The Torah tells us that on the day God created humanity, God saw everything God created, and God saw that it was very good.
The monstrosity of the attacks carried out on Oct. 7, on Shabbat, has been defined and compounded by Jews and Israelis not being seen in our full humanity, in our pain and in our goodness. We deserve to be seen as we were created, B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. So, too, do Palestinians.
I am a pulpit rabbi, at a liberal congregation, in a liberal corner of Brooklyn. And I see all around me, in my city, in my congregation, in myself, shock and grief; fear and anger; despair and confusion and worry. I see people who feel alone, like no one cares. I see those who feel abandoned by the left. I see, all around me, those who feel hated. I see those who worry they are more perpetrator than victim. I see shame. I see pain.
During the week after the attacks, on the day of the declared jihad against the Jewish people, one congregant told me through tears that she was considering removing her mezuzah from her door. This is what terrorism is intended to do — to terrify us. And to make us and the world feel that maybe, maybe we deserve it.
I said to my congregant, and I plead to all my fellow Jews: Please, please do not take your mezuzah off your door. Please do not stop assembling in your synagogues to be together. Please do not take your star from around your neck. Please do not stop living as proud Jews. Please do not stop standing as steadfast supporters of our Israeli family, who feel more alone in the world now than ever. Please do not stop calling for the return of the hostages. Please do not stop giving to aid funds. Please do not stop calling Israeli friends and family, here and there. Please do not stop doing all of the Jewish things you do. Every one of them, every Jewish thing you do, matters.
One of the many sad things this week was that Israelis who’ve dedicated their lives to opposing the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and to building relationships with Palestinians, have had to make the case that what happened on Oct. 7 cannot be justified or explained by the occupation, Israel’s very real wrongdoing. No one had this coming to them. There is no history, background, theory, analysis, oppression, harm or grievance that justifies what Hamas did. None.
The celebrations of the atrocities, the blaming of Israel for the atrocities, the excusing of the atrocities, the silence about the atrocities — that is utter lack of human empathy. Palestinian self-determination is essential. But Hamas is an Islamist terrorist organization with a program to eliminate the Jews from the land.
Israel is now seeking to free the hostages and incapacitate Hamas. Those are necessities, and a cease-fire is not possible until the hostages are home. And — because we are all created in God’s image — we must also plead, pray and lobby that Israel focuses on those most urgent priorities and stops all indiscriminate attacks on Palestinians.
We must reject barbaric calls for annihilation of Palestinians; we must decry all acts of blind vengeance. Killing thousands more Palestinian civilians will not bring back the Israeli civilians who are so bitterly and excruciatingly mourned.
Some two million Palestinian people are trapped inside Gaza, nearly half of them under the age of 18. Most of them are hungry. Bombs have already turned their cities into rubble. More than a million people have been asked to leave their homes.
In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides teaches “when a siege is placed around a city to conquer it, it should not be surrounded on all four sides, only on three. A place should be left for the inhabitants to flee, to escape with their lives.” Egypt and the international community, with cooperation from Hamas and Israel, must open the southern Gaza border now. Not just for internationals, for Palestinians. We must insist that this happens.
We are all temporary dwellers wherever we live. The Torah teaches that land doesn’t belong to people, it belongs to God or to the earth or both, depending on your perspective. The land needs to be shared. That has not changed. Both peoples have a legitimate claim and a real history in the land. Both peoples deserve safety, freedom, self-determination and peace. That has not changed. Any agenda that promotes a future or present where one people rules over the other is inhumane and immoral. Any agenda that promotes a future for just one people on the land, either Palestinian or Israeli, is inhumane and immoral.
Right now the left is using an outdated, ill-fitting model of colonialism to explain what’s happening in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It borrows from antisemitic tropes, leading to a cruel and dehumanizing view of Israelis and Jews. Colonizers do not have thousands of years of history in the land they colonize, as Jews do in Israel, and colonizers do have a home country they can be decolonized to. For those who callously called Oct. 7 a “step toward decolonization,” I ask that they consider where the Jews who fled from Iraq are supposed to go? And those who fled from Iran? And those from Yemen? And those from Russia? And those from Ethiopia? And how about the Jews who came from Europe after surviving the Holocaust? They were dispossessed of their land, their homes, their belongings, just as their ancestors were dispossessed by the Romans in the first two centuries of the common era and by the Babylonians before them.
This does not in any way justify the dispossession of Palestinians from their land and homes and belongings, but it is a fact. Here we are, two peoples, stuck together. There is no way forward without recognition of that reality.
A text that I often teach from the Mishnah comes from this story of the creation of the first human. The ancient rabbis say that we were all created from a single ancestor to show us that we’re all equal, so that no one could say, “My parent was better than yours,” and to show us that saving a single life is like saving an entire world.
One of the things that has always troubled me about this very universal text is that some versions of it don’t actually say “saving a life is like saving an entire world.” They say “saving a life among the people of Israel is like saving an entire world.” When I first studied this, I didn’t understand how a text that is about the very idea that all humanity comes from one ancestor could have this contradictory limitation — that it could be about saving Jewish lives.
I understand now why our ancestors said that to save a single life among Israel is to save an entire world even as the meaning of the larger text is that every human life has equal value, and that every life is worth the life of the whole world. Both are true. We start with us, but we must not ever end with us.
I pray that we will find a way to free the hostages, end Hamas’s reign of terror and save innocent Palestinian lives. Some day, may all people see Israelis and Palestinians in their goodness, in their pain and in their full humanity, just as, at the beginning, God saw us all.
This essay is adapted from a sermon delivered at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Oct. 14.
Rachel Timoner is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.
Source photographs by Anadolu Agency and MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner, via Getty Images.
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