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Letter from Miriam in New York

Miriam at Maharat
Miriam pictured second from right studying at Maharat in New York.

To the very dear Kehillat Nashira community,

I’m writing from Riverdale, New York, from a gathering of my Yeshiva. It’s very good to be together with my chevrutot (study partners), friends and teachers. Real human beings, not just boxes on screens. Real-life conversations, hugs, meals together. We are deeply missing our Israeli colleagues, who join on Zoom when they can. There’s a heaviness in the air alongside the joy of learning together. And our davening and singing have all been infused with what is going on in Israel and Gaza. With so many emotions and thoughts about what has been happening over there (and over here too through social media interactions which can often quickly become ugly) I’d like to share one thought that has been on my mind, through the lens if this week’s parasha, Noach.

After the famous flood, there is another story, so concise in its six verses that it could easily be overlooked next to the more impressive narrative of Noach’s ark. It’s the story of the tower of Bavel, in which the early humans come together to:

build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves”. So intent were they on their project of making a name for themselves, that they forgot it was individuals rather than societies who should be the first to be named - individual, precious human beings. Sandwiched between two genealogies (a fancy name for family tree lists), the story of Bavel is conspicuous in its absence of human names, and absence of individual identity. The midrash tells us that the builders valued fallen bricks more than humans who fell from the tower (Pirkei de Rebbi Eliezer). The value of human life was subsumed in favour of a bigger project - they were, to use a phrase I find repugnant, “collateral damage”.

Over the past week and a half, we have seen a horrific loss of life, with unprecedented brutality, which has had ripples through the Jewish world. We are so affected because we are so close-knit as a community. Our strength is also our pain. I don’t know many people who don’t feel deeply affected by what is happening there now. Anxiety, sorrow, fear, anger, heartbreak, despair all just some of the deep feelings. I have also seen, more than ever before, a duality, and “us against them” rhetoric - particularly on social media. A refusal, on both “sides” to hold any compassion for the other. A rage when others do not adequately recognise our own suffering. Like with the tower of Bavel, real, precious human lives have become forgotten, subsumed to “our” cause or “theirs”.

Rabbi Sharon Brous said in a sermon last week:

“I thank our friends and allies who came close even as they held their own anguished hearts... the relief that came with the solidarity when it came, will remind us of the sacred responsibility to step closer when another people is suffering. Do you understand what I’m saying? Our close encounter with the pain of the narrowing of the lens of moral concern, must awaken us to the danger of narrowing our own lens of moral concern”.

Deep sympathy for Israel is close to us, naturally. Israel is our very family - often literal, immediate family. And just as we ask that others show support and solidarity, we cannot limit our “lens of moral concern” to ourselves alone, when so many civilian lives have already been lost. Let’s be nuanced about the difference between the brutal terrorism of Hamas and Palestinians beyond them. Let’s use our pain to grow, not shrink, our empathy with all pain in the world. This war has devastated enough bodies - let’s not let it devastate our souls too. Let’s learn from the builders of Bavel to not sacrifice the value of individual lives for the project of promoting a collective name or cause. Our hearts are big enough to hold it all.

My tefillot are for the safety of our family and friends in Israel, for the safe the return of hostages, for the soldiers we pray for each Shabbat, for peace and stability, and for the lives of the Palestinian civilians who Israelis will need to live next to when this is all over.

Shabbat shalom.


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