Alan Abrams

Life during wartime — Spiritual pain and the search for healing when the bullets are flying

“There must be a better way! Certainly צה’’ל with all its incredible technological capabilities can find a better way of handling the Gaza border crisis than just firing live ammo?!?!?!”

When I’ve seen people say things like this on social media, I’ve lashed out in defense of the soldiers who protect me and my family. “What actual suggestions do you have,” I’ve asked? “It’s not helpful to suggest that  צה’’ל is not doing all it can at a time our enemies are (unjustly) accusing Israel of serious crimes; it makes it sound like you’re on their side,” I’ve scolded.

I’ve had some days to think about what I’ve said. And, while I do stand by the content of my words of defense, a colleague helped me realize that I — a person who as a spiritual caregiver is supposed to be a professional expert at hearing people’s pain — have been failing to acknowledge the deep spiritual pain behind these statements.

“It’s a cry of anguish,” my colleague wrote. “Not an argument.”

It’s anguish. At least for those of us who are basically liberal in orientation and like to think of ourselves as advocates of peace and as lovers of life in a deep spiritual and religious way. I mean, I’m profoundly opposed to the death penalty even for the worst criminals! I believe in the value of hearing the story of others and finding empathy with it.

So, yeah, when people, including myself in my own head, say that surely the Israeli Army can do better on the Gaza border, it’s a spiritual anguish we’re expressing. Spiritual pain comes when the basic spiritual system you have for connecting your ultimate values — the realm of the Infinite and the Holy — with the realities of the finite, of the so-called ‘real world’, becomes detached.

My ultimate values tell me every human life is precious — a whole world in the vision of the Rabbis. But the realities of life down here tell me that Israel is at war. Yes, this is what war looks like in the 21st century. The real battlefield is not down there on the fields of Gaza. It’s on your television screen and your social media feed. This is what it looks like when Hamas is on the offensive. They’re sacrificing bodies to get the images that deligitize Israel in the eyes of the world. Because delegitimizing Israel as a nation — and ultimately destroying it — is the only goal of these angry extremists.

Yes, it’s a trap. One that Hamas is leading Israel into by throwing bodies at the border. But צה’’ל has no choice but to engage this trap. It has to protect the border — by shooting people — to protect me, my wife, my daughter and my fellow Israeli citizens. There’s no choice no matter how much it is in tension with my deep spiritual desire to be a person who always supports life-nurturing policies.

I stand ready — hungry, really — to support some other policy to protect our border with Gaza, but I have yet to see any serious suggestion for doing so that doesn’t involve national suicide. And so I, a life lover, am unequivocally supporting a policy that involves killing. But it hurts. It means something is deeply broken in the world.

To my friends who want to remain on the fence — who want their only public face in the midst of this war to be one of being nothing but peaceful — I say, get off of that fence. War imposes a terrible thing on us — a necessity of choosing a side. The pacifists created in Britain by the horrors of WWI faced this terrible truth when war came back. There were only two sides — Hitler or Britain; pacifism, as high and beautiful a value as it is, was not on the list of options. Similarly, today you have to choose either Hamas or Israel. Every effort to stay on the fence will be read by others as being pro-Hamas. Because if the only message you are sending out is that you love life and human rights, everybody will assume you are on the side that is losing more lives; that is the simple calculus your peace-loving Christian, etc., friends are applying if all you do is say how sad you are at the deaths — that the side losing more people is in the right and you, my friend, are supporting that side.

The only way you can prevent that is by coming out unequivocally for Israel. So, just do it, no matter how much it might shock your liberal or Muslim friends. At least if you really do want lsrael to survive this terrible assault. At least if you want to be fully honest.

But, be comforted. This is not the end of the story. It may even be Hamas’ last gasp. The time will come again when you can focus on hearing the narrative of the other. The time will come again when being a pastoral presence can mean options besides just choosing one of two sides. Ultimately, with the help of the Holy Blessed One, we will have a chance to work for true hearing and peace, not just an agreement that ends the killing and sets borders, but one that allows Israelis and Palestinians to find true friendship and common cause with one another. May it come speedily and soon.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.