Two weeks ago, I spoke to my congregation about Hillel’s most famous maxim, and why it can be a frame for us in this moment as individuals.
In the first century CE, Rabbi Hillel said, if I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I’m only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?
In the spirit of Hillel, I invited us to take care of ourselves, because Israel needs us for the long haul; I invited us to connect and help take care of others here and in Israel, so that no one need feel alone. And I invited us to give generously to causes we care about in Israel right now.
At a time when it feels like there’s little to nothing we can actually do, those three things are real, meaningful, and powerful things that Israel and Israelis need us to do.
This past Shabbat, I came back to Hillel, but I invited us to zoom out on his words. Two weeks ago, my sermon was more intimate– it was about us as individuals connecting with ourselves and with other people.
I urged my congregants to keep doing all of those things.
This past Shabbat, though, I felt moved to expand our view in ways that might be challenging. I didn’t do that to agitate my community, but because I believe that Israel’s existence– not just during this war, but for the future, depends on it.
My friends, we must support Israel. If we are not for Israel, who will be? Our other homeland is hurting, is traumatized, is broken, is at war. The spirit of our Israeli friends and family is crushed; they are in so much pain, so much despair; they are heartbroken about the atrocities that they have experienced; they are angry at their government that failed them; and they need us. They need us to reach out to them, to connect with them, to tell them how much we care.
They need us to push our political leaders to continue to strongly support them. And if we want there to be an Israel for the next 75 years, we need to do all of those things. If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?
And, if we are only for ourselves, who are we?
This past week, my heart has begun asking my head a series of questions– questions that are challenging me to expand my own thinking, even as this moment of crisis for Israel and the entire Jewish people continues to unfold.
Here’s just a sample of the questions that are swirling in my heart because Hillel, who has been dead for almost 2000 years, is still pushing me to ask them as a Jew.
Does being horrified by two things inherently mean assigning them direct equivalency?
Can I hold deep empathy for two different sets of victims without implying that I see them as being identical?
Can I be heartbroken for the rape and beheading and kidnapping of innocent civilians in Israel, which I am, and also be heartbroken for the deaths of innocent children who make up some 47% of the population of Gaza?
Can I be supportive of a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, while also being against the terrorizing of Jewish students on campuses all over the United States?
Can I advocate for free speech at Columbia and at the 92nd Street Y, and everywhere else, and also condemn terror sympathizing organizations?
Can I support a strong and secure State of Israel and also be against the violence and murder that has been committed by Jewish settlers against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the last 3 weeks?
Can I see my own children’s faces in the faces of the hundreds of innocent Israeli children and teenagers who were brutalized and kidnapped and on October 7 and also see that advocating for the razing of Gaza to the ground is against Jewish law and ethics?
Can I be anti-Hamas, and also feel compassion for Palestinians who are not synonymous with Hamas?
Can I be against those who are celebrating the vile attacks against Israelis, and also be against Israel cutting off water and power to 2 million people in Gaza?
Can I be against the heinous violence and brutality of Hamas and also support the civil and political rights of millions of Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation for 56 years?
As these questions spawned other questions this week, one of my snarky thoughts was: damn you, Hillel.
I thought, I don’t want to think about other people. I just want to think about my own family, my Jewish family, my Israeli family. Period.
But Hillel has got a hold on me. Judaism and Jewish ethics have got a hold on me.
And our Judaism, while advocating clearly for the need to take care of ourselves, to take care of our own Jewish people, defiantly insists that we don’t stop there. We have to expand our circle of concern to encompass our neighbors, to encompass the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Please don’t get me wrong or misquote me: Hillel’s maxim doesn’t call upon us to turn the other cheek. It doesn’t call us, nor am I calling us, to be pacifists, to cease fire when we are attacked, to swallow the pain and anger and fear we feel– no. Not at all.
Because if we are not for ourselves, we Jews know all too well, who will be for us?
Israel must defend itself, be strong, and so must Jews everywhere.
But Hillel’s point is that we cannot stop there. We cannot let our hearts become hardened by what has been done to us, lest we become innured to the pain of others. Being for ourselves is not sufficient– not in Hillel’s maxim, and not in our time. Being for ourselves alone is not a strategy for security in this hyperconnected world of ours.
One of the other hard questions I, and I’m sure so many of us, have also been asking of late is: when Israeli political and military leaders say, as they have been saying, “we will win this war,” what do they mean? What does that look like?
Does it look like the obliteration of the two million souls in Gaza in a war crime of epic proportions? I surely hope not.
Does it look like Israel recovering the more than 200 Israeli hostages that Hamas abducted? I surely hope so.
Does it look like killing every Hamas leader? Perhaps. That’s what my broken heart wants, for sure. But what about Islamic Jihad, also in Gaza?
What about those who will be radicalized every time Israel, however inadvertently, kills a Palestinian child on Israel’s way to destroying existing terror networks?
Israel needs to take care of itself. That’s what Hillel would say if we had a chair for him on the bima in my synagogue.
But what do you think threatens Hamas and all those who would destroy Israel perhaps even more than Israel’s military might?
Israel closing a peace deal with Saudi Arabia is an existential threat to Hamas.
Israel normalizing more and more relationships with the Arab countries all around as Israel did with the Abraham accords is an existential threat to Hamas and all anti-Israel terrorists.
Israel and its historic enemies beginning to see one another as human beings is an existential threat to murderous sociopaths who thrive on scapegoating and obliterating the humanity of others.
A peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is an existential threat to terrorists who thrive on creating chaos.
People who can advocate for the safety and security of their own people and advocate for the safety and security of others are an existential threat to terrorists who want nothing more than to obliterate safety and security.
People who can be for themselves and for others at the same time are the biggest threat to all groups who live in a zero-sum world, where they think that in order for them to thrive, others must die.
To say this is a complex and challenging time for Israel and for the Jewish people everywhere is a massive understatement. I don’t claim to have all the answers for what happens next, or how Israel gets from this place of horror and fury to a place of peace and security.
But the horror we feel, and the empathy we are capable of at the same time, are the starting point for my thinking, the baseline knowledge from which any serious conversation must embark.
I don’t claim to have arrived at the conclusion. But I know this: anyone encouraging you to suppress your inner voice of compassion and empathy— to not know what your bones are telling you — should be regarded with great and justified suspicion.
The human heart is amazing; it is huge; it has many rooms.
I’ve see people hold anger and joy at the same time; I’ve witnessed people holding sadness and relief simultaneously; our hearts can hold a desire for vengeance and a desire for compassion in the same breath; a heart can at once hold its own pain and the pain of others. It’s pretty miraculous.
And then, if we allow it to feel all of the feelings, our heart and our brain can work together to decide which feelings to act on, and which ones to leave in the world of emotions.
Friends, listen to your heart. And listen to the hearts of others. Now is the time; there’s no better time.