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Debra Kiez
An ER doc with heart and soul

Israel: A nation grief-stricken and awestruck

Since October 7th, much has been written to express our collective grief, fear, incredulity, and sometimes pure numbness of thought surrounding the events of that day and all that has happened since then. Each of us has developed coping mechanisms which have, by necessity, changed and evolved – from the first moments of day one, until now – more than 100 days later. Early on we couldn’t eat or sleep – we could barely catch our breath – as if we’d personally been battered, kidnapped, or worse. Since then, we’ve had to adjust to our “new reality”, and it changes daily. It feels like the war started just yesterday, or was it years ago? The impact of the losses is merciless, recasting sadness with each soldier’s death or hostage story, stripping off the Band-Aid of deeper historical traumas, from the Holocaust and pogroms of Eastern Europe to the Inquisition – reading like a revised Haggadah. Yet, like our people’s storied escape from Egypt and slavery, there are modern day examples of escape from enslavement to the burden of grief we carry. I’ve read inspiring accounts of people who commit to what has to be done – a funeral and shiva one day, a wedding the next. I’ve read heart-rending stories of survival and heroism. I’ve heard the prayers and of the miracles. I’ve read of hope. 

In a sense I’ve had my own personal experience in witnessing and managing trauma. For over thirty years, as an ER physician, I’ve seen a lot of it. Even in the first week of the war, when I was teaching in the Rambam ER, one day epitomized it all – from the death of a fatally ill elderly man with sepsis, followed by a serious construction worksite trauma, to the unexpected and uplifting birth of a baby boy. 

My mantra through these incredibly difficult weeks and months has been one I also apply in my work. Simply put, it’s “Assess, then reassess.” With acutely sick or injured patients one has to be able to identify a significant change in clinical status – and to predict when a patient is about to “crash”. We assess, and then minutes later, reassess – because it’s a rapidly changing scenario that requires our full attention. You can ask any trauma surgeon or ER doc – when they’re running a medical or trauma code, they’re completely “present”. It’s mindfulness on adrenalin. 

That first day of what is now known as the “Black Sabbath”, was the beginning of a tragic era in our Jewish history and the moment when, as a nation, we were thrown into an intense, full-out practice in this same mindfulness (some might call it obsession) – every day digesting more disturbing news of barbarity and loss of life. “Assess, then reassess” was, by its simplicity and familiarity to me, my daily lifeline in the turbulent seas of national shock. It forced me to grapple with what I needed to know that day (where had the missiles landed? Who had been killed?) – assess, then calculate what I personally needed to do in order to make my little piece of the world okay: to reassess how I could do better, be better. 

Like many others, I volunteered. I stepped up my medical teaching and hospital work. I did whatever I could do for our soldiers. I was motivated by so many others who contributed in myriad and endless ways. That inspiration led me to eventually realize that a powerful undercurrent of positive, connecting energy has quickly developed, keeping the country afloat since October 7th. It wasn’t until I read the book “Awe”, by Dacher Keltner, that it became clear what that undercurrent was. Incredibly, it’s what one might least expect: AWE.

Keltner describes the different aspects of awe, including the obvious sources that move us to moments of tears, joy, and divine inspiration – like nature, music, art, and religion. But he also discusses something called moral beauty. Of over 2600 narratives he collected as part of his book research, those things which most consistently led to the feeling of awe were witnessing other people’s courage, kindness, strength, heroism, or rare talents. Keltner could have collected thousands more narratives from our stories in Israel. For we have become a nation of awe-makers. 

He posits that awe develops even in the aftermath of trauma. “After acts of terror, initially we express unique perspectives such as fear and outrage. Over time, our emotions converge; people develop a shared and collective understanding and story of what happened. This convergence of minds leads to acts of goodwill, cooperation, and a transformed sense of self as part of a community. This process of moving in unison is a contagious feeling, involving shared attention, collective representation, and a transcendent self – bringing each individual awe in cultural practices as we realize our actions are part of a greater, grander movement” (p. 164). 

In other words, the development of collective awe helps support our recovery and repair; it inspires us to protect and defend our nation, at all costs. Awe helps us with tikun. By being fully mindful of our daily feelings and situation (physical or emotional) and by attempting to take an honest reckoning of the day ahead – that “assess, then reassess” mode kicks in, and we are open to being carried forward by something greater than ourselves. 

In his commentary on this past week’s parsha – Vaera (in “Covenant and Conversation”), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z”L made some astonishing comments that apply directly to our place in history now. God tells Moses that He should be known by the name Hashem. Sacks says, “For the first time in history God was about to get involved in history by direct interaction with the people who shape history. He was going to help forge a new type of society – one that changes the world. Things can be different because we can be different, because God has shown us how.”

It is exactly this gift of awe, this “awe movement” that we need now – in order to be different and to be greater than our individual selves. How else can we create a better, new reality from the traumas of the old one? We need to infuse our daily lives with awe from all directions – from natural beauty, from divine inspiration and religious sources, from art, culture, and music. Just consider how many of our Israeli musicians are leading us in this process of awe and unity! The more we connect to our inner selves and how we’re coping and contributing, the more we will also want to connect to the “other” – our neighbor, friends, family, and the greater social circles that include our soldiers, and local or national volunteer movements. 

While my son was serving for several months as a “miluim-nik” (army reservist) in the south, I relied on a Whatsapp video created by a rabbi and Cohen (from the Jewish class of priests) in the USA. He had been given my son’s Hebrew name and he had recorded a blessing specifically for the safe return home of my son. Each morning I listened to the brachot and murmured “Amen”. Each morning I was touched by the kindness of this man, thousands of miles away, yet present with me in my time of fear and worry. His compassionate reach was my daily infusion of awe. This is a time, more than ever, for us to seek the small moments of grace, beauty, and unity which help us to overcome the strong moments of grief and uncertainty. As a Jewish nation we can harness awe through witnessing the physical and moral beauty of our land and people. We can be a better kind of different; we can overcome.

About the Author
Debra Kiez is an ER physician in Toronto, Canada (where she spends her summers) and teaches at the Technion American Medical School in Haifa when she's in Israel. She has a special interest in mind-body medicine, narrative medicine, and writing. She has five children, three grandchildren, and an amazing husband who recently shared the aliyah experience. She is inspired by nature, human connection, and the endless pursuit of knowledge.
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