Our Narrow Bridge and Some Difficult Texts

The “our” in my title is those of us — in North America, in Israel, elsewhere — who identify with Israel, in spite of its current leadership, and are deeply pained by the horrific terrorist attacks on Israelis (primarily Jews but also on Arabs, as well as foreign workers.) Yet we also are concerned about the suffering of civilians, including children in Gaza.

  1. Compassion should not be a zero-sum game.

Yehuda Kurtzer, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute, recently said in a talk: “Compassion should not be a zero-sum game.”

I have considered myself a Jewish leftist. On the left (including not only the radical left), there has been a move, after initial shock on Oct. 7, to focus on Palestinians and their suffering, and to ignore or even justify Israeli suffering. I am disappointed and saddened by Jewish groups (as well as progressive allies) that can’t make a forthright statement condemning Hamas’s violent attack against children, women, men and old people, killing hundreds, wounding more and taking many civilians as hostages. Yes, some of these groups have said something against killing innocent people, maybe even against harming Israeli civilians. But their statements are usually not forthright. A humanistic statement against violence continues with the spoken or implied word, “BUT … ”

When I worked as hospital chaplain, one my colleagues from whom I learned a lot, Rabbi Bonita Taylor, said that when a patient puts “but” in her story or statement, you can usually delete the part that precedes that word. The essence follows “but.” I have that experience again listening to many statements from the Jewish “left.” They say that they are sad Israeli civilians were killed, BUT … . I am searching for their empathy with fellow Jews.

And, of course, there is a strong sense of anger and even shame in Israel and the wider Jewish community that sees the murders, torture, rape and kidnapping in Israel, and has no space to consider the lives of Palestinians. Speaking of the suffering of multiple groups at a time of war — speaking of Jews and Arabs, of Israelis and Palestinians, may get you branded as a “traitor,” subject to attack from your own community.

So we are on a narrow bridge.

Some ties are stronger than others. This is not evil or inhumane. In an interview in July, Peter Beinart (now editor-at-large of the non-Zionist journal Jewish Currents) talked about his ties to fellow Jews.[i] Beinart said we are family. And when pushed by the moderator, he said he is concerned about all children in the world. However, he said that he has a special tie and responsibility to his own two children. So he feels a special tie/responsibility for Jews, even in Israel, of which he is a strong critic. I also feel a direct connection, beyond shared humanity, to Jews and other residents of Israel, part of my mishpakhah (“family”), even when we do not agree.

  1. The Destructive Force Unleashed

My college Hillel rabbi, Moshe Adler, z”l, taught me this during protests at the University of Wisconsin against the Vietnam War that threatened to turn violent. It is from the midrash Mekhilta (Bo, 12:22), commenting on the Exodus passage about the 10th plague in Egypt — the death of the Egyptian first-born. “When permission is given to the destructive force [or “Destroyer”] to wreak havoc, it does not distinguish between the innocent and guilty.”

משנתנה רשות למשחית לחבל אינו מבחין בין צדיק לרשע

Is this text a description of a tragic reality, of the innocent casualties, the “collateral damage,” in any conflict or war? Or is it a cautionary warning that once unleashed, some forces cannot be controlled? It is more than ironic that the word I translated as “wreak havoc” (lekhabel) is the root of the modern Hebrew word for terrorist, mekhabel.

  1. The Desire for Revenge

Many Jews (or fans of Bob Marley) will recall the opening of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon.” It continues with another well-known line, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem … ”

This entire psalm, though, is disturbing. The second part concludes,

Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;

a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks! (NJPS translation)

I can only read these horrifying words (perhaps written as a fantasy in exile) of violently smashing their babies in a non-literal manner, contrary to the peshat (simple reading of the text): “God, keep us from becoming people who would do such things.” This second half of Psalm 137 has been dropped from all liberal Jewish liturgies that I am familiar with. It still is the introduction to the weekday grace after meals (Birkat Hamazon) in the Orthodox Ashkenazi tradition.

The desire for revenge is a real human emotion. We need to be wary of Jewish voices, so pained by the violent violations,  that want more than justice — random and violent retribution or revenge.

  1. No Preemptive Punishment 

In Genesis 21, Hagar and her child, Ishmael, have been expelled by Abraham and Sarah, and are wandering in the wilderness. The water in their canteen is gone, and the child is dying of thirst. Hagar cries out to God.

R’ Yitzhak said, “We do not judge a person except on the basis of their deeds at that time.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

God heard the cry of the boy, and a messenger of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (Genesis 21:17, NJPS)

Hagar opens her eyes and finds a well of water.

The final words of the verse, be-asher hu sham (“where he is), lead to a discussion in the Talmud about pre-emptive punishment. After all, Ishmael will grow up and become the ancestor of the Arabs — future opponents, even enemies — of the people of Israel. Why not let this child die to prevent future harm?

  1. R’ Yitzhak said, ‘We do not judge a person except on the basis of their deeds at that time,’ citing this verse and the phrase “be-asher hu sham.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b) Where is he now? A child in the wilderness dying of thirst.

The commentary Torah Temima by Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (ca. 1900) adds: “Even though in the future, after a time he (Ishmael) will do evil to Israel and even kill (Jews) …” At the moment, he is a suffering child.

So we are on a narrow bridge. May the Source of Peace make peace for all Israel and all who dwell on Earth.


[i] https://www.vanleer.org.il/en/events/conversation-american-and-israeli-jews-in-the-age-of-netanyahu-and-trump/

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