Holding the Pain and the Love

My recent trip to Israel and Palestine with a group of 20 justice-minded rabbis began with a tour of the remains of the Palestinian town of Lifta in present-day greater Jerusalem.

I greeted the day with excitement and trepidation. I knew that the Palestinian Arab residents of the town had been evacuated in late December 1947 in the context of what Israelis call the War of Independence (1947-8) and Palestinians call the Nakba. I was sure it would be a powerful experience.

It was all the more emotional for me because of my friendship with Lama Rimawi, a member of my local chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and the co-chair of the Sisterhood’s Israel-Palestine Committee (on which I also serve). Lama’s mother’s family had been refugees from Lifta. Lama holds the town very close to her heart, as a family treasure and place of deep pain. She even uses a photograph of Lifta as her Zoom background.

We stood at the entrance to Lifta, receiving a briefing from a remarkable organization called Zochrot. According to its website, “Zochrot is an NGO that has been working since 2002 for exposing and disseminating historical information about the Palestinian Nakba in Hebrew, with a view to promote accountability for the Nakba among the Jewish public of Israel … .” We were deeply pained to learn about Lifta in particular and about the larger project of recognizing Palestinian towns and villages that were destroyed or evacuated in 1947-48. Honoring one another’s wounds and traumatic memories is a key component of peacebuilding.

Lifta is located just below Kvish #1, the road that leads out of Jerusalem on the way to Tel Aviv. Standing in the valley where the beautiful town was located, I looked up and recognized a neighborhood of Jerusalem that was very familiar to me.

“Is that Givat Shaul?” I asked the tour guide urgently. “Oh yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s built on the ruins of Deir Yassin.”

I almost felt my heart stop beating as I took in the shocking news. Deir Yassin was the site of a massacre of some 100 Palestinian villagers by Etzel and Lehi fighters in April 1948, as they sought to break through the Palestinian blockade of Jerusalem.

As with all conflict narratives, what happened to Palestinian towns and their residents during the War of 1947-48 is disputed. Zochrot has documented 600 destroyed villages — a number so mind-boggling that I struggle to absorb it. Others say that 400 villages were either destroyed, or the villagers evacuated and not allowed to return. Many Jewish Israelis believe these accounts to be propaganda and that the “Arabs” simply fled en masse. “Our” fighters simply could never have done such things.

But even among Jewish Israelis, the name of Deir Yassin is well known, considered to be the exception to the rule — a place where Zionist fighters massacred Palestinian innocents in order to prosecute their aims in the war.

My heart began to race, because Givat Shaul was where I lived in a rental apartment during my junior year of college. It was a very important year in my development. It was the year I discerned that I was called to enter the rabbinate. It was a time of tremendous learning and personal formation. The apartment was beautiful, with a breathtaking view of the outskirts of Jerusalem. Had I known to look, I could easily have seen the ruins of Lifta from my living-room window.

Obviously, I did not know at the time that I lived on ground where Jews had killed innocent Palestinian men, women and children. None of us knew. The story was buried at the time because it was so shameful and painful. There is such a temptation to bury the remains and the memories of the times when “our side” did terrible things.

Even after the shock subsided, I still reeled from the things I had learned. I have long understood how deeply harmful Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been to Palestinians and to Israelis as well. I have come to believe that it is my right and my duty as an American Jew and Jewish leader to recognize when Israel acts in harmful ways. My love for Israel and support for the state must be based in truth, not in denial and avoidance. For many years, I have been able to navigate this in relationship to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

But I had never been through a deep grieving process about Israel’s actions during the war in 1947-48. I had never fully moved past denial that such things happened or that they were really serious and widespread. Dealing with 1967 was easier; the 1948 issues seem more foundational, related as they are to the establishment of the state itself.

My head spun and my heart ached for weeks after returning from the trip. How could I let in this new set of painful truths? How could I find more space inside to absorb the agonizing information that I had long kept at bay and, at the same time, hold onto my lifelong connection to Israel?

One rabbi on the trip, who is deeply engaged in Israel-Palestine peace and justice efforts, turned away after one particularly painful presentation, and said — partly in jest — “OK, I’m not a Zionist anymore.” We all sensed that she was not about to jettison her lifelong attachment to Israel or her determination to help make Israel a more peaceful and just place. But we all understood her inclination in that moment; there are times when it feels like the only option is to walk away.

Gradually, over several months, I found myself in a familiar frame of mind, holding a lot of pain about Israel’s harmful actions in the past and the present, and feeling in touch with the love that I still feel for the place, as flawed as it is.

Then came the attack on Huwara, committed by violent Israeli extremists on Feb. 26. The news of the hideous attack shook me deeply. I was disgusted by the image of purportedly religious Jews engaging in acts of such violence and hatred, then pausing to daven Maariv (the evening service), then returning to destroying the village and terrorizing its people. I was horrified.

I have now had some time to metabolize the attack. I have taken a bit of comfort from the words of mainstream American Jewish organizations, normally reticent to speak a word of criticism of Israel, that have condemned the attack on Huwara. It has certainly been encouraging to watch hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets in response to the government’s attacks on the judiciary, threatening to shut down the country if Israeli democracy is eviscerated.

But still, I am deeply shaken. Until Huwara, I was quite sure that my path was to hold in balance my love for Israel and my awareness of the painful realities of the place. Holding these contrasting feelings in (albeit shaky) balance, I would continue to work in every way I could to support people and organizations working for the well-being of Israel and Palestine.

Honestly, in this post-Huwara moment, I am less sure than I have ever been of my relationship to Israel and Palestine. I think of friends, colleagues and family members who long ago decided that they could no longer support the state that Israel has become. I hold them, including my dear colleague Rabbi Brian Walt, with deep love and respect.  Since the new Israeli government accelerated its attacks on Israeli democracy, many more of us wrestle with such feelings. In one sense, shutting Israel out of our hearts and minds makes things simpler. No more struggling to defend the indefensible. No more wrestling with what exactly it means to be a “progressive Zionist.” No more navigating endless complex conversations. (On the other hand, there is nothing “easy” about living in the Jewish community as a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist. It is a painful and lonely path.)

I also understand the many Jews I know who have turned away from the plethora of evidence of the injustices that Israel has perpetrated in the past and in the current situation. Holding onto the “Israel Right or Wrong” posture fits more comfortably into a lifelong set of memories, connections and dreams that have enriched our lives. This posture also makes things “easier”: Reject all the negative historical accounts, current news and analysis as propaganda, and our mythic, emotionally charged image of Israel is safe from challenge. (On the other hand, this requires living in a constantly embattled state, feeling the need to push back at countless real and imagined attacks on Israel in the media and in real life.)

But neither of these “simpler” options is possible for me. I certainly cannot support turning away from truth to live in a fairyland of myths and romantic images that are impervious to evidence. I remember the simplicity of living in Israel as a young adult, falling in love with everything I saw and experienced, and taking the sights and scents of Israel into my being and my identity. It has been a painful process to let a more complex set of facts into my romanticized images. But I cannot live with false certainties about Israel; I cannot choose denial as a path. Certainly not after Huwara.

After previous times of new learning, I could still hold Israel in my heart. Those many years of feeling deep love for Israel still live in me. I still associate Israel with countless important experiences in my life — with the delight of hearing Hebrew everywhere, the profound satisfaction of living in a country where my calendar is “normal,” a world of diverse and innovative manifestations of Jewish tradition and culture. I love this place, still — knowing all the difficult things that I have learned. It is a complicated love, but it is in my heart, and so I cannot choose cut-off as a strategy.

But in this moment, something feels different. Maybe as at other times of crisis, time will ease the rawness of my pain. But I wonder whether something has broken in me, rupturing the loving connection I have had with Israel for so long.

As always, I turn to Jewish tradition for guidance about how to navigate such times. I am drawn to the Mussar tradition, which suggests ways to cultivate particular middot/qualities of soul, that help me reach for a life that is as wise and kind as I can be from moment to moment. In this time of deep pain, grief and confusion, I reach for a spiritual practice that can help me and others to embrace paradox and ambiguity, pain and deep connection. What follows are some elements of such a practice.

  1. Eilu ve’eilu. As is well-known, Jewish tradition consistently demands that we honor the legitimacy of multiple points of view on matters of Jewish law. This is most famously expressed in the Talmudic dictum, Eilu ve’eilu divrei Elohim Hayim hein — “These and these are the words of the Living God.”[i] Even though one view is chosen to guide matters of practice in halakhah, the other view is always taught; hence the presence of endless debates in books of Jewish law and lore. One commentator explains that while one view is appropriate to be authoritative in a certain generation, later times may require returning to a different, previously rejected view. Many teachers have expressed that expanding the mind to hold multiple points of view is good for the mind and perhaps for the soul as well.

Stretching the concept beyond the intellectual contexts in which it is usually invoked, I see in the concept of eilu ve’eilu, a quality of personal tolerance for ambiguity. “Make your heart into a space of many rooms, and bring into it the words of Beit Hillel and the words of Beit Shammai.”[ii] On the emotional and spiritual level, it is often essential to bring contrasting realities into our hearts. I imagine this text as a yoga teacher, inviting us to stretch and stretch just a bit more, making more space inside than we had thought possible.

So often in our lives, we need to live with both hope and uncertainty, with both judgment and affection, and with both agency and humility, to name just a few tensions that often pervade our lives. This requires a stretching of the heart and mind past comfortable (if illusory) certainties. It requires us to forego the comfort of choosing one clear way of thinking or believing, and rejecting alternative, discomfiting possibilities. It invites us to grow our hearts into spaces of diverse and contrasting experiences and perspectives, which is life as it is, and to resist the urge to ignore one side of the coin in order to feel more comfortable.

In this life, I am called to practice the art of paradox, recognizing the truth and importance in contrasting explanations and competing values. This is a practice of “both/and” rather than “either/or,” of the non-binary in our experience of reality. I can hardly write these words without lifting my hands off the keyboard and holding them upward towards either side, like the scales of justice. Sometimes, one hand rises a bit, then the other. But the goal is the restoration of balance.

I have been learning this practice for many years, and I still find it hugely challenging. But I know there is much wisdom in it. I know that there are days (generally when I am on the ground in Israel) when I feel my lifelong connection to the land and to the state’s founding ideals is strong enough to support me as I confront painful realities. And I know that at other times, what I have learned and witnessed fills me with such disillusionment and alienation that I can hardly access my sense of connection to this place.

The pans of the scale keep shifting, and my practice requires me to attend to them both. At the same time, I bring all of my passion to standing together with the seekers of justice and peace on the ground for their heroic work, precisely in such challenging times.

  1. Savlanut. In contemporary Hebrew, savlanut denotes patience, in a temporal sense. It indicates an ability to tolerate delay or a slower pace than we would like. This is patience that we try to invoke when someone is driving at a snail’s pace ahead of us, a line is moving “too slowly” in the grocery store or a vendor has put us on one long hold after another on a service call. Savlanut in this sense expresses the truth that we are not in charge of everything about the world. Contrary to the wave of irritation that might arise in us, things are not supposed to run on our time, in accordance with our particular needs or wants.

In the Mussar context, savlanut (sometimes vocalized sovlanut in Israeli Hebrew) is not temporal but conceptual or experiential, meaning to tolerate or to bear difficulty. Sometimes translated as “forbearance,” this meaning flows from the root of the Hebrew word, meaning to carry a heavy burden. In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, a sabal is a porter, one with the ability to shoulder a heavier load than most of us can. This root also gives rise to the word for suffering (sevel) in the Torah. Savlanut in these contexts is to bear the unpleasant.

When we encounter mental pain, we have a number of choices, corresponding to the neurological “fight or flight” responses. We may galvanize all of our energy to fight back, to find a solution, to beat this thing, willing to steamroll anything or anyone that stands in our way. Or we may try to avoid, deny and suppress it, trying to convince ourselves that (contrary to evidence), things are really OK. We are trying to flee from reality.

Savlanut suggests the virtue of stretching our capacity to tolerate the necessary pain of life. Some pain, of course, should be diagnosed and treated. But pain is not necessarily an outrage; it is an unchangeable fact of the human condition. Deepening our ability to bear discomfort and disappointment can help us to go through life with a bit more grace and less reactivity.

When a beloved friend or family member is struggling, an intimate relationship is changing in confusing ways or a parent is declining (to choose just a few examples), we can fight with reality or try desperately to avoid it. Or we can try to stretch our ability to live with the necessary discomfort of living.

And what about our relationship to a country? Many of us were raised to view the United States as a bastion of democracy, an exemplar of the highest ideals of dignity for all people, a light of democracy in a troubled world. Much later, we learned that the United States is also a country rooted in genocide of Native Americans, brutal enslavement of Black Americans and white supremacy. It seems clear to me that the United States is both — a country created on a foundation of many laudable ideals, and also infected with racism and xenophobia from before its founding. The United States is neither entirely evil nor a bastion of goodness.

For those of us who have worked hard to move beyond the simplistic, “all good” stories of America that we were raised with, the process has been full of painful realizations. Sometimes, we feel we will burst from having to absorb so many heartbreaking aspects of history and contemporary reality. Like the rabbinic image of heart-stretching we saw above, this is painful work. We might sometimes wish to return to a simpler nationalist pride or turn our backs on America, even to make our lives elsewhere.

To continue to embrace (or just tolerate) the United States as our home, and to work to learn more and more about injustice that needs repair, is to live with deep sorrow and painful ambiguity. It is a heavy load to bear, but there is no better way. And, of course, our empathy with the pain that others experience can fuel our passion to work to right injustices. We can engage in the same kind of spiritual practice about Israel: holding love in our hearts — lamrot hakol (despite everything) — and, perhaps because of that love, looking squarely at the hard truths of Israel’s history and the darkness of today’s realities. Bearing the anguish yet feeling profound connection, we can step forward to work in every way possible to end injustice and to build a country we can once again be proud of.

  1. Rav hesed ve’emet (Exodus 34:6)

I can rarely teach or write about Mussar without referencing the Shelosh Esrei Middot, (the “13 qualities of love”) enumerated in Exodus 34:6-7. There is scarcely a text more central to our inquiry than the complex phrase rav hesed ve’emet, a paradoxical combination of abundant kindness and truth.

In Jewish tradition, kindness and truth are often considered to be in tension with each other. Recall the famous argument of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about whether or not one should describe someone as beautiful on their wedding day. Beit Shammai says that one should only praise someone for their appearance if the person’s appearance is actually pleasing. Beit Hillel, with their characteristic kindness and generosity of spirit, say that it is always true that on a day of ultimate love and joy, everyone is beautiful. When kindness and honesty are in tension, kindness takes precedence. (Ketubot 16b-17a).

Or consider the beautiful verse in Psalm 85:11. “Kindness and truth meet; justice and peace embrace.” The verse is deceptively simple. At first glance, it may seem that all of these great values naturally align. But on closer reading, it becomes clear that the verse is powerful because kindness and truth are so often in tension. (“Should I be honest or should I be kind in this situation?”) Similarly, justice and peace are regularly in tension, because the demand for justice nearly always looks different from different sides of a conflict.

In complex moral dilemmas and in an increasingly complex and disparate world, different values are in tension with one another. It seems that we can have one or the other but not both. So the verse brings us a powerful vision of a world in which polarities can coexist, even embrace. In such a world, kindness and truth somehow converge and justice and peace become one.

Rav hesed ve’emet suggests another exercise in contrast. Very often, truth-tellers speak in a tone of harshness and condemnation. Perhaps this is a function of needing great strength to counter commonly held untruths and to try to break through long-held illusions. We need to gird ourselves in strength to confront harmful myths and formerly revered truths.

But rav hesed ve’emet, “bringing together truth and love,” evokes an image of speaking the truth in great love. We know this experience. When I am angry at my spouse, for example, I must tell the truth as I see it, and I must do so with love and kindness. This is for the sake of honoring the profound connection between us. Even when a relationship has ended, rav hesed asks us to honor with care the connection that once existed between us.

Even when I need to engage in truth-telling about what Israel has become, I want to do so in a way that honors my history of having loved this place for a very long time, of how much this place is intertwined with my own identity and that of so many people I love. I can disseminate the realities I have learned about in a spirit of loving connection and desire for the well-being of all, rather than practicing an activism driven by rage and disdain.

Most deeply, if I want to reach for the godlike potential embedded in me, I do not want to live in rage, breathing out more hatred into a terribly battered world. Even when I speak of hard realities, I aspire to speak of them with love, because that is the person that I want to be in the world, just as the God within me is rav hesed ve’emet.

  1. Tikvah. It is often said that hopefulness is a core quality of the Jewish people. How else would we have made it through all we have experienced? So it stands to reason that Israel’s national anthem is a poem about hope. Surely, “Hatikvah” is an anthem that stirs deep faith and awe in the hearts of many Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora. It expresses the view that the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the state, against all odds, have been miraculous. Even many secular Jews are stirred to deep faith as they reverently sing out their allegiance to such an idea of Israel.

But many of us, myself included, can no longer sing “Hatikvah” without ambivalence. I was shocked years ago when I first learned that many Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the NGOs that advocate for their needs, oppose “Hatikvah” as the singular national anthem of Israel. But I have come to understand that it is a hymn that completely ignores the reality of 20% of Israel’s citizens.

“Hatikvah” expresses the ideals of Zionism, without acknowledging the harm done in its name or the people excluded from its vision. I can no longer sing it with a full heart.

Still, I want to name hopefulness as part of a spiritual practice that can sustain those willing to walk the path of both love and truth, embracing both ideals and realities, both dreams and pain in our relationship to Israel. I do not speak here of a Pollyannaish hope. Sadly, I do not believe that things will be all right any time soon for the people of Israel and Palestine. I no longer expect a resolution in my lifetime.

But a life of faith, with eyes open to reality, includes the knowledge that we cannot know what life will bring. History often takes turns for the worse that we could never have imagined. And sometimes, things unexpectedly change for the better in ways we would never have dared to dream of.

All of our prayers of petition require a belief that things can somehow be made better. I don’t believe in a Superman-God who will swoop in and change hearts, minds and governments so that Israel/Palestine will instantly become a land where both peoples can live with dignity, safety and mutual respect. But I do believe in a force in the creative universe that moves people (and peoples) to make better choices, to grow and to change for the better, individually and collectively. I affirm that there is mystery in this life, that I cannot know the future and that sometimes the future may bring us all closer to our dreams.

Hopefulness is the capacity to imagine a better future, even as we recognize the painful ambiguities of the present. This is something we do well to cultivate.

* * * * *

One Shabbat during the period when I was writing this essay, the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue I attend gave a sermon about how to be a Zionist in these times. Long a mainstream supporter of Israel, he has been moved by the latest round of threats on democracy, and sanctioned hatred and violence against Palestinians to speak strong words of criticism of the Israeli government. This Shabbat, he forcefully condemned many of the actions of the government and of its extremist supporters. And he also declared himself still a Zionist, still a passionate lover of Israel. He exhorted us not to give up on Israel — not to let go of our love, but to work, hope and pray for a better Israel.

And then he asked us to rise for “Hatikvah.”

I had to make an instant decision. Could I rise for “Hatikvah” in the midst of this time of anguish? Could I count myself as one of the unequivocal Zionists that the rabbi had described? Instinctively I stood, choosing not to separate myself from my community. I did not want to make a scene. (The rabbi isn’t standing up!) But with no time to think it through, my body/mind made the decision. I could stand there with my community, but I could not sing the words of “Hatikvah.” In this very difficult moment, I could not join the community’s prayerful affirmation of the Zionist project. I could not affirm the Jewish yearning for Zion in the Jewish heart without thinking of the Palestinian villages that were destroyed so that we could build our state. I could not sing out my allegiance to a country that increasingly generates people who hate, demean and attack Palestinians with impunity.

Perhaps the time will come again when I will be able to sing “Hatikvah.” I do not know. But I will keep practicing the middot of eilu v’eilu, savlanut, hesed ve’emet and hopefulness. I must trust that they will guide my way.

[i] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b.

[ii] Tosefta Sotah 7:7.

2 Responses

  1. I have to set aside time to finish your long and beautiful article Rabbi Amy. I cut to the end and read backward some too. I understand how hard it is to look in the face of tragedy at a missing village and the recent extremist attack on Huwara. It is to much to take in. I start my look at Israel-Palestine some 25 years ago bringing the Israel Consul General and the Assistant Director of the PLO to my synagogue; Kehilat HaNahar to talk about Peacemaking ng in March 2000. I took my first Compassionate Listening trip the following year. I’ve seen much and some things from my very first visit still hurt whenever I recall witnessing the demolished home outside Hebron or listening to a member of the Parents Circle. I will never forget. But my research has armed me with a thousand horror enough for many lifetimes. There is no equality between Israelis and Palestinians. The years since Oslo have been unforgiving. But enough Mothers and Fathers and Sons and Daughters have lost loved one on all sides to make the coming Memorial Day an opportunity for both sides to come together and mourn the death of loved ones. I search for understanding and awareness and cracks in the walls to allow light in the overwhelming darkness. Blessings to you Rabbi!

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