Rachel Gottlieb

Israel at War: More Than Numbers

(Photocredits: Author)

As I sit down to write this, it’s November 7, 2023. That means that it’s been a month since Israel was attacked. A month since our brothers and sisters were massacred. A month that our parents and grandparents and children have been in Gaza. A month since we mobilized every member of our people to fight this existential battle.

A month.

On the one hand, I can’t believe it’s only been a month. It feels like we’ve been living with this nightmare for decades. And thank God that’s not the case, because that is entirely unsustainable. On every single level. But the pit in my stomach has become such a constant companion that it seems to have taken up permanent residence at this point. I know the taste of fear. We’ve become well acquainted. I’ve learned the agony of checking my phone in the morning—my morning, which is the wrong time zone—to see if there were any deaths announced in the few hours that I tried to snatch sleep. This shape that life has taken feels familiar by now.

On the other hand, though. It’s been a month? A full month? How is that possible? A month is…a long time. I think about it like when a baby is born, how they progress from being any number of days old, to any number of weeks old, to any number of months old, before they finally hit a year. (And to you parents who insist on saying that your child is 391 months old when a polite stranger asks how old the baby is, go away. I was being polite. Don’t punish me with a math problem.) Hitting that one month mark is a massive milestone. In Judaism, the one-month mark shows a sense of permanence, of a new reality. By the time you hit one month in a new home, you have to make sure you have your mezuzah up. A pidyon haben, the redeeming of the firstborn son, takes place when the baby is a month old. Thirty days after a close relative passes away marks a shift into the next stage of mourning that is an acknowledgment, on the halakhic level, of the distance that now exists between the mourner and the event that plunged him into mourning.

A month is when facts and realities and people and lives begin to blur and blend into numbers. Just raw numbers. Large numbers, too. Like the approximately 1,400 of us who were killed. Or the upwards of 240 of us who were kidnapped. Or the 360,000 (at least!) reserve soldiers who put their lives on hold to go defend God and the Jewish people by standing up for the State of Israel. Or the 348 soldiers who were killed since this war began.

The problem with numbers, though, is that they sterilize. When I say that there were 1,400 of us killed, do you see the clothes and dolls strewn across the floor of someone’s house as the remnants of a child’s life that was brutally and horrifically ended are displayed for the world to see? When I say that it’s more than 240 of us still being held in Gaza, does your mind jump immediately to that nine-month old baby who, my God, is now ten months old? When you see the number 360,000 to represent our soldiers, do you associate that with someone who didn’t get to go to the beer festival in the end of October that he had tickets for (never mind that the beer festival didn’t happen, because, well, war)? When you read that 348 soldiers have fallen, do you think about that smile that will never again grace the world because it ended up on the receiving end of a bullet?

And when we say that it’s been a month, do you feel fatigued?

I was watching a clip yesterday about the war where someone was reporting from Gaza about the fuel situation there (and before you ask, I have no idea what it was, nor why I was watching it, nor how I came across it). On the banner along the bottom of the screen, accompanying this Palestinian-biased report, was a message: “We are not just numbers.” And I could not believe that they had the audacity to say such a thing. You’re not just numbers? You’re concerned that you’ve been dehumanized? That the world is losing sight of your individuality?

And I have to ask, the you who dares to write such a banner: Do you know what it means to see the grandfather at the table roll up his sleeve and there’s a flash of blue on his arm, and even though the numbers aren’t quite as crisp as they once were, they’re still very much there? The numbers that stripped the individual—not as a mass of humanity, but this one, single person—of his humanity, of his individuality, of his very sense of self, because he was reduced to a number? The numbers that gave license to murder us at will, because we were (or are) not people? The numbers that were not taken together as a whole because the whole, frankly, didn’t matter, but what mattered was that Prisoner Number Fill-In-The-Number came to work today and filled his or her quota? The numbers that sterilized the individual on an individual level, not because he or she was lost to the larger group, but because the individual was not an individual, but was just a number?

Because we do. We know what it means to be reduced to a number. It’s been burned into our collective consciousness, tattooed onto our arms in eternal memory. And when we swore and said, “Never again,” we didn’t just mean the six million. That’s six million, by the way—another number that sterilizes not just the individuals who make up that six million, but it’s a number that we throw around so often that we don’t even realize how little we can fathom what six million actually means. (Go watch Paper Clips. It’s powerful.) That collective resolve to never again allow the Jewish people be systematically slaughtered was also a promise that we would never again lose ourselves to numbers. That we would never again be stripped of our humanity to become another number. That we would never again simply be another statistic.

Because we, the Jewish people, are not just numbers.

We are a collective, yes. But we are a collective that is made of you and me and him and her and our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and acquaintances and strangers that all coalesce together into a beautiful, cohesive whole. We belong to an illustrious chain of history that has never been broken, even when it’s been under impossible strain, because when every individual contributes to something greater than themselves, well, we can move mountains.

So even though it’s been a month, and even though the one-month milestone marks that shift into numbers, I resolve, right here and right now, to refuse to allow us to become numbers. I refuse to allow the constantly increasing numbers to sterilize the stories of the individuals and the lives and the families that were shattered since this war began on October 7. And I ask you to join me. Let’s together make sure that nobody is just a number. Let’s together make sure that we do not lose sight of the fact that we are a collective body made of individuals, martyrs who may have fallen, or heroes who may still be languishing in the chains of captivity, but it is each person individually who makes us become that whole. Let’s together make sure that we always remember that we are only greater than the sum of our parts because it is our parts that make us great.

Let’s together move mountains.

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
שמחה בן הינדא ברכה

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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