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October 13, 2023

Israel at War: In the Beginning There Was The Word

Angela W. Buchdahl

Israel at War: In the Beginning there was the Word
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

Ein Milim. Ein Milim.
There are no words.

This was the refrain I heard over and over from Israeli family and friends
as I reached out to them in the days following
what we now know was the largest, most vicious massacre of Jews
since the Holocaust.

Ein Milim
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,
in their homes, at bus stops, at a music festival, 
while gleefully livestreaming their rampage to exultant crowds?
What words can you say to a father
witnessing a video of his 20-year-old daughter, petrified, screaming,
as Hamas terrorists motor her off into the abyss.
What words can convey the horror of Hamas terrorists
storming into “safe rooms”
slaughtering parents before their children’s eyes
and then dragging those children down into the tunnels below Gaza?
Hamas terrorists seized elderly Holocaust survivors,
set people on fire, and murdered babies.
There is no depraved act you could possibly imagine
that they did not do.
Ein Milim. There are no words. 

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
which describes the death of Moses,
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.

But then, Bereshit describes how God initiates the creation:
Vayomer Adonai Y’hi Or, Vayihi Or.
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.
Words bolster nations, build bridges, and bring healing.
But words can also become barriers, curses and weapons.
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.

As I sat heartsick and devastated by the deadly violence in Israel,
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.
The contortions people engaged in 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. 

Another interfaith group seeking to raise monetary aid for the region
wrote an email decrying the “cycle of violence” and “intergenerational trauma.”
NO. This heinous attack was not just part of a “cycle of violence.”
NO. Intergenerational trauma can never justify the mass murder
and abduction of civilians.

These academic and faith leaders have made a career out of words,
and they know their power.
And instead of taking principled stands, again and again,
we saw them choose words that made false equivalencies,
blamed the Jewish victims, and implied moral ambiguity where there was none.
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.

Never before have I felt how important words are for creating realities.
And how deafening silence can feel, in the face of an atrocity.
When I heard President Biden deliver his emotional,
unequivocal condemnation of Hamas,
as a terrorist organization akin to ISIS,
when he named the atrocities as unadulterated evil,
and clearly affirmed; “We stand with Israel.” I started crying.
I didn’t even realize how much I needed to hear our President say the words.
But words matter, because the truth matters.

And because words are so powerful, 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.
For us to lose sight of that is to lose our own humanity.
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.
When it comes to these attacks, 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 goes back millenia,
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.
And my Rosh Hashanah sermon implored us to stay engaged in Israel
even as I criticized its government.
I usually urge us to sit with the complexity and nuances.
But some moments give you clarity.
Like in the Beginning.
When God created light, God separated the light from the dark.
Today, as Israel is forced to forge a new bereshit—a new world for Israel— 
for make no mistake, it will never be the same— 
the light was separated from the dark.
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.
Evil is Hamas using billions of dollars of aid not to build schools
and infrastructure to uplift Gazans,
but to build a militia and tunnels to kill Israelis.
Evil is Hamas breaking all international laws of warfare and embedding
themselves in civilian areas wearing civilian clothes,
because the death of innocent Gazans is a strategic tactic of their jihad.
Israel has a moral imperative to protect its citizens and to rescue its hostages.
Vanquishing Hamas, whose charter purpose is to exterminate Israel,
is a just and moral war. One we didn’t choose, but now can’t avoid.

Amidst the darkness, we’ve also seen glimmers of light:
Landmarks in Berlin, Paris, London
lit up in blue and white in support for Israel.
The protest movement in Israel morphing overnight into a network
of social services for displaced families and the wounded.

Reservists, who the week before refused to serve in protest of the government,
now showing up at over 100%.
And the American Jewish community, so often divided on Israel,
feeling the pain of their sisters and brothers and responding
with a generous outpouring of support.

Ein Milim. There are no words.
But in the absence of words, we turn to each other.
And as we create anew, we turn to the prayers of our people
that have given us language when we cannot find our own.

I want to ask all rabbis and cantors here, to join us on the bima, as we rise
together as one united community and sing the words of Hatikvah, “The Hope"— 
words that have enabled our people to survive the unimaginable,
and create anew.

[Sing Hatikvah]

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.