William Hamilton


A story from Israel. We visited Ofakim, a town of 30,000, just a 15-minute drive from Beer Sheva. More than 30 of its residents were murdered by Hamas. The day we visited, a mother happened to come outside to tell her story. This was unplanned. She hadn’t done so before. She just saw our group collecting near her home and felt prompted to share. 

On that dark morning of October 7th, she’d taken cover with her children from the rockets. She grew alarmed by the sounds of Arabic shouting closeby. She moved cautiously toward her front window, peeked out, and saw IDF soldiers walking up her street. A strange sight, to be sure. But she wanted to alert them to the danger, as she leaned forward to call out to them from her second-floor window, “I hear Arabic coming from over there,” somehow, in that instant, her parched throat was so dry that she’d lost her voice. She pointed at the lump in her throat as she recounted the story. Then, in that instant, she looked again and realized that those dressed as IDF soldiers were, in fact, Hamas terrorists on the prowl. She quickly hunkered down. And then she managed to keep her children quiet for the next 20 hours, safely avoiding detection. 

How are human beings meant to live with fear and pain? Some today think it’s best to dive deep inside them. To process trauma in classrooms and community halls. Others try to protect their children from ever having to experience them. Judaism informs us that neither immersion nor avoidance is healthy. Instead, let a parent or adult take you by the hand and help you move forward through them toward what lies ahead. Venturing forth into life isn’t possible when your pain and fear become quicksand. Just like refusing to take off your life vest, keeps you from learning how to swim.

This week’s portion of Torah offers a case study in how we can respond to intense emotions like fear and anger. Consider what we learn in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. Yes, those immediately responsible are punished. But God’s essential attributes stay with us: repair and recovery are waiting to take your hand and lead you forward. 

The Hebrew word that means to be watchful, to preserve, and to protect (shamar) recurs more in this portion than any other. We’ve considered its lessons over the past few days

Today, let’s ask, What does this portion want us to remain watch for and keep? I believe it’s the sacred interest of recovery, repair, and renewal. Fear and pain are as unavoidable as stumbling is. But baked into Divine DNA is a steady and tender guidance to help us forward. 

Freedom can be hard. Really hard. Sometimes, it’s so hard that we lose our taste for it. This masterful address, delivered by Bari Weiss earlier this week, describes just how hard it is. She also demonstrates how delicious it looks when you decide to be free, to act free, and to keep it up. 

Our remarkable mother from Ofakim, held her tongue at a life-threatening instant, as she held her children safe for the next 20 hours. Until she shared her story with us, it too had stayed quiet. She certainly knew that not everyone who did as she did was so lucky. Yet, unbidden, she came out to tell us. Now, you’re hearing it. 

Consider a final thought. You’re not rattling around in an empty universe. Instead, it occurs to you, Perhaps I am trusted. Maybe it’s time to return that trust. There’s an air of expectancy hovering about you, a tickling breeze atop your wrist. It feels clean. Appealing. It’s called freedom. And so you decide, It’s time to no longer keep it waiting. 

“The Children of Israel shall preserve, be watchful of, and protect the Sabbath” (Ex. 31). May you find that your ways of honoring Shabbat’s sacred-interests get returned to you in kind. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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