Everything, all at once, is too much.
This mornings Torah portion has a word in it that our rabbis aren’t sure how to translate. The word is חלילה .
I mentioned the verse that it comes from yesterday - Genesis 18:25
חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט׃
“Chalilah lecha - Chalilah for you, God, to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
Rashi thinks it means ‘you have profaned yourself.’ Ibn Ezra thinks it is like the word chalal - like ‘far be it for you’. The modern scholar Everett Fox prefers ‘Heaven forbid’, or perhaps ‘may it be a curse upon you.’
Chalilah lecha - it is a curse upon you. This is the feeling we feel from the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep, all of us, everyday, since October 7. It is a background humming of dread, of sadness. But not just that. It is a constant, complex, layered emotion of confusion, anger, anxiety, and disbelief that comes with being overwhelmed by something that is so much larger and scarier than we are.
Here I will attempt to collect some of the many complicated things that run through my head on any given day - but the most important thing I want to say about all of them is that they are חלילה - they are too much for any one of us, and yet all of them are there, everyday.
There is, first and foremost, the feeling of sadness that comes with the simple loss of life of 1400 innocent people. This is a feeling we as Americans have not known since September 11, 2001, and yet because we are Jews, and because it is Israelis that were the victims, it feels far more painful - like losing family members.
Layered with that is the shock and anger of a simple question. How could this happen? How could Israel, mighty Israel, with its army comprised of every able bodied young person aged 18 to 23, with its Mossad and Shin Bet which are legendary for their advanced spy operations, with its reputation for technology and its high priced weapons systems direct from the United States, let a thousand terrorists walk into towns and cities in the south of Israel? And why did the army take hours to respond in any meaningful way, while terrorists held entire kibbutzim hostage?
Part of the answer to that question leads down the rabbit hole to another ‘all at once’ explosion of rage in your mind - because Bibi Netanyahu and his far right government were in charge for the past several years, and they long ago decided to forego having experts in their government in exchange for cronies and political hacks. Everyone in Israel was slightly relieved when the Netayahu’s government added the National Unity party to its cabinet, so that Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, minister of defense and former Chief of general staff of the IDF, could advise and lead in wartime. The obvious question that everyone might ask is ‘why were these men not in the leadership in the first place?’
One’s mind might then ping pongs back to the larger issue - why would Hamas do this? What possible gain could these murderous psychopaths achieve by hundreds killing defenseless men, women and children? By killing young people at rave party? How are human beings capable of such awfulness? Although I recognize that revolutions and war have historically been necessary for peoples to gain their political independence and freedom, this was not that; by a long shot. This wasn’t Washington crossing the Delaware - this was the Manson Family. What possible political benefit could this serve? And how, after years of allowing Qatar to oversee the flow of a billion dollars of material aid into Gaza on the assumption that it would be used to build hospitals and schools and sewers, how did that money end up going to RPGs and explosives? And how can we ever trust these people again? This nation that sits a stone's throw from Israel's towns and cities?
Our brains sometimes seize, then, on another uncomfortable fact - the world was momentarily taken with the tragedy of the deaths of 1400 Israelis, and the kidnapping of 243 Israelis, of whom four have now been released. But within a day or two of Israel’s response to the cross-border incursion and the firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, the reaction around the world turned from condemnation of Hamas to condemnation of Israel for the killing of civilians. And then there were the free palestine marches, and the high minded left wing editorials in the newspapers, and the unhinged and factually inaccurate and outright absurd reactions on college campuses, from letters by student organizations at Harvard to spray paint at Cornell to projected images on the student union at my own alma mater, George Washington University, a school that is 30% Jewish.
As I mentioned last night, the slogans chanted and the purported aims of many of these groups was either to justify the homicidal attack on Israel as a legitimate response to occupation and apartheid, and part of an uprising by an oppressed people against their colonizers; or the marches and demonstrations advocate not just the legitimacy of such barbaric violence, but a reframing of it as part of the ultimate goal of the most radical of these organizations, which is the erasing of Israel from the map and its replacement with a Palestinian state that is free of Jews. That this insane and genocidal idea even persists with a clutch of far-left fanatics boggles the mind - and that otherwise sensible people in Western democracies would think that erasing the state of Israel was a reasonable and worthy notion - boggles the mind. I suppose, however, if people can imagine that we control a space laser or that there’s a secret illuminati-level meeting of Jews secretly controlling the banks and media, or that we secretly masterminded 9/11, then people will believe anything. The question of how legitimate mainstream society and media takes these most extreme viewpoints, though, is always one to be wary of. And all of that makes us fear that these rallies against Israel are thinly disguised antisemitism, or that they might lead to antisemitism. Chalilah - far be it - that we should live in fear in our own communities because of a war we didn’t start and didn’t want.
Our minds are also currently saddled and burdened to hear certain words bandied about in the news and on social media that are triggering and instantly raise our blood pressure. Genocide, war crimes, atrocities, settler colonialism, occupation, resistence - these words are all employed by pundits and politicos at Israel - often disengeniously and to score points in some battle in the media to “win your argument” - like the killing and kidnapping of our loved ones can be justified on cable news by any of these words. Of course some of them are fabrications or out and out lies - while Jews came from Europe to settle in what was called Palestine beginning in the 1880s, you and I both know that they were resettling lands that they had been expelled from two thousand years earlier. And while many more Jews arrived in the 1940s and 1950s, those Jews came because they survived the Nazi genocide in Europe and had no where else to go, or because after the establishment of the state of Israel, most Arab states expelled their Jewish populations, leading to a diaspora of Jews from Morocco and Syria, Iraq and Tunisia that numbered approximately 900,000. For me, even the word ‘settler colonialism’ when uttered by a Palestinian academic drives me into fits of rage, because it is a willful and intentional erasing of history in an attempt to minimize historic Jewish suffering. It is a term I encounter almost every day when I turn on the news or scroll through social media - I have to read a politicized term every date that makes me angry because it is such a deliberate attempt to reshape and distort facts. If there is one thing I will not accept, it is the attempt to lie, gaslight, and manipulate the truth in an attempt to justify one’s position. Chalilah lecha - this profanity of lies.
And in this profanity of lies, sometimes the voices that are at the forefront of the dishonesty are American political leaders themselves. Last week, as congress finally got back to the business of the people, the House took up a resolution of support for Israel, which passed 425-10. Among the 10 votes was my own congresswoman, Summer Lee. Fine, I say to myself, she has a right to her opinion, even if she is wrong on this vote. She also co-sponsored a resolution, penned by Cori Bush of Chicago, calling for a ceasefire, which failed to mention Hamas, and which referred to occupied Palestine’ in a nebulous and foreboding way. Cori Bush had appeared at a ceasefire rally a few days earlier speaking about Israel carrying out atrocities. Just yesterday she posted on social media that Israel was committing war crimes. Summer Lee has called Israel’s response a human rights violation. And while I somewhat sympathize with legislators who advocate a cessation of hostilities, which I too in theory agree with, a cessation of hostilities in which Hamas remains in power in Gaza is simply signing the death warrant for hundreds more Israelis next year, and the year after that, forever. Mostly, I expect my congressperson to be reasonable and intelligent and to have a good working knowledge of international history before she votes - and if she isn’t well-read on an issue, she should follow her president and her party in supporting our ally Israel in its time of need. So it is a betrayal that she chose not to. That’s why I and 40 other rabbis and cantors in her district signed a strongly worded letter this past week expressing our anger and frustration at her position, and called on her to reverse course. We have not heard back. Chalilah, my congresswoman.
But, on a personal level, in addition to all the anxiety and grief and anger that I feel, there is the sheer exhaustion of me - of us - needing to advocate on our own behalf. It takes time and mental energy to engage people about the conflict and to advocate our position, and it is exhausting. It is exhausting to read the news and to talk with friends and to express our position.
And of course there’s social media - which is a double pronged fork of awful right now. There’s the outpouring of grief we get from some of our friends, and then there’s stuff that gets posted by folks who argue the facts or want to make a point on the other side. And maybe there’s fighting in the comments. I’ve unfollowed, blocked or muted maybe a dozen people so far - on the left and the right. There are political pundits I can no longer bear to hear. Facebook’s ‘snooze for 30 days’ button has become my best friend. But then there’s also the worst and hardest thing about social media, which I hope you aren’t exposed to. And that is that folks are posting the worst and most horrific images on facebook and twitter and instagram, causing us to be exposed to violent things that none of us should ever have to see. And I don’t really understand why. I suspect some think shock value will motivate us to ‘do something’, or that they think that ‘bearing witness’ has some kind of value in this context. But this rings false to me. We are a community that is traumatized - we are a community of victims right now. The images we are potentially exposed to bring us mentally back to the Holocaust, and brings us to fear, and to paranoia, and I don’t think that serves us well, neither as individuals, nor as a collective. It’s also not going to help us sleep at night. Chalilah lecha - it’s awful.
The thought of course also comes to mind of how we even got here - and that some of the criticisms leveled at Israel are, in fact, legitimate, and that separating the proverbial piles of bovine excrement from the truth is exhausting. Buried in the lies about Israel are truths that are hard to swallow. Israel is at least partially responsible for an adversarial and antagonistic relationship with the Palestinians over the last three decades as part of policy to gain any political edge possible. Israel’s settlements have sometimes violated agreements created with the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s far-right ministers clamoring to annex all of the West Bank and talking openly about a future Jewish state in which Jews get a vote but Palestinians do not has not led to progress or cooperation between Israel and Palestinians in decades. Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinians concluded negotiations towards a potential two state solution back in 1993. I was still in high school when it looked like Israel and Palestine might finally be ready to solve their differences and live in peace. I am now a middle aged man with a wife and kids and house, and we are further away from peace today, not closer. We can lay some, and depending on who you ask, most, of that failure at the feet of the Palestians, and Yassir Arafat for sure. But if I had a semester-long class in the history of Israel since 1990, I or a more professionally trained expert on the Middle East could lay out for you a thousand ways in which the Israelis undermined or damaged the peace process that led us to this moment. In my mental peregrinations on a given day, as we lament this current situation, all I can think is: it didn’t have to be this way. Chalilah lech - far be it from us.
And in the separating fact from fiction, there is more. There is the fact of Israel fighting a war it didn’t want, and it being covered in real time by cell phones and video and newspapers and tv as images of violence are beamed to everyone on earth, and that fact that, as I mentioned last night, in war, terrible things happen. Of course I wrote those words in the passive tense, like the firing of a gun or the launching of a missile or the dropping of a bomb is a distant act that occurs without control or will, like fog forming in the morning. You and I both know it is not. An Israeli pilot drops a bomb on a building where a Hamas terror squad minutes earlier fired a rocket. Maybe it hits the terror squad. Maybe it hits the building. Maybe it hits the building next door. Maybe only terrorists are killed. Maybe a Gazan family is killed, a middle aged husband like me and a wife and two kids. I don’t want it to be that way, but that’s the way it is. And I read it in the news, and I want to close my eyes, and then I feel guilty for wanting to close my eyes - because if I expect the world to be outraged and horrified by innocent Jewish deaths then I should be witness to innocent Palestinian deaths too. One might say ‘ah but this is not Israel’s fault. This is Hamas’ fault. They made us do it. They are the horrible ones.’ And that is true. Hamas kills innocent people by design. Israel kills innocent people by accident. But it is still terrible, and I still sometimes choose to close my eyes, because the sheer volume of awful we are exposed to right now is too much. Chalilah lecha - profane. A curse upon us.
At the beginning of this drash I noted the phrase - הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט׃ - and I translated it ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?’ That’s the standard translation. But according to a comment I read by the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, who lived from 1847 to 1905, there is another way to read it - The judge of all the earth shall not use justice - meaning - God created the world with both mishpat and din as well as hesed and rachamaim. God made the world with both judgment and kindness, and should not operate with simply one of them at all times. Several different commentary note that one of the possible problems of the world that God destroyed in the Noah story is that God operated with only judgment, and not lovingkindness, and that God is evolving in how God handles humankind.
Sometimes, several things at once, a complex world, is necessary in order for it to function properly. But other times it is too much, all at once. The war is awful and we hope it comes to an end with a minimal loss of life, with the swift removal of Hamas, and with a long and equitable peace for Israelis and Palestinians. We should, however, note that the war will have lasting effects on each of us as well - that we are burdened by anxiety and stress and sadness and grief that we too must pass through.
It’s a chalilah - a curse, a burden, a profanity, whatever - to have so much upon our shoulders and rattling around in our brains. I listed roughly 12 separate aspects and complexities and difficulties that rattle around in my head, day after day, over the past 24 days. 12 chalilahs.
Ribbono shel olam, master of the universe, chalilah aleinu, cursed are we to be living with so much turmoil all at once. Do not be a judge that functions with din, with justice alone. Bring down rachamim - mercy - into our world, for us, for our siblings in Israel, for the innocent in Gaza, and for us in our fear and anxiety and our anger. Give us a moment’s peace. Clear away the excess. The world is complex, and we are willing to live with imperfection, with contradiction. But sometimes let us have simple things, and calm, and order, and peace. Let this shabbat be the moment when we say chalilah lecha that you gave us so many chalilahs, and let our shabbats of the future be a return to peace, a fortress of solitude and calm in the world amen. Shabbat shalom.