After witnessing Hamas’s gleeful butchery of Jews, we will see pictures from Gaza of tremendous destruction in the days to come. Many of us will be called upon to speak. What might we say?
The Torah is a realistic book. It does not hide the reality of human depravity and cruelty. In its pages you will find what you find in the world — that people can be beasts to one another, and that we move haltingly and uncertainly toward goodness.
You will also find the Torah constantly admonishing us to remember. Human beings have a poor memory for pain. Not only is this anecdotally true (how many mothers have said the pain of childbirth fades?) but we also see it in peoples and nations. We don’t wish to remember the bad times, the painful times, the evil times. “Why dwell on the past?” is the constant dismissive platitude. But Scripture is wiser than psychology. For when we forget, we also forget what is needed to ensure that evil does not recur.
Again and again, we are told to remember Amalek, the tribe that came savagely upon Israel in the wilderness. That memory is necessary, we are told. In fact, according to the rabbis, when, after battle, the king of Israel, Saul, spared Agag (the king descended from Amalek), he ensured that later there would be another attempt to destroy the Jews in Haman centuries later. We may forget, but history remembers.
That is why the rabbis say that one who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind (Tanhuma, Parshat Metzora). They remind us that allowing cruel people to pursue their designs in this world will ultimately lead to innocents running, terrified and helpless, as evil men shoot them in the back, kill their children, and rape the women. It will lead to October 7. The great philosopher Maimonides, having fled from Almohad persecution in Spain in the 12th century, put it more comprehensively. “Compassion toward the wicked,” he said, “is cruelty toward all beings.” (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 39)
So now we witness terrible scenes from Gaza. We know that innocents are dying. And we grieve for those innocents. We do not need to follow that sentence with “but.” We can pause for a moment and know that mothers and fathers have been bereft, and people who have no share in the conflicts initiated by their leaders are dying. In the Midrash, in rabbinic legends, when the Temple is destroyed, God rebukes the prophet Jeremiah because in the story Jeremiah does not weep. During the Passover seder, we spill from our wine cups for the suffering of the Egyptians. Tears are the right response to the cries of the suffering of any nation.
We see the pictures in Gaza, and we grieve. And we remember that many times Israel has gone into Gaza in the hope of containing Hamas, and the fruit of that restraint is the unparalleled brutality of October 7.
One of the greatest values in Jewish tradition is pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of captives. Kidnapping in order to extract concessions is not a new practice, and our ancestors knew it well. We pray ardently, urgently, that the captives — American, Israeli, and from other nations — might be liberated. We know that the cruelty of their captors makes that tragically unlikely.
Yet we know who will pay the price if Israel does not destroy Hamas — not those of us sitting in New York or Los Angeles or Little Rock. The Torah tells us this: “For those of whom you allow to remain of them shall be thorns in your eyes and stings in your sides and shall vex you in the land wherein you dwell” (Numbers 33:55).
Although that is not entirely true. It will not be a threat only in Israel. Synagogues have guards — unlike other houses of worship — because the ideology of Hamas is not liberation. The terrorists did not fly over the fence chanting “two-state solution!” Hamas is a homicidal cult, as we have seen, and it has no borders. The crucial moral difference is that, for Israel, the death of civilians is a tragic by-product of war and Israel tries to avoid it; for Hamas, the death of civilians is the point, the yearned-for result, and the beheading of babies is the proof.
We are in the paradoxical situation, as a people who love peace, of saying to the world, “We must wreak more destruction.” Not because we cherish it or wish it but because without it, we are being cruel to the future, and not only to our future. For ideology is a contagion, and the reach of Hamas’s sadism has spread far beyond the Gaza Strip, from Mumbai to New York.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” We prosecute this war so that the next generation might have a chance to grow up without this sort of war. We do not do so for revenge, although many no doubt wish revenge. We do not do so for the satisfaction of bloodlust or the imposition of ideology. We do it so the children of Israel, and children elsewhere as Maimonides reminds us, will have the chance to grow up in a world where such ideas no longer capture twisted souls.
So my friends, stand strong and weep; weep and stand strong. As the Psalmist promises, however dark the night, joy will come in the morning.
This article was published on October 25, 2023.