Since the shocking Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, teachers, parents, and all of us have been searching for answers: What do we say to our children, our students? What do we do? How can we help? In the days immediately following the October 7th pogrom, I, like many of you, was in shock. I had no words – “Ein Milim.” Even now, it remains difficult to articulate all that I feel and think.
Yet, we all need guidance, and silence is a form of paralysis. Last weekend, I was in New York City for a family shiva, not related to the current situation, but attended by several of our Israeli relatives. And although we were focused on our family at a time of mourning, Israel was never far from our minds. Driving past the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side, where Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, my thoughts turned to Rabbi Heschel. What words of comfort, understanding, insight, and guidance might Heschel offer if he were here today? Of course, it is always difficult to surmise what a sage from 50 years ago would say in current circumstances. Yet, in returning to some of Heschel’s writings, I found some powerful messages.
Rabbi Heschel was passionate about Israel. As a Holocaust survivor, whose large extended family perished in the Shoah, it was an obvious fact for Heschel that the State of Israel was a necessary haven for the Jewish people. He admired those who fought in Israel’s wars, and admonished American Jewish leaders whose equivocations might weaken conviction for Israel.
Yet for Heschel, Israel was much more than a safety haven. Rabbi Heschel saw Israel as an ancient and living source for Jewish life and Jewish inspiration. He understood Israel as the land where God’s presence is visible everywhere through the miraculous events of Jewish history: “It is a land where not a spot is visible that is not reflecting an event, a moment … When you think of Israel, you think of events, of breakthroughs in history.” (Heschel, God in Search of Man)
Heschel saw the formation of the modern state of Israel as a another such miraculous event. In Israel: Echo of Eternity, Heschel wrote,
“Israel is a country where a full Jewish life can be lived in accord with tradition and conscience; where the Sabbath fills the streets, not only the homes; where the language is Hebrew. Every people has a right to its own territory, in which it can develop its own culture and strive for making a contribution to the world out of its own spirit.”
Heschel was a Zionist, in the deepest sense of the word: recognizing the uniqueness of Israel for the flourishing and expression of the Jewish people.
Out of the land of Zion, come the great teachings of Judaism – כי מציון תצא תורה (ki mitzion tezei Torah), and for Heschel among the greatest of these teachings derived from the Prophets. Heschel admired the Prophets — Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah — above all for their uncompromising moral compass. The prophets were not popular, as their message of justice created discomfort among the complacent. Heschel believed the Prophets sought to convey “God’s pathos” – the deep concern of God for the lives and the suffering of all human beings. Heschel wrote,
“The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it become clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings.”
While again, it is difficult to know precisely what Rabbi Heschel would have said after the events of October 7th, it is impossible to imagine that he would not have responded with absolute anguish at the slaughter of innocent women, men, and children. Given the precision of his moral compass, he would have readily discerned the vicious and barbaric attacks by Hamas as an unequivocal moral outrage; and, as he did during the Six Day War, he would have acknowledged the obligation of Israel to defend her citizens from this enemy ideologically dedicated to its destruction.
As a student of the Prophets, Heschel never relieved himself of moral responsibility. Expressing moral outrage was never enough. Heschel dedicated his life to action, not just proclamation to redeem the world of the evils of racism, antisemitism, and groundless violence. If he were alive today, Heschel would not permit us any privilege to ignore the pernicious persistence of antisemitism that again breaks above the surface of civility; nor would he permit turning an eye from other forms of racism, including the prevalence and rise of Islamophobia. All forms of racism, for Heschel, were connected.
It is also impossible to imagine a world where Rabbi Heschel would allow us, even in our time of grief, fear, and sorrow, to divert our eyes from the suffering of all those innocents. Surely there are many – women, men, and children, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Israeli, Palestinian, and more – caught up in the terror of war. Heschel would likely push us even further to look at the deepest sources of violence in the world, which he attributed to human failings of greed and complacency. In 1944, as the Shoah still raged, Heschel wrote one of his most challenging essays, The Meaning of This War:
“Our world seems not unlike a pit of snakes . . . We had descended into it generations ago, and the snakes have sent their venom into the bloodstream of humanity, gradually paralyzing us, numbing nerve after nerve, dulling our minds, darkening our vision . . . In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man. And when greed, envy, and the reckless will to power, the serpents that were cherished in the bosom of our civilization, came to maturity, they broke out of their dens to fall upon the helpless nations . . .
Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. . . The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever. The war will outlast the victory of arms if we fail to conquer the infamy of the soul: the indifference to crime, when committed against others. For evil is indivisible . . . The greatest task of our time is to take the souls of men out of the pit.”
Heschel was not a pacifist; he knew that war could be tragically necessary. At the same time, he never glorified war. He understood that war was a sign of the failure of humanity, not its success. He called on us then, and I am certain he would call on us again now, to find whatever way to “take our souls out of the pit,” and to do whatever we can in these most challenging times to ensure the integrity of our humanity, grounded in the ancient teachings of Torah and our people.
It has become evident over the past weeks how deeply committed our Heschel community is to Israel, to our Jewish community, and, of course, to our children. This commitment has been shown, in true Heschel spirit, in diverse ways. People have come forth to offer help in whatever ways they can—whether by supporting additional security for the school, supporting our teachers through this difficult time, organizing prayer gatherings for the Heschel community, or sending moral and material support to Israeli soldiers. Heschel community members have attended and spoken at rallies in support of Israel, in solidarity with the hostages, supported Israeli businesses impacted by protests, and participated in interfaith vigils for peace. Each in our own way, we have responded to the call of the moment. Each act is an expression of concern and a rejection of complacency, in accordance with what A.J. Heschel and the prophets called for.
A few weeks ago, we spoke at a faculty meeting about the profound responsibility of teachers at this time. As teachers of children, and I include parents in this too, our job is to ensure the moral and spiritual fortitude of our children. Children may not be as consciously aware as adults are of the events in Israel, yet they are more attuned to our words, actions, and feelings (anxiety, fear, courage, empathy) than we often acknowledge. We cannot allow the terrorism of the soul to reach them and undermine their love of being Jewish, their attachment to Israel. Our job is to maintain their sense of dignity as young Jewish people, inheritors of a beautiful, joyous, and powerful moral tradition. This is especially challenging as many of our teachers are themselves experiencing deep grief and hurt, especially those with strong personal connections to Israel.
On Shabbat, when my family lights candles, we often add a special prayer or two. This Shabbat, I encourage us all to offer as many as our hearts are able. Let us pray for families among our Israeli brethren who are in mourning; let us pray for the wounded. Let us pray relentlessly for the release of the hostages. Let us pray for the safety and the success of the Israeli soldiers who undertake the dangerous and fraught task of fighting an enemy bent on our destruction. Let us pray for the strength of our teachers and parents, who are responsible for caring for the souls of our Jewish children. Let us pray for the many innocent people who are suffering. Let us pray for a speedy end to the war and let us allow ourselves even to pray for lasting peace, as far away as it may seem. It is no betrayal nor contradiction to pray for all this and to act where we are most able. God is big, and so may be our hearts and our deeds.