There is a heart-wrenching scene at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s miniseries, “The Pacific,” where Eugene Sledge’s father speaks of the horrors of war. He says to his son, “the worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War (WWI) wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no…no life. That would break my heart.”
One of the greatest challenges to the values we hold most dear occurs when we confront evil. It is impossible to maintain “civilized” values when facing homicidal maniacs. It is often “kill or be killed.” When our very survival is threatened, we must often change the way we act, or die.
But what happens after, when the threat is neutralized and constant vigilance takes the place of armed conflict? How do we recover our souls?
Time does not heal these wounds. I learned this after WWII destroyed a great deal of my father. I was born a decade after he returned home, but he never really recovered from the horrors he experienced.
I saw echoes of my father in the eyes of the survivors of the October 7th massacre. I see this in the changes taking place in Israel and in our community. We are witnessing a nexus in Jewish history, a radical reevaluation of Jewish culture as we struggle with what will be the aftermath of this war.
For many, the hope of a peaceful solution has been shattered. We have seen our hopes dashed and our fantasies stripped away. The emperor is naked and his new clothing a sham. But do we want to hold on to the bitterness and pessimism that accompanies this realization? Do we want to become as hate-filled and inflexible as our enemy? In a very literal sense, our souls have been sundered as we have witnessed horrors unseen in our generation.
Or can we find a way to reacquire our values, to reclaim our souls and continue to look for partners who will work with us?
In my father’s case, he found solace in his family. We grounded him. When the darkness appeared, he was able to focus on us, and our welfare. We became the agent of his salvation. More importantly, he was able to find purpose in supporting and helping us become. Don’t get me wrong, he was not an easy person to understand – he was complicated, angry and depressed at times, but he always came through for us.
We as a community can learn from this. Those who condemn the intensity of Israel’s “reaction” do not really grasp the enormity of the trauma. They do not see how our souls have been shredded. Their condemnation renders their criticism ineffective.
And those who have no souls and want only blood need to look at what they have and recognize that their thirst for revenge in a much larger sense threatens their “family.”
Together we have the ability to ground each other and go on. Apart we will never find peace.