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What grief can do: 30 days of mourning

It’s difficult to have compassion for the other side that has wreaked suffering on our own. But our humanity demands it
Israelis light candles to remember the victims who were murdered by Hamas terrorists and Israelis abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, a month after the October 7 massacre, November 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis light candles to remember the victims who were murdered by Hamas terrorists and Israelis abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, a month after the October 7 massacre, November 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Today marks sheloshim, the 30th day of mourning, a month since the October 7th massacre perpetrated by Hamas in the south of Israel.

The stories of what transpired that day in the southern kibbutzim and towns continue to emerge, recounted on the nightly news and in the newspapers, and the faces of the murdered, the children and whole families, the grandparents and young concert goers, continue to haunt our days. In public spaces, on posters plastered everywhere, it is the faces of the hostages that haunt us, calling to us to bring them home; 240 people of every age who were in a brutal moment swallowed up by darkness.

Today on this 30th day, the weight of grief and sorrow is still heavy in the air, itself a physical presence. People’s eyes are clouded over and downcast, faces are drawn and grim, voices are quieter than usual, as though everything is fragile and tenuous, in need of more tender tones.

Those of us who are lucky – and we know we are lucky – have no one dead from our first circle and have no hostages from our immediate families or friends. But from our second circles onward, absolutely everyone knows someone who was killed, or someone who is missing, or someone who somehow survived the horror. The shock of what happened on October 7th, coupled now with the dread for the hostages and concern for the soldiers, overwhelm the spirit.

There’s an implicit expectation on sheloshim, on the 30th day, that the grieving may ease, as one enters the next phase in the Jewish mourning rituals. But, of course, there can be no easing now.

Indeed, the opposite is the case, as the catastrophe of what happened in the south is met by the catastrophe of what is being visited upon thousands of innocents in Gaza, the carnage of incessant bombings, the utter destruction. After thirty days, Gaza is a smoke and dust wilderness of razed buildings, piled-high rubble and debris, and profound human suffering.

Here in Israel, in hearts that are filled almost to overflowing with grief and concern for our own, it feels as though there is little room left to grieve for the terrified children of Gaza, for their desperate mothers who cannot keep them safe, for all the many civilians who are trapped, who are hungry and afraid, who have been injured or killed in the bombings and are written off as “collateral damage.” I’ll speak this more bluntly – I note how my own heart has less room for the Gazan children, though I can see them there at the edges of my thoughts. I want to bring them more fully into my consciousness, as I used to, but I fail. This is the nature of extreme violence experienced and enacted, how it challenges our humanity and, ultimately, how it mars and maims it.

October 7th, the day of the massacre, was Simchat Torah, the Jewish festival marking the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of that cycle anew. In the synagogue service that day, the last chapter of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, and the first chapter of Genesis would have both been read, and the Torah scroll itself would have been rewound from the end to its beginning. There is excitement and drama in the physical act of rewinding the heavy parchment scroll from end to start; there is an implicit promise in starting the cycle anew, with the creation story of light and life in Eden the first to be retold.

In the days following the pogrom in the south of Israel, as the number of dead kept rising, as the images and tales of Hamas’ unfathomable brutality became evident, and as the massive Israeli air-force bombings of Gazan cities ensued, I vaguely thought of the Genesis story. I thought how incongruent it was that just as the lovely creation story would be chanted out and retold in Jewish communities around the world, we were being thrust into an inverse world, one of complete destruction and darkness. It felt as though nothing connected to creation was relevant to us now.

But from within this landscape of ongoing destruction and seemingly endless sorrow, feeling how hardened many of our hearts have become to anyone who is not from our tribe, today I am finally able to focus on the one verse from the Genesis story that is not only relevant now but urgently necessary. It is the verse describing the divine’s final act of creation, the creation of the human being: “And God created the human in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” I note how there is no Jew in this verse; there is no Muslim. There is no Israeli and there is no Palestinian. There is a human, male and female, created in a divine image.

Thirty days into this nightmare, there is very little resembling the “image of god” in the way anyone, on any side, is proceeding. There is rage, fear and hatred everywhere. These primal, even animalistic forces have conquered and vanquished anything that may be considered a divine attribute. Violence reigns supreme. In Israel, these primal forces are being expressed in the astonishingly primitive paradigm of force will win. Force will most definitely not win. It never has in this region, and it never will. Only the divine attributes of our human selves will lead us to anything resembling triumph.

What are these divine elements in our human selves that we must access now? What are the divine attributes that, in fact, make us most fully human? It is first of all compassion – but not only the relatively easy compassion for one’s inner circle. Compassion needs to be felt across all the divides, across all the borders. The divine embedded in my own limited human self would help me feel compassion more fully for the people of Gaza even as I and my own people are in such great pain. This attribute is divine not only for the good it could potentially bring into the world but also for how hard it is to achieve. How dauntingly difficult it is to be compassionate for those affiliated with the enemy side that has wreaked suffering on one’s own.

The second divine attribute fiercely lacking and so desperately needed in ourselves and, above all, in our politicians, as we move through and respond to all the horror around us is the ability to imagine alternatives and then create them. It is the divine that imagined a world that wasn’t, and in imagining that world, brought it into being; it is through that divine element of imagining that we humans, too, may create something new.

To respond to the atrocities of Oct. 7th only with military force, to bomb buildings into rubble, to displace many thousands of civilians and kill thousands more in the name of security and peace is a profound and heartbreaking failure of the imagination. These are actions that have been done many times before and have always resulted in nothing but more sorrow and suffering, to both sides. Repeating the violence and expecting different results is witless and absurd.

To eradicate from this region the barbarism of Hamas will take imagining other possibilities, other realities; it will take formulations and thinking that are radically different from all the thoughts that have brought us to this dismal moment. To create safety and security in Israel, and to bring hope and flourishing to Gaza, will take nothing less than imagining new worlds, and then creating them.

On this 30th day, sheloshim in the mourning cycle, the fighting and killing continue; every day there are more names and more faces, more bereaved parents and more devastated families. And still, I take this late hour in the day to imagine an end to the invasion and an end to the war. I imagine the return of all the hostages to their families, every single one of them. I imagine the rebuilding of the charred homes in the southern kibbutzim and towns, and I imagine a Gaza where civilians move freely, their cities constructed anew and their futures opened up. I imagine us all, finally, rising from mourning.

About the Author
Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet, translator and professor of literature. She lives in the Galilee, where her great great great grandfather settled in the 1830s.
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