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They turned us into monsters

The war is desensitizing us and our children to horror. Can our increased tolerance to antisemitism and murder be reversed?
A surfer carrying her board walks past posters, towels and flip-flops that are part of a protest organized by the Australian Jewish community at Bondi Beach in Sydney on November 2, 2023 to highlight the plight of hostages held by Hamas (David Gray / AFP)
A surfer carrying her board walks past posters, towels and flip-flops that are part of a protest organized by the Australian Jewish community at Bondi Beach in Sydney on November 2, 2023 to highlight the plight of hostages held by Hamas (David Gray / AFP)

When our shul decided to place pictures of all the hostages being held in Gaza on the back wall of our main sanctuary, I received a number of calls from concerned parents. They were worried that the images would cause their children anxiety. Little did I imagine that those pictures would have the opposite effect.

Earlier this week, my 7-year-old daughter asked me if she could go to the shul to look at the pictures of the hostages. I watched from a distance as she casually read the names of the hostages. Occasionally, she would ask me questions, like, “What does ‘murdered’ mean?” After a few minutes of glancing at the pictures, she asked me to take her home. I was shocked at how calm she was until this morning when I realized what was happening. As I’ve been doing for the past two months, immediately upon awakening, I checked the news from Israel. I want to tell you I was horrified by the shooting attack in Jerusalem, in which 3 innocent civilians were murdered. But the truth is, the first thought that went through my mind was, “Thank God, it was only three.”

Of course, my daughter isn’t fazed to see pictures of hundreds of kidnapped people; she is growing up in a home in which conversations about hostages and murder are taking place daily. She is hearing her parents say things like, “At least it was just graffiti and not physical violence,” or, “Thankfully, half the hostages are now home.” Had today’s terror attack taken place before October 7th, it would have entirely captured my attention and emotions. Today, my tearless eyes and anxious mind don’t have the bandwidth to process another murder.

When we think of the ramifications of this war, the desensitization to horror is one of the most twisted. The war will end, but how do we reverse our increased tolerance to antisemitism and murder? To paraphrase Golda Meir, we can forgive Hamas for being monsters. We cannot forgive them for turning us into monsters.

Our Jewish tradition does not deal extensively with the rules of warfare. The few laws that are explicitly stated in the Torah demands that our soldiers do not cut down fruit-bearing trees and to always keep a shovel with them to clean up their excrement. As strange as this may seem, there is a profound message being conveyed. War is dehumanizing. To counter the callousness caused by shedding blood, it is critical that our sensitivity to the natural world and to the innate dignity of every human being is heightened.

The rabbis of the Talmud broadened these laws to teach the rule of baal tash’chit, a prohibition against wasting food, and the need for overall cleanliness. It is not just soldiers; we are all at risk of becoming hardened. To ensure that our hearts stay soft, every one of us must not lose sight of the beauty and utility of everything around us and the Godly spirit found in every human being.

As we gently remove picture after picture from the back wall of our shul, I am praying that I can undo some of the psychological harm caused to us and most especially to our children. Our tradition taught us that even hardened soldiers can maintain a deep sensitivity to the natural world and human life. I am hopeful that my 7-year-old daughter can one day feel the same.

About the Author
Yisrael Motzen, a native of Montreal, Canada, serves as rabbi of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore, MD. He is a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and holds an M.A. in Clinical Community Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
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