Gustave Doré – Genesis (Public Domain)

Israel at War: “In the Beginning There Was the Word.”

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Excerpt from sermon delivered on Shabbat Bereshit, October 13, 2023 

Ein Milim. Ein Milim.

There are no words.

How can mere words describe the barbarism of hundreds of Hamas terrorists streaming into Israel with no other purpose than to hunt down and murder Jews, livestreaming their rampage to exultant crowds? As this murderous rampage unfurled on Shabbat, Jews around Israel, not yet knowing exactly what was happening, were unfurling the Torah for Simchat Torah–reading from Devarim, the last book of Deuteronomy, and beginning again, Bereshit, with Genesis and the story of creation. In a cosmic, haunting echo of what was going on around our Israeli family, the Torah cycle moved from Devarim, which literally means “words,” to a world that was tohu vavohu––“formless and void, with darkness over the face of the deep.” Israel, and the Jewish world, passed from Devarim to Ein Milim.

As a Jewish people, we understand the power of words to create a reality. Jews have never ascribed to the childhood rhyme that “words will never hurt us.”

But then Bereshit describes how God initiates the creation: God said: “Let there be Light” and there was Light. God creates light–creates the entire world––with a directive, with words.

As a Jewish people, we understand the power of words to create a reality. Jews have never ascribed to the childhood rhyme that “words will never hurt us.” We know how very potent they are. And we also know how silence––the absence of words––can enable evil, and chaos.

I was shocked by the words that kept appearing in response to this attack. Words like “resistance,” “decolonizing,” or “freedom fighters.” Words that valorized––and even celebrated––Hamas terrorism, words that perversely found a way to blame Israel for these monstrous attacks. To blame defenseless children, teenagers at a music festival, or Holocaust survivors for their own murder betrayed a moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy I did not believe was possible.

Equally upsetting were the muted or ethically opaque statements from the people we look to for moral leadership–university presidents who could not bring themselves to state clearly the simple truths of these attacks: the perpetrators were terrorists, and their chosen victims were Jews. 

I belong to a group of interfaith leaders representing most of the major churches, synagogues and mosques in New York. This week, leaders within the group attempted to issue a statement in response to the Hamas attack, but their draft was limited to platitudes that “We stand in solidarity with the people of the region” and “We call to stop the violence in the Holy Land.” After some back and forth, the group never issued a statement at all. The leaders of our Manhattan faith community could not just say the words: We condemn Hamas terrorism and this massacre. 

It was chilling to realize how many people–often those who generally have the most compassion for victims of oppression and violence, simply have a blind spot when the victims happen to be Jews.

Words matter, because the truth matters.

Let’s take care to use the right ones. Do not equate Hamas with the Palestinian people. Unlike our enemies, I mourn the death of all innocent lives, Israeli and Palestinian, lost in this war. Conflating these Hamas attacks with “Palestinian resistance” is an insult to the many Palestinians who abhor Hamas, from the Palestinian Israeli news anchor who publicly condemned their actions to the many Palestinians who have made non-violent activism their life’s work. This attack was not Palestinian resistance. It was not freedom fighting. Say the words: Terrorism. Mass murder. Crimes against humanity.

And we must not let Israel’s enemies use words to stigmatize Israelis. I’ve had enough of calling Israelis colonialists. Do not fall for that. It is Hamas’s explicit strategy to paint Israelis as rootless, settler colonialists. That’s a lie. Jewish history and sovereignty on that land go back millennia, and most modern Israelis are Jewish refugees from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and around the world, who have returned to the only Jewish home we have. The Jews of Israel are nothing like the French colonials in Algeria, or the British in India, all of whom could leave and go home to France or England. Israeli Jews can’t go back to any country. Israel is their country. And as Jews, Israel is our country. And we are not going anywhere.

I think you know by now that I always try to see multiple sides of an issue. My Rosh Hashanah sermon implored us to stay engaged in Israel even as I criticized its government. I usually urge us to sit with complexity and nuance. But there is no gray area here. The world saw what pure evil looks like.

Evil is the barbaric massacre that Hamas carried out on Israeli soil.