Noach Lawrence
Knesset and Senate alum, now rabbi

In war’s trauma, Judaism’s healing wisdom from Genesis to now

Left: Rainbow and branches; Right: Path in the Judean Desert. Photos and collage by Noach Lawrence
Left: Rainbow and branches; Right: Path in the Judean Desert. Photos and collage by Noach Lawrence

This is a time of deeply difficult emotions for the Jewish people. We may be feeling waves of profound sadness, shock, fear, anger, confusion, grieving, and more emotions. We may feel many of these at once. We never know when one emotion will change into another. Hamas’ horrifying, murderous attack on Israel came three weeks ago this Shabbat. What began that day will not end soon. The war to rescue the hostages and stop Hamas continues. The rockets keep falling on ordinary Israeli towns and cities. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens. The disaster that Hamas unleashed continues to grow. Even when these battles end, we can sense that the deep loss, the reckoning with all we have endured, will linger. We as a people are enduring trauma.

Judaism offers us powerful ways to bolster, affirm, and heal ourselves and each other amid the trauma of these times.

First: Judaism guides and supports us in acknowledging our emotions.

In Psalm 34, we find these words: “Close is Adonai to the brokenhearted, and the crushed in spirit God rescues.” This Hebrew word for “crushed,” daka, is the root of the modern Hebrew word for “depression,” dika’on. When we feel depressed, and indeed when we feel crushed in spirit, our tradition gently guides us toward acknowledging how we feel. As hard as it is, talking about how we feel spares us the inner conflict of experiencing emotions with no way to express them, and the conflict of trying to suppress our emotions. Judaism understands that acknowledgment is a small yet powerful form of healing.

Particularly for Jewish American families as a minority, it matters to have places to share and acknowledge our emotions together. We live amid a world that often goes on as usual as if nothing is wrong, or, worse, that actively whitewashes the traumas we are experiencing, and inflicts hate on our community. We need spaces that can be, in more than one sense, sanctuaries – whether a synagogue, a meal and conversation with family and friends, or indeed a publication, a space made of words. In these kinds of lowercase-s sanctuaries, we can acknowledge outwardly what we are experiencing inwardly. We can free ourselves of another inner conflict: holding in emotional pain with no way to let it out and find relief. We can feel the validation of seeing others sharing that they feel the same way.

This brings us to a second Jewish response to trauma: profound togetherness.

In these words, “Close is Adonai to the brokenhearted,” our tradition is saying: We are not alone. Our tradition affirms that the presence of Adonai, the Eternal One, according to what that means for each of us, is close to us even, and perhaps especially, when we feel brokenhearted or crushed. All in this world that is so much bigger than ourselves – all the generations before us, all the presence of truth and goodness in this world, the Divine Presence that encouraged Abraham and Sarah, comforted Rachel, inspired Moses – it is all right here with us in this moment. As the modern American rabbi and poet Rami Shapiro phrases it, “[We are] loved by an unending love.”

The word “close,” karov, is the very first word of this verse, “Close is Adonai to the brokenhearted”: the immediacy, the closeness, of God’s presence comes through in the very language. We may not always feel that comforting presence in the moment, and that is only natural. As my father says, “I believe in a God who expects me to doubt God’s own existence.” At the same time, we deserve to hear our tradition’s affirmation that the presence of divine love in this world is real, that we are loved, and that when we do not feel it at the moment, we can trust that we will feel it again.

Just as the Eternal One is with us, so we are with each other. When the psalm says, “the brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit,” these are in the plural, not the singular. We are never alone in our trauma. Even when we feel alone in the universe, overwhelmed and isolated, we deserve to know that other people feel alone in the universe too – so we are never really alone: the very fact that we share these emotions in common connects us. In community, we can find solace. There is no more powerful and no more divine response to trauma than togetherness and love.

Third: Our tradition shows us, amid our darkest losses and struggles, that it is truly possible to reach a better time.

In this past week’s parashah, Parashat Noach, in the book of Bereishit, Genesis, we find a very different example of a disaster and the question of how to respond in its wake. The flood waters have overwhelmed the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. Finally, dry land appears again. God says these poetic words:

As long as all the days of the earth—
seedtime and harvest
and cold and heat
and summer and winter
and day and night
shall not cease.
(Bereishit 8:22, translation from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible)

God proclaims these truths because the disaster Noach and his family just experienced has called these once-simple truths into doubt. The classic Torah commentator Radak of 13th-century Occitania in the south of France observes that while Noach and his family were in the Ark, they may not have been able to tell when the sun or moon was out or even whether it was day or night, since the sky was always dark with rain clouds. The sun and the moon still existed behind the clouds, but Noach had no way of knowing. All he could see was the storm.

So God gives Noach this promise. Yes, the rhythm of time will continue. New days will come. Yes, planting and harvesting will continue. Sustenance will continue. Normal life, peaceful life, will return.

When the dove returns to Noach with the olive branch in its beak, the dove becomes a sign that storms end, and dry land appears again. When God shows Noach the rainbow as the sign of God’s promise, God gives all of us a reminder that we have gotten through storms to sunlight before. We will do so again.

In 2006, the celebrated Israeli fiction writer and essayist David Grossman had to do the unimaginable: to give a eulogy for his child. His son Uri was killed in the Second Lebanon War, by an anti-tank missile from Hezbollah. Uri was killed two days before the war ended. In his eulogy, David Grossman described the moment when he and his wife Michal told Uri’s 14-year-old little sister Ruti that her older brother was killed. Here is what David Grossman said in his eulogy:

[W]hen Michal and I went into Ruti’s room to wake her and tell her the terrible news, Ruti, after first crying, said: “But we will live, right? We will live, and go for hikes like before, and I want to keep singing in the choir, and we’ll still laugh like always, and I want to learn how to play guitar.” And we hugged her and told her that we will live.
(Full English translation here; Hebrew original here)

We will live. Nichyeh, from the same root as chayim – as in “l’chayim,” “to life.” As in the moment in the opening parashah of Bereishit, indeed the opening parashah of the entire Torah, when God first creates the human being: “And the Eternal One, God… breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, nishmat chayim” (Bereishit 2:7).

When Ruti Grossman described all the parts of what it meant to her to live, she gave a modern, 14-year-old version of God’s poem in Parashat Noach. When she said,

We will… go for hikes like before,
and I want to keep singing in the choir,
and we’ll still laugh like always,
and I want to learn how to play guitar

it was her modern, 14-year-old version of God’s words:

seedtime and harvest
and cold and heat
and summer and winter
and day and night
shall not cease.

Just as God was right, Ruti Grossman was right.

Finally, Judaism offers us one more form of healing from trauma: responding to the situation we face by doing the most good we can.

After God’s poem and promise, God gives Noach a set of mitzvot, commandments. These are the Noachide laws, the Torah’s way of articulating the laws of decency that bind all of humanity together, across all lines of ethnicity and religion. The central one is the prohibition of murder. The reason God gives for prohibiting murder is: “for in the image of God / God made the human being.”

This emphasis on the good we can do grows even more heightened in this week’s parashah, Parashat Lech Lecha. God calls out to Avraham, at this point still named Avram, “Go forth, lech lecha… and be a blessing, veh-h’yei brachah” (Bereishit 12:1-2).

Here, we reach a pivotal shift in the Torah. Noach was told what not to do. Avraham is given a positive call for what to do. Noach, coming immediately after destruction, receives the foundational mitzvah not to murder. Because Avraham stands on Noach’s shoulders, he is in a different position that allows him to go on a journey and to be a blessing.

In the arc from Noach to Avraham, we see that each of us can, and must, find the difference we can make in our own unique ways. In the face of trauma, sometimes we can feel helpless. We may look at the enormity of tragedy and wonder if maybe there is nothing we can do to make the situation better.

Judaism encourages us to look for what we can do. Even when the difference we make is small, the situation is that much better than it was before. Each mitzvah we do like Noach, each way we fulfill Avraham’s charge to “be a blessing,” brings us that much closer to solid ground after the storm. Knowing we have brought that time closer deepens our healing.

May we feel this healing spirit and energy of purpose, in this arc stretching out from Noach to Avraham, ahead to the writer of Psalm 34 in ancient Israel, through Jewish history to Radak in medieval Occitania inspired by Noach’s story, and ahead to Ruti Grossman’s call, “We will live,” “Nichyeh.” This affirmation of life, this force of love that they knew – if this is not God’s presence, what is? As this Divine Presence comforted them, may it comfort us, and may we comfort each other.

About the Author
Rabbi Noach Lawrence serves as the assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in the Bay Area, after a first career in law and politics, including work at the Israeli Supreme Court, the US Senate, and the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. His writing has appeared in CNN Opinion and Newsweek. The opinions herein are his own.
Related Topics
Related Posts