We awoke to sirens in Jerusalem on Shabbat, October 7, the holiday of Simchat Torah. Having lived in Boston much of my adult life, I had not heard these sirens since the Yom Kippur war, when I was a young child; my family had moved to Israel less than a year before. At that time, my father led a convoy of ammunition to the front lines in Sinai, while I was engaged with other children of our apartment building hammering together a Sukkah in the yard. Those memories, and my thoughts about how they’ve affected my life, flashed through my mind as I heard the October 7 sirens.
The full shock of the devastating news reached us only after sunset, as the holiday ended: the kidnapped hostages, dead, and wounded; the unimaginable brutality with which human dignity was violated; the thousands of soldiers heading to the front lines, our sons-in-law among them.
Doing what it takes to prevent this kind of attack from happening again is a top priority – and is uniting the people of Israel, the global Jewish family, and our allies around the world. Our priority is securing the safe return of the hostages and preventing future assaults, and that requires courageous and strategic action.
At the same time, the actions of Israel and each of us in the global Jewish community have the potential to shape our sense of identity and shared memory as a people.
Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, in the years before the State was established, was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who had lived through World War I and the Hebron massacre, of 1929 that left nearly 70 Jews dead and countless more injured. He taught that amid the horrendous devastation of war, amid the unspeakable pain of loss of innocent life, there is something that emerges and intensifies for a nation at war:
“Wars deepen the unique values of each nation, until their [true] form surfaces, activated in all manner of practical expressions, drawn from the depths [of their shared values and history] (Orot, Orot Me’ofel, 6).”
Inspired by this profound statement by Rabbi Kook, this article seeks to distill three Jewish values that can ground us and elevate our spirits as we navigate the days ahead. In the short run, these values can guide the content we choose to consume and share from amidst the barrage of messaging about the war. In the long run, these values and other Jewish values are the bedrock of who we are as a people and what has carried us though hard times in the past.
Hope and Forward-Thinking – Even During War
The words of Israel’s anthem, Hatikvah – which means “The Hope” – offer us guidance. The value of hope is unmistakable in messages of people like Izhar Shay, Former Minister of Science and Technology, Member of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), VC, entrepreneur, and social activist, who lost his 21-year-old son, Yaron Oree Shay, in action on October 7, when Yaron’s unit was heroically guarding Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. As a grieving father sharing the story, Izhar Shay’s LinkedIn message concludes by looking to the future and offering a vision of hope:
“My fellow high-tech entrepreneurs and investors, my friends in the Israeli and international community of innovation:
Over the next 12 months, for every fallen soldier, for every murdered civilian, let’s put together a new innovative startup which will build a product or service that will serve thousands of companies and/or millions of people around the world…
Let’s put together a moral response to this evil attack on humanity by putting the foundations for thousands of new innovative businesses that will make this world better in so many ways.”
The Jewish people’s resilience over millennia is nothing short of inspirational. We grieve, fight to make things right, and lift our eyes and souls toward light beyond the darkness even in the devastation of war. This is who we are.
Human Dignity – Even During War
Bestselling author Prof. Yuval Noah Harari explains,
“We know three things about the Hamas attack:
- First, Hamas aimed to kill civilians.
- Second, the victims were tortured and executed in the most gruesome ways the terrorists could imagine.
- Third, instead of hiding the atrocities, Hamas made sure they will be publicized.
Why do such a thing? Because Hamas is waging a war on our souls. Like ISIS, Hamas is using atrocities to terrorize millions and to sow seeds of hatred and violence. Hamas is thereby committing a crime against humanity. It is not just killing humans; it is trying to destroy our trust in humanity.”
The core of our fight is to return our kidnapped hostages and prevent such atrocities and attack from happening again. We will do this with the physical, strategic, moral, and spiritual powers of Israel’s forces, with the influence of global Jewish communities, and with the support of our allies. War claims innocent lives. There is no way around that – and we are at war.
The Jewish way is to care about human dignity even at war. We take firm action without losing sight of the humanity of the other.
Our sacred texts, the Torah and Talmud, guide us.
Torah teaches something extraordinary, that with all the unjust suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, Moses instructed: “Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them in the third generation shall enter the congregation of God” (Deuteronomy 23:8–9). We take firm action to oppose oppression. We can hate despicable actions and act with conviction and power, but never with hatred toward people. This helps us avoid the ills of hatred, which diminish one’s inner life, integrity, and moral power.
The Talmud teaches that even the most ruthless enemies and leaders who led brutal battles against the Jewish people, with time, had descendants who were allies and joined the nation of Israel. These include, for example, the great grandchildren of Haman the evil advisor in the book of Esther, who planned a Jewish genocide (Talmud Sanhedrin 96b).
And while the concept of revenge exists in Jewish tradition, it is focused on God as the avenger. Indeed, when we name those who were murdered, we follow their names with the Hebrew words, Hashem yikom damam, God will avenge their blood. It is our work to do what is humanly possible to protect people. The work of revenge is in God’s hand. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center presents an interview with Professor Dina Porat, who explains:
My book is called, “Vengeance and Recompense Are Mine.” Why is that? Because God says – and it goes all along the Bible – that it’s only up to God to take revenge; or when He orders someone, or charges him or her with the mission. But when you look at the Bible, and there is a good analysis of the place of revenge in the Bible – it’s only God.
This can be hard to understand – even contradictory – but paradox is the nature of the human condition. Authentic living is often paradoxical. A response that fosters trust in humanity in the face of atrocious crimes must embrace paradox. We are strong and heartbroken. We are determined, focused, and still traumatized by unfathomable violence. We yearn for peace, and we are at war fighting against evil, without forgetting that love, care, and human dignity are values that animate our power.
Gratitude – Even During War
There is robust research on the benefits of gratitude, much of which is very applicable to the difficulties of war. Gratitude has been found to reduce depression, lessen anxiety, relieve stress, and improve sleep.
You best leverage the benefits of gratitude when you write your appreciation, articulate what precisely you are thankful for, guide your mind multiple times throughout the day toward gratitude, and share your gratitude, for example, through writing thank-you notes and posting on social media or on group chats.
Jewish tradition guides us toward recognizing the good, hakarat hatov. Consider the following timely examples:
- Heroic stories of rescue from the October 7 and the days which follow – neighbors, parents, and caring citizens who put themselves in harm’s way and saved others.
- Soldiers showing up and training to help lead the efforts to ensure the safety of others. People living or traveling abroad who got a call from their army unit and dropped all their plans to catch a flight to help the war effort.
- Restaurants that have become kosher so that they can cook huge meals to feed soldiers, physicians, and displaced families.
- A surge of volunteerism throughout Israel to feed and care for our soldiers and displaced families, and throughout the Jewish world to support the needs on the ground and to help by sharing the stories of what is happening.
- Tech giants condemning the Hamas attack and offering financial support.
- People around the world sending individual messages of care, donating, lobbying governments for the release of hostages and attending large pro-Israel rallies.
- Global leaders, such as US President Joe Biden, who quickly spoke out in support of Israel and even traveled to the country; New York mayor Eric Adams, who delivered an emotional supporting speech at the New York Stand with Israel Rally on October 10; and United Kingdom’s prime minister Rishi Sunak and German chancellor Olaf Scholz, both of whom quickly expressed solidarity and traveled to Israel.
- Celebrities around the world who have made statements supporting the Jewish State and condemning Hamas’s terrorism.
- Brave Israeli Arabs who have stepped forward to condemn Hamas.
The list goes on and will continue to expand. Behind every bullet point above there are multiple stories. Each is a flash of light in a dark time and an expression of who we are – the global Jewish family and its allies.
We can all search for meaning amid the chaotic events that are transpiring. We can each lead by the stories we choose to share and by embedding the current mayhem within a wider narrative of hope.
What stories are you sharing and with whom? Even if you share only with your inner circle of friends and family, there may be someone you reach who will have a larger following and impact the public discourse.
It is Jewish values such as hope, human dignity, and gratitude which have helped the Jewish people endure through difficult times from generation to generation. Let us take strength and inspiration in how these and other Jewish values are now intensifying and coming to the fore.
All over Israel there are large posters stating “Yachad nenatzeach!” “Together we will win!” The Hebrew word for winning comes from the same root as endurance, netzach. May this war end as quickly and as successfully as possible and may our conversation about it continue to draw upon and deepen the values that have helped the Jewish people prevail and endure over millennia.