If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
Scrolling on social media can be a nervous system activation rollercoaster, which is good for exactly nobody. You’re clicking through, cute capybaras in one story, horrific audio or images in the next, followed by sound bytes about why you should or shouldn’t believe X or Y.
There is no way to absorb anything, much less integrate, much less formulate any real understanding, much less feel more connected and informed rather than even more isolated, or vindicated, or simply further confused.
Are you looking for the thing that will make you feel “right”? A post that will make it all make sense? A reminder that there is goodness in the world?
What is vetted and by whom? What is propaganda and how do you tell, when everything can seem equally convincing and unbearably urgent?
My thoughts are spinning. I keep choosing to do some of this spinning out loud. I am doing my best to engage in online conversations very, very selectively, and as thoughtfully as possible. Even in doing that, I’m not 100% sure it’s a good idea. And yet, I cannot be silent, either.
A few days ago, I shared a slide on Instagram that read, "When you instinctively jump on social media to respond based on your own preconceptions, you risk spreading misinformation that has very real ramifications for Muslims and Jews around the world."
That morning, I found a message request in that folder I never think to check. It was from an Israeli woman, a stranger. With her permission, I’m sharing some of what she wrote:
What about when you're actually living in Israel and you see what is happening on a personal level? Your husband’s co-workers’ parents kidnapped. Your school friend hiding in a security room for 20 hours with her young grandchildren while the terrorists murdered and raped. Your own daughter who by a pure miracle was elsewhere that weekend. Your sister's nephew who lost his life when he heard the commotion in the streets and went out to help. None of this is from social media. This is my story. And everyone here knows someone who's been touched.
I write these words at 5:00am.
I’m up because my little dog thought 4:00am would be a great time to eat breakfast and start the day. I’m drinking my coffee, feeling so aware of the limitations of these spaces, yet here anyway. As I said to one of my most beloved people the other day, I have never experienced anything like this moment.
There is no roadmap.
This makes me think back to our synagogue’s listening session on Monday night, and how our rabbi asked that even in these not-gentle times, we aim to receive and hold each other’s words and feelings with gentleness. So simple and so not easy.
To state the obvious: You are allowed to stop scrolling. You are allowed to step away and take care of your heart.
I get why some people completely disavow social media, especially when it comes to attempts to “discuss” hard things, the hardest in this case. Even with care, even with thoughtfulness and kindness, it is nearly impossible not to set people off. (To be clear- I include myself as “people.”)
I have been thinking about the famous Hillel (first-century rabbi) teaching:
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not know, when?
True to wrestling with ancient Jewish texts, it feels like it is meant for these times. True to using Jewish texts to deepen our relationship to real life, this does not strike me as a way of intellectually distancing or leaning on theory.
Quite the opposite — it’s an attempt to move closer to something that is so big, so emergent, and so painful, that can otherwise feel overwhelming and impossible.
I find myself unconsciously making the “I” into a “we.” And the “we” is the Jewish people.
I seem to keep coming back to this. As I’ve written elsewhere, I can only try to find words for my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I do not hesitate to speak as a Jew, but I do hesitate to speak for Jews.
On the other hand (another famous Jewish axiom h/t Tevye), what is the difference?
Who is for me? Who can I trust? Where can I turn?
These are questions I’ve been hearing from other Jews, friends as well as people in private notes who had never reached out before. The sense of aloneness, fear, and — I’m searching for the right word, some combination of disappointment, shock, betrayal, and being terribly misunderstood — is widespread and palpable.
What am I?
If I am grieving for Jews who were burned alive, dismembered, raped, shot point blank, terrorized, carted away — the very young and the very old alike — does this mean I am not “for others” or inure me to the unfathomable scale of suffering in Gaza?
One thing I’ve found myself feeling reactive to, which makes me want to take a closer look, is the suggestion that the atrocities Hamas wrought on October 7 and the current hostage situation have activated ancestral trauma for Jews.
This is not untrue. Not at all. It’s incredibly true. And I believe those who have observed this deeply care.
And there is also something about it that keeps landing wrong. I think it has to do with suggesting that somehow, this trauma is a response to past horrors alone, i.e. it evokes memories of the Holocaust.
This is so nuanced I almost hesitate to go further with it, but I will try.
Yes, epigenetic memory is very real and alive in me.
And: the trauma of this moment is also very present. It JUST HAPPENED and is STILL HAPPENING in our actual, right-now world. What we saw at the music festival and on those kibbutzim is but a hellish taste of what Hamas would like to do to every Jew, in Israel and beyond.
If this sounds extreme and alarmist, that’s because it is.
And this feels like a cruel set-up.
Hamas is holding Israelis hostage. It is also willing to sacrifice its own people—children, mothers, young men—for its cause.
You might name this cause Palestinian liberation, which indeed needs to happen.
But Hamas has another aim, which is nothing short of destroying the Jewish people, in exactly the ways the world witnessed on October 7. And at this point in time, Israel and the Jewish people are seeming, like it or not, pretty damn synonymous.
I hear calls for another way. I pray for another way. A way that does not predicate one people’s survival on another’s destruction.
But I am honestly wondering if people realize (and a more cynical or hurt part of me, if people care) that right now, for Israel to do nothing would amount to self-annihilation.
I do not believe Israel intends to commit genocide against the Palestinian people. I realize this may not be well received by many people, including other Jews.
I also shudder at questions of what’s “equivalent,” as if we can measure one child’s dead body against another. I see. Who would I be if I didn’t?
I see the rubble, the frantic searching. I see the weeping, the dire conditions.
Does Israel bear responsibility? Yes – and. Hamas knew this would happen on October 7. Why does Hamas not bear responsibility? Why does Hamas hoard fuel and hide amidst civilians?
Who is for me? What am I?
A long view of Jewish history will tell you that we usually catch the blame.
A long view of Jewish history will also tell you that we usually show up for other marginalized peoples.
A long view of Jewish history will show you that there are few instances of the world defending the Jews.
Does this mean Jews aren’t capable of oppressing others? No, which is one of the most challenging aspects of this and continues to be at the heart of so much of my own reflection and seeking.
I fear that more is at stake here than we even want to allow ourselves to imagine. And by "we," I do not mean only Jews. I mean all of us.
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