December 5, 2023 -
Rabbi Joshua Caruso shared the following sermon, “Grieving for Israel,” at the Friday, Oct. 13, Shabbat Evening Service, the Shabbat that followed the horrific attack on Israel by Hamas.
Years ago, a colleague of mine spoke at a rabbinical conference. He talked about how inspirational the youth were at his temple. He talked about stopping in for Tefila one day and witnessing the kids singing “Od Yavo Shalom”. The song is one you may know. It invokes the words, “Shalom” and “Salaam”. He reflected on that day, and how special it was to know that in his little corner of the world, Jewish children were singing a song about peace that included the Arabic word for peace, too. Then his tone and mood dropped. He confessed, “I sometimes wonder if there is any corner of the Muslim world where the kids are singing a song like that, with the Hebrew word, “Shalom”.
I stand here tonight, on our holy Sabbath day, in the wake of the awful atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against our people. These hateful acts transpired in Israel on October 7, on Simchat Torah – a Jewish holiday that literally includes the word “Joy” in it. Alas, there is little joy to be found in Israel.
There was no Shalom or Salaam. No peace.
Like many of you, I have been intermittently experiencing turns of sadness, anger, and even hopelessness at the knowledge that more than twelve hundred Israelis are dead, thousands more injured, and frighteningly, many are being held hostage at this very moment as we sit here in Beachwood.
Like many of you, I have cried deeply at the images of beautiful Israelis, young and old, who simply wished to live their lives peacefully, only to be slain in cold blood.
Like many of you, I have clenched my fists – and my heart – in burning anger after learning of the true nature of the atrocities – the most terrible day in Jewish history since the Holocaust.
Like many of you, I have shuttered reading about beheaded babies; women raped; our people abducted, and dragged back to Gaza by an Islamic death cult. David Horovitz, The Times of Israel editor, described Hamas as:
“A terrorist army that told us every day, in every which way, that it wants and intends to murder us all. A terrorist army that we watched building its tunnels, developing and testing its rockets, improving its attack drones, training its children year after year in their summer camps to hate us and how to kill us, and endlessly pumping its demonization of us into the hearts and minds of Gaza and beyond, by any and every conceivable means of communication.”
As if the written word could not convey enough the terror-filled moments of abduction and worse, Hamas assassins used the victims’ smartphones to livestream these violent acts on their subjects’ own social media accounts. The horror for which their family and friends had to witness.
Like many of you, I have grieved privately, in the broken recesses of my heart, feeling far away…but close enough that the dead, the injured, and the hostages are not foreigners at all…they are family. We remain bound to them all because we are Jews.
To be honest, I have written many drafts of my remarks tonight, and I want to share all “the feels” that have laid siege to my body and my spirit.
I am struggling to communicate some words of comfort and hope to you…but I am incensed.
As I stand here, I stew and seethe at the calamity that has happened to our people. Last week’s horror is evocative of the one unleashed on us in Kishinev in 1905 that inspired the Second Aliya, a massive influx of Jews to Palestine.
I’m incensed because I wonder where was our vaunted Israeli army, or the revered Shin Bet, in preventing Hamas from overrunning stunningly porous borders. How could the world-renowned Israeli Defense Forces been caught so flat-footed?
I’m incensed at Israel’s dysfunctional government, and its leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who chose ego over country? The same Netanyahu who tapped a racist and extremist to be Israel’s national security minister, who had little experience in safety or security. The same Netanyahu who, through the years, has actually been emboldening Hamas in order to thwart any kind of peace process driven by the Palestinian Authority.
I am maddened, that our beloved Israel was outsmarted by terrorists who killed our people knowing full well that we would retaliate, and would surely kill civilians, women and children placed helpless in the line of fire…all according to their plan. They have used their people as pawns to rid the land of Jews.
I am furious as the death toll rises, and soon the tide of pro-Israel sentiment will turn against us, and we will once again be demonized.
I am angry that Palestinian supporters around the world are expressing joy following the desecration of our people, as if Israel’s intractable trials with the Palestinian people should ever justify mass killings, rape, beheadings, and hostage-taking of innocents.
I am livid that somehow the Palestinian struggle for rights has been taken up as the civil rights cause of our world by those who have no nuanced understanding of history, with Israel always to blame. In lieu of legitimate critique of Israel’s governmental policies, we are prey to wholesale anti-Semitic rhetoric cloaked in progressivism.
I am mad that the world, including Arab nations, who refuse to care one damn about the most vulnerable in Gaza. Where are the emergency transports to carry children, parents, and the infirm to find new homes for them? Where is Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria? How is Iran, Hamas’ patron, caring for the infirm, the elderly and the innocent victims of everyday Gazans?
Activist Blake Flayton posted this on social media:
“That Egypt is not accepting Gazan civilians at this time is perhaps the greatest proof we have so far that the Palestinians have served as the Arab world’s pawn in a war of destruction against Israel. They’ve kept them defenseless and stateless on purpose.”
I am mad that Israel, in a decision that tore apart Jews, chose to disengage from Gaza in 2005 to grant the Palestinians their own sovereignty, only to see Gaza’s leadership squander the opportunity. In the resulting years, so much of the aid given to them is used for weapons instead of fostering a functional and healthy living environment for the more than two million residents who live there.
I am mad that the problem of Gaza is couched only at the feet of Israel and the Jewish people. Israel cannot bear the burden of caring for its own citizens and rescue Gaza innocents from the people who rule over them, who keep them hungry and homeless, with no promise of a future.
I am mad that of all the tragedies of the world, where there is chaos and disorder, we are told by the world to feed and support the very people who want us dead. Why must Israel be the only nation of the Middle East that is scrutinized, vilified, and indicted for human rights offenses?
Here is a second set of feels:
I am distraught.
As I stand here, I am thinking about how we got here. I think about how the vagaries of war force us to arrive at the calculus that deem children and innocent civilians “Casualties of war”, even as the Israel Defense Forces seek to only harm the terrorists.
I think about how we Jews are honorable people, steeped in the values of decency and the primacy of every human life. Didn’t our rabbis coin the phrase, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world”; and doesn’t our scripture state, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, and isn’t every person “made in the image of God”?
On Facebook, I’ve been posting photos and profiles of slain and kidnapped Israelis. Friends, it’s just brutal reading their stories; engaged couples, grandmothers and grandfathers…whole families destroyed.
I think about those Israeli missiles targeting Hamas installations, but which are dangerously close to civilians (per the design of Hamas), who will die. I think about their photos which will likely show up on others’ social media algorithms…their life stories, their loves, their hobbies, their aspirations.
I think about one of the Israeli slain, Hayim Katzman (the grandson of a Holocaust survivor), was a peace activist. As CNN’s Jake Tapper was wrapping up an interview with Hayim’s brother, he asked if he could add one more thing…the brother then shared the following:
“The most important thing to say is that (I hope that Hayim’s) death won’t be used to kill innocent people…sadly, our government…promises us that such strikes will bring us security…(that) if we…kill enough Palestinians…it’s gonna be better for us, but of course, it never brings us peace…it just brings us more terror and people killed, like my brother…I don’t want anything to happen to the people in Gaza like it happened to my brother….that’s my call to my government: stop killing innocent people.”
If only it were so easy.
I was moved by the brother’s words, mainly because we need those voices, too…even as sophisticated weaponry bombards terrorist cells in Gaza.
When the survivors see the rubble of what used to be their home, who else will they have to blame? Will they understand the nuances of war? Will they ever come to know the butchery perpetrated by their brothers that triggered the retaliation? Would it occur to even one Gazan, who has lost a child, a spouse, a parent…sitting in the middle of a pile of rubble, whose home was destroyed by an Israeli missile, that there are Jews in the world who mourn his dead, too?
Will he ever know that there are Jewish people who sing songs and pray words of peace? Will he ever know that some Jewish children sing songs that include the word, “Salaam”?
We are angry and sad, maddened and distraught, feeling hopeless. Please know that all of these feelings are real and true…no one should tell you how you are supposed feel. Let yourself feel them…
It is our humanness that will ultimately pull us through the horrific events of this past week. Hamas wins when they systematically strip us of our humanity towards the other. They must never do this; we cannot let them!
Just days ago, a Muslim colleague in town sent me an email, entitled, “My Deepest Condolences”. He wrote:
“… There is no justification for the actions of Hamas and in fact their actions are in stark opposition to what Islam teaches. To murder innocent women and children and the elderly is not an Islamic act. It is a horrendous act and deserves to be roundly condemned by all. I just wanted to let you know that you are in my thoughts and I pray that no more innocent lives are lost.”
In times like this Jew rightfully circle the wagons…as we are doing tonight. As you also know, our synagogue has windows in order to identify allies and build bridges. We must continue to do so. If you are sad that non-Jewish neighbors and friends have not reached out to you yet, go ahead and contact them directly. Tell them that if you run into them and they see that you are distressed, it is because your people are under fire, and that you are grateful to have them as allies and friends.
Tell them that you are not okay.
Back to my colleague…and that song that we sing of Shalom…Salaam…Peace.
I think about how much I am not ready to sing a song about peace in the language of the terrorist. And I think about how, one day…maybe not today…and maybe not tomorrow…or even in the foreseeable future…but one day soon enough I need to sing that song again.
Reaching and striving for peace separates us from becoming our worst selves. Every fiber of your being may be driving you to double-down on destruction of every piece of Gaza, or every Palestinian ally…but we must be better than that.
We ARE better than that.
What can you do?
A final thing…my colleague in Elyria, Rabbi Lauren Werber shared this prayer:
FOR US, FOR THE INNOCENT, FOR OUR SOULS
By Rabbi Lauren F. Werber
Golda Meir is said to have stated:
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
We as a people – our children, our friends – have been called to the unthinkable.
In the name of freedom and security,
For the sake of the undying dream of peace,
With hearts on the edge of breaking,
Our people have been called to kill and to be killed.
Through the gruesome harshness of battle,
Despite the soul-crushing savagery of war,
In the face of barbarism of almost unimaginable proportion,
Help us, Spirit of Holiness, to soften our hearts,
To safeguard our souls,
To hold tight to our humanity and compassion.
Just as You reminded us when we crossed the sea toward freedom
That our enemies remain Your children,
Remind us today and every day
That death and devastation must never feed our souls,
Must always pain us to our very core.
May we remember to cry for all victims of terror and hate,
In our land of Israel, In Gaza, and wherever they suffer and fall.
May we remember that we do not seek vengeance and we do not revel in killing,
But rather, we grieve that we are called to destroy in order to create.
Bamakom sh’ein anashim, in a place where no one is human,
Hishtadel l’hiyot ish, we must strive to be human.
As we fulfill this terrible and holy mission,
As we witness inhumanity and devastation,
Help us to be human,
to feel the pain of all who hurt,
And still to fight, even with our lives, for a better day.
Spirit of Holiness, safeguard our souls as we march to war.