My soul has dwelt too long among haters of peace. I embody peace, and though I talk til I am blue in the face, they insist on war.
I'm Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn. I'm the regional rabbi for the Israeli Reform Movement in the South of Israel, in the Arava, in the Hevel Eilot region, which is near Eilat... In Israel, "the south," actually, is not where I live. I live so far south that... we're beyond the south. The south is where the... is the area around Gaza where the war was. We live another two hours south of there, near Eilat. It's a very quiet place on the Jordanian border.
What can I tell you about what happened on the 7th of October? We had a wonderful Simcha Torah service on Friday night. And dancing in the Sukkah with our Torah scrolls, followed by a wonderful communal dinner.
The next morning we got up to have a morning service, things were very different. We didn't really know much about what was going on, the news was slow in getting to us. We hadn't been put under any kind of alert here, because we are far away from where the action was happening. As the morning went on, people were already being called up to Miluim. We barely had a minyan of people for the morning service. It was a VERY subdued service for Simchat Torah. As the day went on and the news began to come through, then we began to understand what was happening... Many of our young people had friends who were at the NOVA Music Festival. Fortunately, we have a tradition in our community at Lotan that the young people come back for Simchat Torah, for the second holiday of the Sukkot festiva. There was a party on our kibbutz that night, out in the desert but inside the kibbutz fence. Had there not been that party some of them might have gone for the two or three hour drive to the NOVA Music Festival. But because we have this tradition that they come back for the holiday and have parties on the kibbutz that weekend many of them were here who might have been there.
The news began to filter in and obviously it was very painful. People started getting called up to miluim and then news started coming in of people that we knew who were among the missing or among the dead or among the among those fighting and I think there were several days where we were completely in the dark. We didn't know what was happening.
Every year, during Sukkot, most of the country is on vacation. Schools are on vacation. Most government offices are on vacation. Much of the army is on vacation. Only as the news became clearer and the level of the atrocities became clearer did it seem that perhaps that the date was chosen not only for the historical date of the 7th of October, the day after the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, but also because of the because of the holiday. It was very difficult to get any news at first.
And certainly, as things have gotten clear and gotten as time has gone on, people are becoming more and more organized. But what's quite incredible is that the group that has been the most organized and certainly the fastest organized is the protest movement. And that's been really fascinating. The protest movement, the same people who were out every Saturday night protesting the government, just turned on a dime. It's become the organization that's providing food and clothing and toys. It's largely because that whole network and the people running it had an attitude of only doing what serves the good of the community.
It's very clear to everyone that they're taking up the slack. The government was very slow at switching over to an emergency footing. This past Sunday, I was in the meeting of our regional council, something like a county council. And we what we heard from the administrators of the of the region was that they're having a very hard time getting answers from government offices still two weeks after this began, which is very difficult. In our region, we have a total population of a little more than 5000. And we've absorbed between 2000 and 2500 people – they're staying in the guest rooms of the kibbutzim and in other spare spaces, not to mention people staying in in the homes of families. And in the city of Eilat, with its population of about 50,000, has 60,000 displaced people. There are more than 200,000 people in Israel who have been displaced. We're not calling them refugees yet because we're hoping that they're going to be going home, that those who have homes to go back to will be going back home, but how soon, it's hard to tell. Our whole region and the city of Eilat have been working very hard to host all these people. That's also a big effort, it's taking a lot of energy away from us. In addition, we are all on much higher alert. Instead of just a few members who are aware of the security situation, we now have a whole group of soldiers in each kibbutz standing guard at the gate and patrolling the kibbutzim at night. Obviously that takes a lot of resources from us, whether it's housing and feeding them or whether it's people who are not working in their regular jobs but working in security. And it's been difficult.
I think as a rabbi, the thing that I've been doing a lot of is talking to people about their attitudes, whether whatever their politics are that as human beings, we have to maintain our values and we have to stick with our tradition and with the values of our tradition, which are values of love and compassion, perhaps love and compassion for family first. But you know, we're right at the start of the Torah, and we're right at the start of the place of learning about being human. The first thing that we learn about being human is that we're all descended from one person. Rashi tells us that's in order that we not say, "My family is better than your family."
I was asked recently, "How am I keeping hope alive?" And I've always been very active in peace activism, and I believe very strongly in that. So when my neighbor stopped me on the path and said, "These people deserve to die," I said, "That's not for us to choose, we have to give that over to God." We can't stoop to that level. We have to stick to the principles that a human being is a human being and that every life is sacred." And I've found myself saying that to a number of people. Even if my friend's sons are going off to war, I'm not going to say, "Don't kill people." But I'm going to say, "Keep your head about you." I remember earlier this summer, I heard a speech by Governor Pritzker of Illinois, and he said something like, "Cruelty is a sign of lower level thinking. Kindness and compassion are signs of higher level thinking." We have to turn off our animal brain as it were and engage our human brain. We have to engage that higher level of thinking. In order to behave with compassion, we have to aim for our higher selves and always keep that in mind.
Another thing I want to say, because I've been doing a lot of reading recently about brain science, and as we age, our brains continue to develop .It happens that the people in the average age in Gaza is something like 15. And the average age of Israelis is something like 25. And it's only between 25 and 35 that our brains really develop to their fullest extent, when we really learn to stop our instincts for rage and anger. And so those of us who are older, we're actually a real resource for our communities, to speak about kindness, and to speak about calm and thinking reactions, restraining anger and restraining the desire for revenge. And that's very difficult in a society where a lot of people are young and unable to restrain their instincts, who want to respond quickly, who are easily swayed to an ideology of cruelty. That is happening here in Israel as well as among the Palestinians.
One of the prayers that's been in my head a lot lately is Psalm 120. Psalm 120 is the first of the Shirei Hama'alot, the 15 songs of ascent, as they're called. In the last couple verses, the psalmist says:" I've dwelt for so long among the tents of the east. My soul has dwelt too long among haters of peace. I embody peace, and though I talk til I am blue in the face, they insist on war." And I know exactly what that's saying, it really expresses a feeling that I've been having. I'm trying to be the voice for an unpopular position, for ages and ages. And this voice has not been heard. I think of one of the hostages, Vivian Silver. She's in her late 70s, she was a peace activist all her life. She is a member of Kibbutz Be'eri. Vivian was one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, an organization that was founded in 2014, during the last war between Israel and Hamas, in a desperate time, when 3 young men were thought to be being held hostage. Now she is one of more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas. That is what the Psalmist is talking about – we can call for peace, we do our best to embody peace, yet people are still swayed towards war…