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How so 'never again,' during yet another time of wanton civilian murder and bombardment, when the world does nothing?

Can you sleep tonight? I know I can’t.

I have eight children and some are in the house some are out. But I know where they are and I know they are safe. I know their beds are warm and if they are hungry food is ready for the taking. Some will say I am living comfortably in my colonial existence in the West Bank while others will praise my return to my ancestral homeland of Judea and Samaria. But tonight, for just a moment, that can’t be the discussion.

Just a few hundred miles northeast of my town lies a city of in the throngs of horror. Parents have no way to know if their kids will be safe, no way to know where they will find food, no way to know if when they kiss their child good night, it is forever. The New York Times headline screams, “A Complete Meltdown of Humanity,” while USA Today’s proclaims “Trapped in Aleppo: ‘Everyone is dying. I will soon die, too’” Everyone is dying, the little children in their parents’ arms, they are dying. As a parent, as a human, how can I sleep?

I spoke with my students today about the tragedy which is Aleppo. I pointed out that I read a very thoughtful person who, while looking at the state of America today, asked if, after the Holocaust, we really meant “never again.”

There seem to be two responses to that call. One response is, of course, never again to us. Never again should the Jewish people put their security in the hands of others. Never again should we rely on countries to defend us or to take us in when we are persecuted. We need a country of refuge and an army. A law of return and our own defense systems. And in many ways, after almost 2,000 years of exile, we have achieved that.

But there is another, more universal meaning to those two words: never again to anyone.

Looking at my college age pupils, I read off names: Armenia, Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and now Aleppo.  No, the world has not learned the lessons of the past.

The wanton murder of civilians and random bombardment of urban dwellings by Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian army proves the lie. It seems as if “Never Again” is a phrase “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Some may vainly protest, aren’t the citizens of Syria my enemy? No, no, I am not the enemy of a 5-year-old child looking up into his father’s eyes for the assurance he can not give. No, the 16-year-old girl who clings to her mother out of sheer dread of what is in store is not my enemy either. We have plenty of time to discuss our grievances. Now is not it.

Every Yom Kippur, the day when Jews throughout the world pour out their hearts asking for divine forgiveness, the afternoon service includes reading the entire book of Jonah. The story takes place in Nineveh, not far from the present Iraqi city of Mosul, east of Aleppo. God’s merciful decision to spare the lives of the people of Nineveh angers the prophet. God responds in the books final verse, “Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also many animals?”  As we ask God to spare our souls and forgive our sins, the rabbis instituted that we should think about the story of Jonah. God instructs Jonah that He not only cares for the errant people, but even the animals (I’m reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the donkey in Dresden). These people are not my enemies. Not today. These are mothers and fathers, children, and grandparents who just want to survive. Can we ignore God’s call that we too should care about the citizens of the world and even the animals?

The world sits and does nothing. To be honest, I am at loss of what to do. What went wrong again? How can we not hear the pain of others?

I recall standing in the Usdan student center at Brandeis University watching the unfolding events of 9/11. We sat and stood glued to wide-screen television sets witnessing the unthinkable. As the buildings collapsed, we all watched the death of 3,000 people in real time. I wondered about a certain principle. According to the letter of the Jewish law, even if for technical reasons no longer performed, a witness present in the room when a person dies must tear his or her garment. The symbolism seems clear. We humans created in the image of God are ultimately linked together. When one dies, all of our souls are torn. I sit here writing as, in real time, people are dying en masse only a few hundred miles away.

Tonight, my soul feels torn.

I find it hard to sleep with a torn soul.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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