|Map of Israel, Palestine, and Occupied Territories, as of 2018|
On Saturday, October 8, 2023, Hamas staged a surprise attack against Israel from Gaza. And when I say that Hamas staged an attack against Israel, I mean both that a paramilitary organization, founded in 1987 with the goal of violently overthrowing the state of Israel and replacing it with an Islamist Palestinian state, planned an attack to terrorize Israel and shake its sense of security and force the world to pay attention to its demands, and that young men, most born after the turn of this century, launched rockets and pushed across physical borders to kill and kidnap men, women, and children, many born even more recently than them.
Comparisons have been made to 9/11, and as the days go by, I feel my body remember that moment when my 18-year-old self questioned the future-- when I looked and listened and foresaw so much pain, both unavoidable and avoidable, inflicted from outside and self-inflicted. I have felt queasy and uneasy. Invisible, and assumed, spoken for, and pushed to speak. I have not felt comfortable forming words. I have craved a different way of being.
In this moment, as organizations turn to rhetoric in a tug-of-war for narrative control, and people cry out in grief and fear in Israel and Gaza, I am grateful to the leaders of my Jewish community who are planning a Vigil for Grief and Hope. These thoughtful rabbis and facilitators, including Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Rabbi Malka Packer-Monroe, Rabbi Elana Perry, McKenzie Wren, and Rabbi Ariel Root-Wolpe, have conceived of this vigil in the following terms:
"In a time of brutality and hatred, we will grieve the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives and pray for those in danger and for peace. We will seek healing and comfort through prayer, song and reflection that honors the dignity of humanity created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God."
But what does it mean to be created "b'tzelem elohim?" What is it that makes us human? We are more than our basic needs for food, shelter, sex, and safety. We are holders of memory and creators of ideas. Memory sustains us across generations, and it drives us to seek revenge. Ideas turn us from animals to siblings, and from friends to enemies. Narratives of justice and sovereignty rights burn in the hearts of soldiers whose grandparents sought refuge from diaspora. Narratives of apartheid and colonization and religious purity drive young people, whose grandparents were displaced from their homes, to terrorize children and kidnap the elderly.
In 1983, a year before I was born, and four years before the founding of Hamas, Benedict Anderson described the nation as an "imagined community." Sometimes we imagine it, and sometimes it is imagined onto us. But it is this very human act of imagining that reveals how we are created (how we create) "b'tzelem elohim." Over the next weeks and months, people's actions, in Israel, and Gaza, and around the world, will construct the memories of this next generation. Those memories will fuel their imagination. But let us remember that we are conscious and capable of change, not creatures of pure motivation. Rather than act and react, let us do, and listen. Na'aseh v'nishmah. On the seventh day, God rested, and I can only imagine the profound silence that engulfed the earth. Shalom v'sh'mah. Peace and hearing. B'tzelem Elohim.