David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Streams of Anxious Consciousness XX

I marveled at colleagues who hours after October 7th turned to text and tradition for solace and answers. I was not there. I was too filled with rage, questions, hurt, shock and grief. I did not think the sages of old could help me.

Now, almost three full weeks later and I am turning slowly back towards texts and tradition to soothe me. There are not many texts made for this moment. Ironically, with a rich history of torture and pain, we struggle with why bad things happen to our people. Theological answers are either cheap or unsatisfying. It has left me spluttering for explanations and comfort.

I then turned to the Torah portion. This week we read the story of our first connection to the land of Israel, what was biblically known as Canaan. Abram makes a journey to this place and God emphasizes that Abram will leave all that he knows and is familiar with, to explore and settle this new land. There is tremendous emphasis on the new and unknown.

I do not have any formal psychological training. Still, as a pastor for almost 25 years, I have done my share of counseling and understand better than some, what lives underneath many people’s feelings.

What I am witnessing is unprecedented anxiety. There is a tremendous fear of the unknown and this moment is somewhat unknown.

October 7th did not crack our belief of reality and belonging, it did not make a fissure of our place in the world. It violently shattered that perceived reality. We are coming to grips with that violence and the irreparable nature of the destruction. This is all new.

Undoubtedly, our Jewish world will not be the same. It will not be business as usual for any Jewish organization, Hillel on campus, Israel support mechanism or Jewish house of worship. Our Jewish identities in the Diaspora and in Israel, the shared DNA that contributes to our identity, will permanently be altered. That is for certain.

What is not certain is how it will change for the Jewish world. In what ways it will be different? Where will it pinch and where will it comfort?

Not knowing what will be is reason for our unease and angst. And for those history buffs, if we turn to our old playbook when faced with a reality like this, the forecasts for our future seem dark.

In the world of biblio-drama – where we project the emotions and feelings of biblical characters into our conversations – I imagine Abram would be loaded with anxiety for his impending journey. Will he be hungry, welcome, challenged, happy or fulfilled?

Anxiety, especially amongst Jews, can bring out the worst in us. We go to dark places. We assume the worst, (not always by character – often by experience). Remember that old joke? What is the difference between a Jewish optimist and Jewish pessimist?
The Jewish optimist says, ‘It cannot possibly get worse than this.’
The Jewish pessimist says, ‘Yes it can.’

This is a time that demands neither optimism or pessimism, rather realism; calling balls and strikes and being honest with ourselves and others, even in the face of the uncertain and unknown.

Someone earlier today said to me, “Rabbi, I never thought we would be looking down the barrel of another Jewish Holocaust here in America. Yet here we are.”

I did not say anything. I just hugged him. I know those words come from a real place of fear and anxiety.

At the same time, I disagree with his assessment. This does not feel like another Holocaust to me.

In 1939, the German Government were the powers enacting the laws against Jews. Today, the United States Government has been full throated and unwavering in their support of Israel, and Jews nationwide.

The horrors of the Holocaust barely harvested world sympathy for the Jews. Today, when faced with loss, we have universal sympathy from those who share our moral coordinates.

During the Holocaust, there was universal apathy. Today, we are facing antagonists and indifference, but we are also welcoming fantastic support.

During the Holocaust and before, we were limited in our influence, access and resources. Today, we hold that trifecta.

In 1939 we had no state of Israel. Today, we not only have a State, but the State has powerful friends and is capable of unleashing immense power to repel many enemies. It is not impervious to enemies, but Israel is far from weak.

As a population, we seemingly can look at an art installation of a two-thousand tile mosaic and focus on the two tiles that are missing. We are a kvetchy lot. A worrisome lot. A fearful lot. An anxious lot.

We do have much working for us, even if not ideal or perfect. Much of the international world stands with us. Some publicly, others privately. There are many assemblies and rallies where Palestinian sympathizers have gathered. Some have been violent, like in New Orleans yesterday. Most of those gatherings have as many or more Jewish supporters present. As hard as it might be to fall into a familiar posture, we must stand firm in realism.

I do not think we are on course for another Holocaust. I do think the Middle East is becoming a tinder box and needs to be dealt with carefully, and thoughtfully. It is a delicate line to walk and a new path for all of us.

What makes people use phrases like the one the congregant shared with me, is because we do not have a vocabulary for right now. We are fluent in pain and past, and conversant in hopeful and future. But what is the expression for this moment?!

Abram had no vocabulary for the moment. He did have grief and anxiety. His dad had died as soon as he started the journey, and he offered his wife up to the Pharaoh out of fear he would be killed, demonstrating both emotions. But the language Abram could have used in the face of his uneasiness is missing from the text.

All this is to say, that from the time of the Bible to today, new and uncharted is hard. Creating a new language is complex and appreciating a new reality is challenging. This makes an already hard moment, event harder.

I really have not written much about the hostages. Maybe unconsciously my mind cannot go there. I cannot fathom to think…. just cannot imagine the heartache and sickness these families are enduring, which might be as painful as the treatment of the captives.

What I do not understand, regardless of what your upbringing is, irrespective of if you were opposed to the occupation or wanted to establish more settlements, is how anyone can deny the hostages plight or our collective demand of their release.

I do not know how to unpack students and faculty at universities along with people on the streets tearing down these signs. What could motivate a person, especially one that traffics in ‘wokeness’ or inclusivity to deny any human suffering?

These are not “I Stand with Israel” lawn signs. This is not about unabashed support for Israel. It is about humanity and suffering. Who would be opposed to that? They are women, children, elderly and the infirm. For God’s sake?!

I wish I had a solution to this level of hatred and blatant anti-Semitism. I do not. But it really hurts to witness in real-time.

For years we were worried about who we were offending in our words and actions. We tiptoed through statements and proclamations and had our antennae up for anything that even rhymed with offending us. When Bernie Sanders said “All Lives Matter” he was excoriated for being insensitive to minorities, Black people in particular. I can call Bernie lots of things. Obtuse to suffering of others is not one of them. We wore kid-gloves. We were governed by fear and not virtue. What that timidity did was threaten our ability to use our moral voice. It made all types of different groups vying for the sole rights to suffering and did not create more chambers in our hart for shared empathy and compassion.

My old boss used to say, when we stand for something, some will be with us and others against us. When we stand for nothing, we will always end up standing alone.

We are beginning to witness the veracity of her statement. We must learn to stand for what is right, good, moral and meaningful. It might offend some, but it will allow our heads to sleep in a soft pillow. We cannot stand alone.

The past decade or more has been a strange time where people’s knives have never been sharper, and our skin has never been thinner. That is a dangerous combination. We need to blunt those knives and thicken our skin. We need to laser in on the intentionality of the person uttering the words or doing the deed, and less on the single broken tile in their spoken mosaic. We can be better. We must.

As the sun sets this Shabbat, I will gather with my community not at my Temple but, in the town square where a Shabbat table of 222 empty seats will be made. It will have highchairs and wheelchairs to signify the age disparity amongst the hostages and the emptiness and brokenness that will exists. I saw the organizers setting up the scene, and it already cracked my heart in half.

I do pray that at this vigil, our diverse community unified in our love of Israel and our commitment to bringing the hostages home, lifts my spirits, connects me closer to God, and affirms my hope. I really need that right now.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and light.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
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