From bewilderment to harmony

By Cantor Vicky Glikin
Parashat Lech Lecha

Oct. 7 will go down in the annals of history as a national tragedy for Israel and the Jewish people. In the aftermath of the most devastating day since the Holocaust, we have been in a state of shock and grief. Shocked by the brutality of the attacks and the lack of empathy exhibited from certain pockets of our society. Aggrieved by the images and stories of so many lives senselessly cut short in the most inhumane circumstances. Distressed about so many who are still in the hands of terrorists in Gaza, their fates hanging in the balance, even as their trauma and suffering are assured. This has been a devastating time as we have been confronted with countless accounts of atrocities and heartbreaking stories about people we know and those we have never met, but in whose faces we see our children’s and our own. How do we begin to process this tremendous grief, this devastating collective trauma?

In this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Abram to “lech lecha.” It is a strange phrase that can be translated as “go to yourself,” followed by the words “from your land, from your birthplace.” What does it mean for Abram to go to himself from his land and birthplace? Rav Yitzchak, a sage from the third generation of the amoraim, teaches through a parable: “This can be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a burning castle. He said: ‘Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?’ The owner of the building looked out and said: ‘I am the owner of the castle.’ Similarly, because Abraham our father said, ‘Is it possible that this castle has no master, no one to look after it?’ the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the Universe.’ … Hence, God said to Avraham, lech lecha.” (Beresheet Rabbah 39:1-2)

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes what he calls Abraham’s “bewilderment” when he is confronted by the grandeur of our world (i.e. the castle) but also notices that this palace is aflame. Sacks writes: “The world is full of bloodshed, injustice and strife. Thugs, abusers, rapists, kidnappers and killers are continuously demolishing the palace, turning our world into an ugly tragic battlefield of untold pain and horror. What happened to the owner of the palace? Abraham cries. Why does G-d allow man to destroy His world?” (“Radical Then, Radical Now,” Harper Collins, 2000)

Like Abraham, we, too, are bewildered. How could such tragic failures in intelligence, security and operations have happened? How could human beings treat one another with such unfathomable cruelty? How many more innocent deaths can we bear? How will Israel change in the aftermath of this horrible war? How will Israelis ever feel safe again? How will we? The castle is burning and we are bewildered. First, let’s read “lech lecha” literally — go to yourself. Let’s name our trauma, fear and pain. Let’s support each other and Israel in every possible way, as this horrible war rages on.

However, let’s not stop there. In time, let’s work on turning our trauma into continuous engagement with Israel and Judaism, our fear into outreach to our neighbors of all faiths, our pain into compassion and commitment to the well-being of all people. In his teaching, Rabbi Sacks continues: “Note that the owner of the palace does not make an attempt to get out of the burning building or to extinguish the flames…. It is as if…, the owner were calling for help. G-d made the palace, man set it on fire and only man can put out the flames.” When the fires of war have been doused, let us remember that Israel will also need our help in the difficult work of peace, which, G-d willing, will follow. Let us remember that the palace can be fully rebuilt only when Israel and her neighbors can live side-by-side with dignity, in harmony and mutual understanding.

Cantor Vicky Glikin is senior cantor of Temple Emanu-El and serves on the executive board of the American Conference of Cantors as the chair of the retirement fund. An immigrant from Ukraine, she volunteered in Poland to support Ukrainian war refugees during Pesach 2022.

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