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Naomi Graetz

Command Centers (חמ”ל), Compassion (חמלה) and Chamas (חמס)

Three weeks ago, when the war broke out, I kept on hearing people talking about chamal –חמל—and didn’t quite understand what it was. I tentatively asked my husband, is that an acronym for war room—cheder milhamah חדר מלחמה? You might wonder, how after more than 55 years in the country, with fluent Hebrew, I had never been aware of this? Well, there was never any need. But today, all you have to do is turn on the television and what you hear is that there are hundreds and maybe more (and I am not exaggerating) chadrei milhamah (plural).

What is a chamal? Let’s say that you are not sure if a relative of yours—let’s say your son—is missing since October 7th when he went to the party with another 3,000 people. Someone said, they may have seen him laying (possibly dead) next to his friend, who has been identified via DNA, but they have not gotten any official notice about their own son. They (or their friends) organize a chamal, which consists of friends, soldiers, anyone with connections. They make phone calls, scour Facebooks, go to hospitals, to the morgues dealing with forensics. They reconstruct the scene and if they are “lucky” they get an answer (definite death or possibly kidnapped dead or alive). For each of the 600 plus missing/kidnapped and unidentified there is a chamal. This is all being done by volunteers, many of whom are bringing their professional skills to help their group.  Then there are other chamalim, which have gotten a lot of publicity. These deal with the massive amounts of contributions given to the evacuees from the South, who arrived to “safe” places all over the country with only the shirts on their backs. Or those chamalim where distribution of material donated by international generosity  to army bases has to be organized.

As I was thinking about the acronym chamal, I had an interesting association with a word with a similar sound—and that is chemlah which is compassion. I realized that those in these temporary command centers were acting out of compassion for people desperately in need of it. And then I thought of the word cham (heat) which is a component of passion, but when misused and the letter sin ס is added, becomes chamas—which in this case is an evil group totally void of compassion.

I shared these fragmentary thoughts with my Buddhist daughter, Avigail Graetz, and she was shocked, how in sync we were, for just that minute she had been working on a poem, playing around with the same root—but this time having to do with war milchamah–מלחמה. We talk a bit, and I ask her to send it to me. She is fluent in Spanish and Arabic and points out to me that chamas in Spanish is “never again”. And a word close to it in Arabic chalas translates to “enough”. And then she sends me her poem in Hebrew. It starts out by asking “what kind of poetry can we write during a war?” She plays with the roots of the word milchamah: cham (heat) lechem (bread) chemah (sympathy), chelem (shock and confusion). She writes that war is complex and a time when we shed tears of salt (melach). And she ends her poem this way:

.ואברהם אבינו מל

ואפשר לחלום

,על שרה והגר אופות חלה בחמלה

.מוחלות ומלחימות את הרוח שתשורר על הבנים בחמלה

And Abraham circumcised.

And we can dream

Of Sarah and Hagar baking challot together with compassion (chemlah)

Each forgiving (mochlot) and soldering (malchimot) the spirit which will hover over our children with compassion.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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