October 8, 2023
Dear Friends and Fellow Travellers,
I write this with a heavy heart and a trembling conscience. I am sure you are all following the harrowing events happening in Israel, the death, the bloodshed, the shock, and the pain. Just as many of us were preparing to dance with the Torah and celebrate being a part of this complicated but proud people, we were stricken with the realities that hatred can produce, where human life becomes expendable, where one human being can kill another with no remorse, no guilt, no shame. Where the words of Hebrew Prophets, recounting our destruction millennia ago, come into sharp and tragic relief.
It is hard to know what to think, how to think, what to say, and what can't be said. The myth of Israel's invincibility came crashing down again, leaving us all wondering, how could this have been planned for many months without military intelligence being aware of it? How could those whose job it is to protect Israeli citizens, have gone to bed the night of October 5th without any knowledge of what would happen at 4 am the next morning? It is a question many of us are asking today, and it will likely be answered in time, but perhaps that is not the question for today. Today we can only mourn the deaths of innocent men, women, and children; murdered in their homes, in their gardens, and in their communities. And pray for those captured in Gaza. As the death toll rises, more and more of us will likely come to know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who was killed or wounded.
I want to briefly relate two such cases that have personal significance for me. Ilan Troen was the founding director of the Israel Studies Program at Brandeis University. I knew him in that capacity. He retired some years ago and moved to Israel. Ilan was one of the founders of Israel Studies in the US. On Shabbat, his daughter and son-in-law were murdered as they hid in the bomb shelter in their home in a town in the south. Their teenage son was with them and played dead, miraculously surviving with only a gunshot wound. Moses Maimonides teaches that one of the most tragic things imaginable is when a parent must bury their child. Who can fathom such a tragedy?
Hayim Katsman was a young Israeli scholar who I came to know when he was on a postdoc at the University of Washington in Seattle. We subsequently did some work together. I invited him to give a zoom lecture at Dartmouth during covid about his groundbreaking work on religious extremism in Israel. I also invited him to write an essay in a journal volume I edited called Shofar. The volume will appear this month. He lived in Holit, a small town in the Negev where he also worked as a car mechanic (not typical for young academics). On Shabbat, he was murdered in his home by Hamas terrorists.
These are three of more than 600 Israeli citizens and soldiers who have died thus far. The numbers will surely rise. In their memory I would like to offer a brief Torah observation that gave me some solace. Because even in these dark times, perhaps precisely in these dark times, the Torah may be the only solace we have.
On Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes, a laconic work questioning life, meaning, and the fragility of human existence, all too appropriate for these days.
There is a famous passage that many of you may know, All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; Unto the place where rivers go, they will do again. (Ecc. 1:7).
A Hasidic commentary (Divrei Yoel on Sukkot, 296) offers an interpretation of Rashi's gloss to this verse:
All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. This refers to idolaters. In their foolishness they worship the waters thinking there is something real about them. Why? Because they see the sea where all the rivers flow, and yet the sea is never full. What they do not know is that the place where the rivers flow, those waters will return to again. The water of the rivers that flow into the sea are the same waters that flowed there before. They come from below ground, rise up to the sea, and then return and flow back into the rivers. Thus, the rivers never stop flowing and thus the sea is never full.
There is a midrash in Kohelet Raba, chapter 1 that offers a different rendering of this phenomenon. All the rivers run into the sea. All wisdom is contained in the human heart. Yet the sea is not full. And yet the heart is never full. This comes to teach you that you might think when a person takes wisdom from the heart, it never returns. Yet the verse teaches us that such wisdom always returns to its origins in the human heart. Thus, the heart is never empty, and the heart is never full.
The point of Rashi and the midrash as I understand it may be to teach us that we err when we adopt a sequential vision of history; that things progress in a linear fashion. Thus when the sea is not full even after all the rivers flow into it, there must be something about the sea that is magical and thus worth worshipping. But Ecclesiastes tells us something else. The world does not run in a linear fashion, history is not necessarily progress, even as we may not see its circularity. Put otherwise, what we see does not tell us the whole story. And when wisdom that is rooted in the human heart leaves its origin and becomes knowledge, we may think the heart suffers the loss. But no, says the mythic King Solomon, the heart is where wisdom begins, and the heart is where wisdom will return. Therefore, wisdom has no end, and the heart that contains it can never be full.
When we witness a tragedy like this, when we experience needless loss of life, it is too easy to see things in a linear fashion, or to flatten all meaning into cacophonous emotions of an aching heart. But in the eyes of the Jewish tradition, that error, as reasonable as it may be in moments of pain, is idolatry. It is worshipping that which appears to us as if that is all there is. The approach of Ecclesiastes here is to compel us to recognize what lies beneath the surface; not to reveal it to us, but simply to acknowledge its existence. All happiness may be fleeting, but pain is not final. Tragedy does not portend the end but a moment in the cycle that never ends. All rivers run to the sea, and all its waters then return to where the rivers begin. Not knowing is no salve for pain. But sometimes not knowing is all there is.
I will never see Hayyim Katsman again. And he will never experience the joy of seeing his published work in our journal we all worked so hard to complete. But the rivers will continue to flow. And the heart will continue to produce wisdom. And we will continue to try to understand – although we will never know - why human beings continue to hate and kill their fellow human beings. It began with Cain and Abel, and like the rivers and the sea, it never seems to end.