Rachel Gottlieb

Israel at War: It’s Personal. It’s Not. Is It?

Finding comfort in shared pain and grief, October 22, 2023 (Photocredits: Author)

I’m struggling here. I know, that’s not news to you. I’ve been very honest about the emotional side of this war since the very beginning, whether it was about how I felt about being in Israel (I miss it so much), or the raw pain and grief that we are experiencing on a national level, or how difficult I have found this transition back to life in the US. So to simply say that I’m struggling is nothing new, notable, or noteworthy, and I know that.

But there’s something more. It took me a little while to identify what it was that was bothering me, and, honestly, I don’t think I would have come to this if I hadn’t come back to the States. You see, since Sunday, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about my personal pain. It’s been about my personal struggle. It’s been a lot about me. And that’s felt very, very selfish.

That struggle wasn’t anywhere near as magnified when I was in Israel, because there’s a lot more of a sense of shared suffering there. It permeates the very air you breathe. I remember, at the beginning of the war, wrestling with myself for being scared for my soldiers, specifically, but I reasoned with myself that as a human, I only have so much capacity for so many people. So yes, I do care more about my soldiers, but it’s more like they’re my focal point to care about all of our soldiers, that my care and concern for all of our guys is channeled through my care and concern for all of my guys. And I’m okay with that. Again, I’m human, and I have a limit.

This was different, though. Because with my coming back to the States, it felt like my pain was turned inward and focused internally. When I was in Israel, that pain was shared. It was a burden that I was shouldering together with my brothers and sisters, standing together with them in our shared grief and anguish. I was in pain because we were in pain. I was in pain because over 1400 of my brothers and sisters were massacred and over 200 of them were dragged into the unthinkable that is captivity in the hands of Hamas. I was in pain because we, together, were plunged into a nightmare. That pain was—is—raw and real and deep, but it wasn’t about me. And there was a measure of comfort in the fact that it wasn’t about me.

But then I left. I didn’t run away (and yes, I do have to keep telling myself that as a mantra so that hopefully it sinks in and I start to believe those words that right now ring very, very hollow), but I left my beautiful homeland, and, in doing so, I left my heart behind. And do you know something? It’s really, really painful to be so far from your heart. Incredibly painful. But I felt—feel—isolated. What’s hurting me now, more so than the pain that we are in as a people, is the fact that I am so, so far away from the focal point of that pain. What hurts the most is that I left. That I’m not there. And that’s personal.

And it feels selfish.

And it feels small.

And it feels wrong.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who is grappling with this, though. This feeling of being consumed with personal pain and struggling with feeling like I should be concerned with bigger things than just me. That there is so much more at stake, so I should be putting myself aside. Thinking that I’m selfish for being focused on myself, because there are soldiers who have literally put their lives on hold to defend our land and our people. Because there are families that are still waiting to bury their loved ones. Because there are people who are on the news, day in, day out, begging and pleading for their loved ones to be brought home from Gaza. Because there is a war—an actual, honest to goodness war—that is currently being waged, and who am I to magnify my own pain so much that my vision shrinks down and my focus is so self-centered? Who am I to lose sight of the bigger picture? Who am I turn this national crisis into a personal one?

And so I’m struggling. I know part of an answer is the fact that I have to find the personal pain in the national pain, because otherwise it doesn’t stay alive. Otherwise it’s easy to forget. (Dear God, please help me to never forget.) Otherwise it’s easy to get lost in routine of daily life and to live life as if everything is normal. (Everything is not normal. Everything cannot be normal. Please, God, make sure I remember that.) So to an extent, the pain is really important towards keeping that sight and keeping that focus. That pain I embrace. That pain I cherish. The heart-shaped hole in my chest because I left my heart behind? That burning passion to be there in my beautiful Israel with my beautiful people and the anguish of being so far away? The yearning to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Israel in our shared grief and fear and rage? I want that pain. Because that’s productive. That’s towards a higher purpose. Yes, it’s personal pain, but, in the same way that I am more concerned for my soldiers, that personal pain becomes the channel for joining together with my people, for sharing in our national pain. Because I’m still only human.

But because I’m still only human, I’m also struggling with feeling selfish within that personal pain. It feels wrong to be in pain for me. It feels wrong to seek comfort for me. It feels wrong take such a myopic view on what should be so much more than my rough, rough landing back here in the US. It’s not about me. It shouldn’t be, anyway.

But I’m having a hard time with that. And, I won’t lie to you, I’m having a hard time with the fact that I’m having a hard time. I’m struggling with the very fact that I’m grappling with feeling selfish. And I don’t have answers to this one. I take small comfort in embracing that pain and hurt and fear that comes with being so far away, but it doesn’t address the issue as a whole. I remind myself that I’m human, and that struggle like that is real and normal and that I cannot, I’m sure, be the only one who is trying to work through this very issue, but I’m stuck on the question of how do I work through it?

How am I not being selfish? How do I stop feeling selfish? How do I keep focus on this fight that is so much more than just me?

Right now, I don’t know. I don’t have the answers.

And I’m struggling.

Please continue to pray for us, and for the following soldiers, especially:
עזרא צבי יוסף בן אריאלה פנינה
יעקב זכריה בן אריאלה פנינה
אליהו סִינַי בן ביילא רבקה
נַתַּן בן דבורה אסתר
דוד אלכסנדר בן דבורה אסתר
אלכסנדר בן שרה אלישבע
ראובן אליעזר בן אביגיל אסתר
בועז כָּלֵב בן יפָה מרים
יצחק אייזיק בן פריידא
אהרן בן רחל ברכה
חובב בן דבורה אסתר

כי ה׳ אלקיכם ההולך עמכם להלחם לכם עם אויביכם להושיע אתכם. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם

About the Author
As a combination logophile and Israel-o-phile, Rachel's fingers itch whenever something needs to be shared about Israel, particularly as it relates to the Diaspora. Her credentials include a Master's in English and many years experience as a high-school English teacher, which covers the writing part, and being a card-carrying member of the Jewish nation, which covers the Israel part. Although she currently resides in Suffern, NY, her heart has long since been stolen by Israel herself, and her mind is constantly preoccupied with the capital of the Jewish people.
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