Suspicion in our Eyes and Terror in our Hearts: On Fear and Empathy

I haven’t told my children that their cousins’ cousin was brutally murdered last week by a knife-wielding terrorist. And I haven’t told them about the five men murdered Tuesday in the midst of prayer, one of whom was the son of one of my favorite professors in college. About the mother who had to bury her beautiful daughter and the 24 children from the same street who were orphaned in one terrible moment. I can’t bring myself to share such horrendous, inhuman acts with them.

It’s different than with the rockets last summer. The rockets were terrible, but they felt somehow less personal, the people shooting them (though also horrible and murderous) a tiny bit less cold-blooded. I could talk about nameless, amorphous bad guys with my kids, though it was difficult and scary. But to tell my children about men who violated a house of worship with axes and a meat cleaver and shot people at close range during their silent prayer? About the man who picked up a knife and slashed the throat of an unarmed, kind-hearted young woman? I just can’t shatter their innocence that way. Not when they’re so young.

Nothing can justify such acts. Absolutely nothing.

Yet as much as part of me is being pulled constantly inward toward focusing only on my own Jewish family ever since this new wave of terror began, I have not been able to stop thinking about these powerful words:

[H]umanity was created as one person, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if s/he destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves one soul, Scripture accounts it as if s/he saved an entire world.… And to declare the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, for a person stamps out many coins with one die and they are all alike, but the Ruler, the Ruler of rulers, the Blessed Holy One, stamped each person with the seal of Adam and not one of them is like his or her fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, “For my sake the world was created.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

Whoever destroys a single soul, it is as if he destroys an entire world. Years after I first learned it, this extraordinary statement about the value of human life still gives me the chills.

However, different versions of this text appear in our sources: one speaks simply of a single soul – any human being; but the other (later) version speaks of a single soul from Israel – a Jewish soul. This discrepancy in the corpus of text we have been handed presents each of us with a decision: to follow those who mention only Jewish souls as uniquely precious, or to follow those who value each and every human life equally and immeasurably.

The Jewish souls who were destroyed over the past several weeks were infinitely precious. Their loss is incalculable: How many children, spouses, parents, cousins will spend weeks and months and years with a gaping emptiness where their loved ones should be?  What great things could they have accomplished in their professions had they lived? How many lives would they have touched? Entire worlds, every one of them.

On the other hand, I can’t stop myself from thinking (and hearing) constantly about the collective “them”:

“The Palestinians. The Arabs. The Muslims. They did this to us. Them. I just can’t understand Them, how They could do such awful things.”

As I entered the mall Tuesday the security guard, with a sad smile, said “stay alert today.” I did. I noticed every woman with a head scarf, every man speaking in the guttural tones of the language all around me that I don’t understand. I could not help but see them as Other, even as they served me coffee, and cleaned the bathrooms after me, and chatted with their friends as they ate at the next table over. I was scared of them. And at the same time, I imagined how they must feel walking through Jerusalem, their home, knowing what happened, wondering how “we” must see them, watching us watch them with suspicion in our eyes and terror in our hearts, because we know, or feel, or fear that “they” are all the same.

But there is no “them.” Just like us, “they” are millions of entire worlds. Not one of them is like his or her fellow. Every one of them is obliged to say “for my sake the world was created.” “They” did not kill Dalya, or Rav Twersky, or tiny Chaya Zissel. “They” did not shoot rockets at us all summer, and “they” do not believe all Jews should die.

Some of them have taken their humanity to the most awful, inhuman, contemptible place. Others have not chosen to act with violence, but have lauded these acts as heroic, itself an abominable act. But many of them have taken the brave step of condemning these acts, and hundreds of thousands more are silent: unless and until we encounter them, speak to them, know their stories, recognize their suffering, we can never know the source of that silence and how it bears on their relationships with us.

It’s easy to acknowledge intellectually that every human life is valuable. It feels much harder to see each and every one of those lives as an entire world.

I am scared to speak right now of empathy. I get the feeling that even people who generally do feel empathy for those on the “other side” feel like it’s insensitive, inappropriate, callous to speak about the well-being of our neighbors at a time like this.

But as horrified and devastated as I am about these awful deaths, and as scared as I am for myself and my family living at the epicenter of the current hostilities, I feel profoundly that now, in the midst of our deepest suffering, is precisely when it’s most important to recognize and remember the humanity of those on the other side – not only, or most importantly, for their sake, but for ours.

Those who cruelly stole our dear ones from our midst did not see their victims as entire worlds – they saw only faceless, amorphous Others. I do not want to be like them, not even in the smallest way.

May the families of those who lost their dear ones find comfort. May we see the fragile humanity in every single person. And may each of us treat every human being we encounter as if he or she is the one for whom the entire world was created.

(This essay was originally posted on

About the Author
Leah Solomon is Chief Education Officer of Encounter, a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed, courageous, and resilient Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She holds an AB from Harvard University and is a Schusterman Senior Fellow. Leah has worked since 1997 in the field of experiential pluralistic Jewish education, most recently as Associate Director of the Nesiya Institute. An L.A native, she moved to Jerusalem in 1999 where she lives with her family.
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