Netanel Paley
Student of Torah, the world, and all beings

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent

For more than two months, I stayed almost entirely silent on social media.

At first, I was silent because in the initial shock of it all there was nothing to say, no language I could invoke that could possibly do the tiniest fragment of justice to the unspeakable horrors, the unfathomable evils, of October 7. Certainly the world had to know, had to bear witness to the atrocity, to the sheer viciousness and amorality of Hamas’ attacks. But every word I read, every profane image I unwillingly saw felt like another inch of separation, another little patch of black cloth pulled over the bottomless void of human suffering and primal terror experienced on that cursed day, the day God’s name itself was blasphemed to the uttermost depraved extreme of blasphemy, the day human beings created in God’s image shattered God’s image into an infinite number of unrecognizable fragments, then laughed and ate cookies and livestreamed the whole thing on Facebook. There are no words that exist that can redeem such an unearthly desecration; to invite language back into the world it was banished from with bullets, with fire, with the very hellfloor of cruelty, with Darkness embodied–is to demand that it gaze upon its own terrible death and offer a eulogy, that it pack the ineffable fear and suffering of its last breaths of life into a neat little package to be express-shipped to the four corners of the earth. Our Sages advise us not to comfort the bereaved in the presence of their dead; how could I dare invoke the self-desecrating separation of language only to comfort myself?
So I screamed. I screamed as I tried to conjure the mortal fear of having my home invaded by men with machine guns, of running for my life with my dearest friends in an open field, of protecting my entire family with nothing more than the strength of my own body. I screamed, sitting on the floor in the corner of my dark basement, as I thought of the hostages sitting on the cold floor of their tormentors’ underground dungeons, darkness obscuring their wounds, their trauma, their sense of time, their sanity. I screamed silently as I sang my children, aged 1 and 4, to sleep, as I thought of Kfir and Ariel Bibas–almost exactly the same ages–and their parents Shiri and Yarden, and how they certainly did the same on the night of October 6.
Then, as the shock faded, as the rupture we all experienced at some point on the day of Simchas Torah–whether on our way in to shul, as I and my father-in-law did, or when we unsuspectingly turned our phones on after Yom Tov ended–began to settle firmly into our lives forever, I stayed silent. I stayed silent because there was so much being said, that to say one thing was to not say everything else; to condemn one terror attack or war crime or politician’s statement or state’s politics or antisemitic incident or anti-antisemitic panic was to tacitly approve of a thousand others. I stayed silent because the flood of words, itself a translation of–but only temporary salve for–the flood of grief and anger and fear and pain inside all of us, overtook me until I could no longer breathe. I stayed silent because I feared any drop I added to this raging sea would land like saltwater on someone’s still-gaping wound, while giving me nothing but the fleeting satisfaction of having said something. The Sages describe the Torah as being wider than the sea. I wondered if when they made that simultaneously comforting and comfortless analogy they thought of something else with a width so vast–their own Jewish suffering.
So I cried. Most of the time, the tears did not come. Tears are the tributary, the gently flowing brook that escort the vacillating waters of the soul from the raging sea back to the serene, sheltered lagoon where they came from–and my overwhelmed, constricted body was a dam. When the tears did come, it was when I had retreated from this deluge of language into the little arks in my life–family, community, prayer. I cried as I blessed the new month of Marcheshvan–the month of bitter, but healing silence as the Chasidic masters teach–with my beloved community, as I shared a joyous moment with my family, as I recited Tikkun Chatzos–Kabbalistic liturgy said at midnight for the destruction of the Temple and for the exile of the Divine Presence–for the first time in my life on a sleepless night. But tears alone promise nothing; after they cry upon hearing the report of the meraglim sent to scout the Land of Israel–perhaps as a prayer of sorts, an expression of their rawest fears–God pledges to give the Jewish people something actually worth crying about, a “crying for all generations”: the destruction of the two Temples, a fountain of unending tears that will flood the floors of synagogues and the farthest recesses of Jewish memory until time itself says enough. The tears were for naught, I imagine God saying, because they bring your bodies a temporary rush of acetylcholine and an even more fleeting sense of groundedness–but what of your children? How are they to survive, how are they to protect their own children in an unfamiliar land, in a perpetual state of war, when they must forever live with the image of their parents sobbing about their future on that very soil? How will their bodies function? And how could I, six thousand miles away, pretend that my tears did anything–anything at all–for anyone but myself, for the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and wives and husbands and grandparents and best friends who cannot yet cry because they cannot even sleep or eat or drink until their loved ones come home?
But even as they were finally allowed to cry again, as Yahel and Naveh and Noam and Alma and Emily and Hanna and Aisha and Bilal and Wichai and Boonthom hugged their families and breathed freedom, even then I stayed silent. Because I wanted them all to come home, but saying the word that described what was required to accomplish that–a word that, in my corner of the Jewish world, had overnight become the most contaminating, contagious obscenity in the English language–was social suicide. But also because I myself had let that aforementioned flood of terrified, traumatized, grief-stricken words seep into my psyche and cloud what was beginning to be a pool of crystal-clear water. How dare I advocate for the release of violent criminals who are almost certain to repeat their heinous crimes? How dare I call to stop the bombing of civilian targets when Hamas weapons and munitions could theoretically be hidden anywhere, without knowledge of civilians? How dare I beg Israel to stop sending men of all ages to their deaths when they themselves want nothing more than to die protecting their homeland? These questions plagued my mind, then settled deep into my body. I felt compromised, restless, impotent. I struggled to sleep at night, sleep-walked through my routine by day. One of the litany of curses listed in the Tochacha of Parshas Ki Savo describes the experience of groping through the light of midday as if in darkness; the past few weeks seem to have given me a taste of that experience.
And now I speak. Because I physically can no longer remain silent.
I can no longer remain silent as more hostages die by the day, doomed to their horrible fates because they were unfortunate enough to be born with the wrong body, to have lived too long on this broken planet, to have served in a mandatory-conscription army at this moment in time, such that they no longer deserve compassion, no longer deserve to have their very lives prioritized by their own government.
I can no longer remain silent as their families continue to live out this waking nightmare for the 73rd day, as they are forced to put their exhausted bodies on the line every day in Hostages Square under threats of violence from extremists and silencing from their only-slightly-less-extreme government, as they are forced to meet with the Pope and address the UN and meet with tens upon tens of supposedly concerned Israeli officials and world leaders who are doing exactly nothing to bring their loved ones home.
I can no longer remain silent as nineteen and twenty and twenty-one year old men with their whole lives ahead of them, sons and husbands and fathers of six and bridegrooms weeks away from their weddings are sent into a death trap for a war that has no well-defined objectives, much less a well-defined end.
I can no longer remain silent as masked men who claim to believe in the same God that I do drive entire communities out of homes in which they’ve lived peacefully for decades, with machine guns and Molotov cocktails and mishnayos in their rucksacks.
I can no longer remain silent as a significant portion of my people celebrates a messianic return to ‘Aza, as if the Messiah will be brought with Kalashnikovs and black spray paint alone, not with Torah or kindness or simple faith or anything else our pathetic, defenseless ancestors believed in.
I can no longer remain silent as the country that bears my righteous forefather’s name, the very same forefather who prayed to God that he not kill anyone in the same breath he prayed that he not be killed, drops thousands of tons of unguided bombs on civilian “power targets” because that will surely convince the civilians to stage a successful non-violent coup against an antisemitic, genocidal regime that executes anyone who voices a dissenting opinion.
I can no longer remain silent as entire families are wiped out, as babies and toddlers and future peace activists and poets and old women and disabled people die by the dozens every hour, as orphans the children of orphans become Hamas members overnight, as the specter of Hamas’ replacement begins to coalesce amid the rubble.
I can no longer remain silent as the opposition to this mindless, heartless, soulless, faithless violence is monopolized by activists and organizations who can be described by anywhere from one to all four of those adjectives, in their refusal to condemn Hamas, in their refusal to afford the same humanity to Israelis, in their refusal to confront the overarching truths of history, in their refusal to confront the lived realities of this conflict, in their refusal to engage people of faith in their efforts–robbing us of our voices in the process.
I can no longer remain silent as this war of revenge intensifies–whether justly or unjustly–the threat of antisemitism around the world, and makes it more difficult to live as a Jew both in Israel and everywhere else.
I can no longer remain silent if the love of my beloved family and friends in Israel and here depends on that silence. Because I love them all too much to pretend to be someone I’m not.
You can argue with me about the details. I’ve read enough–too much, really, from too many different sources–to have a conversation with you in which we’ll probably agree about as many things as we’ll disagree about. And if you are worried about your own safety right now, or the safety of your loved ones, or are hurting in any other way–know that my care and concern for you comes before everything else, before any disagreements about history or military policy or anything. But don’t argue with me about where my heart is. Because if you think this heart, this soul, can’t hold all the pain, all the anger, all the fear, all the trauma of these horrific two months at the same time, then I’m sorry but you don’t yet know the power, the sheer vastness of the human spirit. You don’t know the brokenness of the Jewish soul.
And if you’ve somehow read this far and any of this resonates with you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Because whether we choose to speak or remain silent, we don’t have to be alone.
About the Author
Netanel Zellis-Paley is a Ph.D. student in School Psychology at Temple University. He lives with his wife Arielle and their children Nafshi and Neviah in South Philadelphia.
Related Topics
Related Posts