Meaning and the Paradoxes of War

Hanan Ben Ari performs at soldier's wedding at an army base (Facebook)
Hanan Ben Ari performs at soldier's wedding at an army base (Facebook)

Over the past few days, as a resident of Jerusalem, I have tried to process and make sense of the terror and war unleashed here. One observation stands out to me. War, more than any other situation, most bluntly expresses, shoves in our faces even, the paradoxes that riddle our reality. 

The depths of depravity and evil carried out by Hamas terrorists, which surpass what the mind could possibly fathom, which make any person want to simply shudder and cry, give birth to unmatched acts of kindness. Everyday I rise to loving texts from friends and family expressing their concern. Israelis wait patiently for hours in line to donate blood. Americans open up their wallets and hearts to fund anything Israeli, and complete strangers open up their homes to displaced families from the southern kibbutzim. Whatsapp groups flood with volunteer opportunities regarding food drives for soldiers and babysitting for wives of reservists. Even famous singers here volunteer their talents, singing at last-minute, makeshift weddings for soldiers. For whatever reason, the better angels of our nature are unleashed by the appearance of our worst demons. 

Another paradox: nothing has changed. The sheer brutality of the events of the past week evoked comparisons to the horrors of The Holocaust. No matter what era we live in or what we do, that age-old monster named antisemitism seems to rear its ugly head. As we chant every year on Passover: “In every generation they stand against us to destroy us.” Yet, everything has changed. We have a state and powerful military to protect us and fight back. Even our status in America is completely different. As Nathan Diament told President Biden: eighty years ago Jewish leaders attempted to meet with President Roosevelt to discuss the situation in Europe. They were rejected. Yesterday, however, President Biden met with American Jewish leaders to assure them of American support for Israel. 

Why does this observation matter? It matters, at least for me, to provide a spark of hope against this nagging feeling that follows me around, that taunts me. Let me explain. I want to help. I want to make a difference for my country, my people, my brothers. So, in my role as a citizen on the home front, I donate blood, money, and time. “Yet,” jeers that feeling, “your small acts of kindness cannot bring the dead back to life, cannot make far-reaching strategic and political decisions, cannot influence the minds of the masses. Your impact, especially as a non-reservist, is merely a drop in the ocean.” 

But, if my theory is correct, that war brings the deepest paradoxes to light, then I can confidently answer this feeling. If, during war, we feel that our choices are insignificant, then they are also infinitely significant at the same time. 

Perhaps this is why I cry almost every time I watch the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. For those who have not seen it yet (despite it being released in the 1940s), It’s a Wonderful Life follows the life of George Bailey, a kind-hearted man whose dreams of exploring and changing the world continuously get thwarted as he makes sacrifices for the benefit of his friends, family, and town. Due to some bad luck (and the plotting of a jealous, powerful enemy) George falls on hard times and considers suicide when he encounters an angel. To deter George from suicide, the angel shows George a parallel universe where he was never born. In this universe, the absence of George’s kindness creates a chain reaction that makes a tremendous impact. His welcoming, happy hometown has turned into a grisly and rough city. Many of his friends live much poorer, unhappier lives. In the end, the angel brings George back to his original reality with a profound appreciation for his life and his own self worth. 

In this non-Hollywood reality, without heavenly help, we cannot so easily divine the impact of our actions. However, we have no other choice, I think, than to believe in ourselves. To have faith that our actions are ultimately important, meaningful, and influential. To pray that even the smallest act of kindness sparks an invisible chain of cause and effect more powerful than we could possibly imagine. To approach every decision with the view that, to paraphrase Our Sages, the fate of the world hangs in the balance and our decision tilts the scale for all of humankind. To internalize the wise words of George Eliot that: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” For this conviction is our steadfast anchor and beacon of light in these trying times. 

About the Author
Natan Oliff is a software engineer living in Jerusalem
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