my toughness. So I feel permitted to at least whisper what my heart has been shouting at me for years.
“For years I’ve been working on telling my loved ones that I love them, and yet it doesn’t always feel right. It feels inappropriate to inject such a heavy load into everyday conversation, because I know I might be taking people out of their comfort zone… But now in the war, everyone gives me a visa to their heart. I’m allowed to say ‘I love you’ to a bus driver who waited 15 minutes more than he was paid for. I’m allowed to say, ‘I love you’ to a citizen who brought me water.”
Be’eri concluded his post by asking us to do something. “Do me a favor,” he wrote. “Continue to be strong, continue this deeper conversation that has returned to our people. Send a message to your friends. Don’t hold back — people are waiting for a hug. Don’t repress your emotions — and practice mindfulness, it helps” (you can see why I love this guy). He ended with: “I don’t know how many more opportunities I will have. I love you. I love you very much.”
After reading this post, I keep coming back to a beautiful and famous verse in the Song of Songs in the Bible: “ki aza k’mavet ahava,” “love is as strong as death.” A romantic understanding of this line might suggest that it means something like that line in “The Princess Bride”: “Death cannot conquer love; all it can do is delay it for a while.” But I think it’s saying something far deeper than that.
Most of us, I think, naturally live in fear of death. Our bodies, our emotions, our minds are all evolved to help us stay alive. That’s what our fight-or-flight reflexes are for. So our fear is natural. We come by it honestly. That fear can be debilitating. It can shut us down. It can lead us to reactive responses: to anger, to hate, to rage.
But in our best moments, our most mindful moments, we can acknowledge our fears — and we can choose life-affirming, soul-nourishing, heart-expanding responses. Those responses can buoy us. They can give us strength. They can help us remind ourselves and others that we’re not alone, that we care and are cared for.
These are the responses of love. And because we can muster them even in the face of death — that makes them as strong, perhaps even stronger, than death.
So for this week, the practice I want to invite you to do is to simply to love — and to show your love to someone who could benefit from experiencing it. Send a message to a friend or relative, and tell them that you love them. Make a phone call, write a card.
If you’re drained from fighting battles on social media, try a different tack and post a message of love and support. Find the points of light and amplify them. That is the great silver lining of this moment —there is so much love coming forth, even during this dark time. Give it a signal boost.
Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you. And please drop me a line. It means so much to hear from you. I’m at email@example.com.