Letter from Israel: “The Sea of Tears is Never Full”

On October 13, the eve of Shabbat Breishit, my husband got a call from our synagogue Gabbai asking him to help roll the Torah scrolls. On any other year the scrolls already would have been rolled on Simchat Torah, when it is traditional to complete the book of Deuteronomy and then roll back to the start of Genesis. But this year all the scrolls were still in Deuteronomy, because the first air raid siren in Jerusalem had gone off just after 8 am. Synagogues had ended abruptly and congregants had dispersed, so we were still caught up in endings and death—the end of the Torah, the death of Moses—waiting for the world to begin anew. 

To the extent that we are caught up in the past, unable to fully believe our present reality, I am still hearing echoes of Kohelet, the scroll we read on Sukkot. The book asks stark questions about life and death, vitality and mortality – matters of philosophical contemplation in good times, but urgent and pressing in our current reality. “Alongside justice there is wickedness,” Kohelet reminds us. “Alongside righteousness there is wickedness.” (Kohelet 3:16).  What, then, is the purpose of man’s actions? “What value can man get from all that he does?” (Kohelet 3:9).  

In the past two weeks, with so many people around us displaced and so many husbands and brothers enlisted, my family and community have been caught up in a frenzy of volunteering. We have cleaned out shelters, sorted our closets to bring clothing to refugees fleeing the north and south, prepared food for soldiers, babysat for mothers whose husbands are deployed, delivered supplies to army bases. My son spent last night collecting photos of well wishes from all the students in his class, which he incorporated into a video montage to send to their teacher, stationed on the northern front. Meanwhile my daughters draw pictures for soldiers that say, “Stay safe,” and “May God protect you,” and “Come home in peace.” I know that much of this work is making a real difference to people who feel alone, displaced, or scared. But I also wonder how much of what we are doing is helping ourselves more than it is helping others. In moments of despair I wonder: What is the value of it all when so many lives are hanging in the balance, and so many lives have already been lost? Perhaps it is all futility, as Kohelet repeatedly laments? 

 “There is a time for everything,” Kohelet teaches. “A time to be born and a time to die. A time for peace and a time for war.” In this time of war, my husband Daniel and I went to a wedding last night – the daughter of one of his colleagues at the university was marrying a Haredi yeshiva boy. The wedding had been planned months ago, but in the past week the venue had shifted to the ground floor of the groom’s Yeshiva, so as to comply with the Homefront Command guidelines prohibiting large gatherings outdoors. Since so few of the invited guests would be attending, the couple had invited all the boys in the yeshiva to join the festivities. It would be more men in their twenties than I’d seen in days; Daniel jokes that now, with nearly everyone enlisted, he is the youngest dad on the block. 

Even in peacetime, Daniel and I rarely go out at night, but my mother-in-law was watching the kids for us, so we had the evening to ourselves. As I got in the car dressed for the wedding, I heard echoing in my head a line from Kohelet: “It is better to go to a place of mourning than to go to a place of celebration” (Kohelet 7:2). We knew of several shiva houses in our neighborhood, in this time when so many families are mourning. And so on our way to the wedding, we stopped at the home of the cousin of my daughter’s friend, killed at the music festival. Sitting in front of us was a woman who could not stop crying. We assumed she was a grieving family member, until we overheard her say that she herself had just gotten up from shiva for her own son that morning. Across the street, we observed on our way out, was another shiva house, where they were mourning a couple who had died protecting their sixteen-year-old son from a grenade. “Should we go to that shiva, too, or just proceed straight to the wedding?” my husband asked, and I grimaced. 

“Should we go to that shiva, too?”

I generally spend my days teaching, studying, and writing. But it is hard to sit and write at a time like this. Every other minute my phone pings with more opportunities to lend a hand – my friend wants to know if we can cook dinner for a family of nine from the north who is staying next door to them. Another friend informs me that a truck has just arrived with vegetables from a kibbutz down south – they are selling their produce in Jerusalem. My mother-in-law is off to visit refugee families currently being housed in a local hotel. There are two hours today when a few of my kids are in school, and the ones who are home can occupy themselves – why am I spending them at the computer? There may be a time for everything, as Kohelet teaches, but there isn’t enough time for everything. There isn’t enough time at all. 

“The making of books is endless,” Kohelet laments in the final verses. “And much study is wearying of the flesh” (12:12). And yet I continue to teach and write and study, because Torah is what gives me strength. I wish I could roll back time, like we rolled back the Torah scrolls. I wish the past two weeks had never happened. But the river of time does not flow backwards. Like all rivers, it flows to the sea. And the sea of tears is never full.