Each year the members of tha SAR Hebrew Department teach as part of our 11th-grade curriculum Rav Yehuda HaLevi’s poem “Libi Ba-Mizrach.” I have always found his words to be beautiful but never before this year have I imagined that his opening line ליבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף מערב “My heart is in the east and I am in the farthest reaches of the west,” would be an accurate depiction of my own reality. But after the atrocities of October 7 and the war that has followed this is exactly how I feel. My heart my mind and my thoughts are all in Israel while my body is still here in New York. And as the situation becomes more alarming sadder and increasingly frightening so does the heart feel even more there while the body is pulled even farther away.
It is likely that the Israelis’ heart feels as much as it does because of the distance and not despite it; we Israelis are accustomed to living in the midst of an emergency. We grew up with sirens here and there, occasional terror attacks, a small war once in a decade. But seeing the emergency from afar? We are still having to get used to that unfamiliar feeling.
In fact, Israelis are so used to being in an emergency that a friend of mine who spent October 7 trapped in a room in one of the besieged kibbutzim for hours, hiding for her life while the terrorists performed their vile acts outside—she who was as close as it gets to the horror—asked me if I don’t find it too hard being so far away. She is worried about my well-being. Other friends who are currently in reserve service, or having to run twice a day to shelters, call to ask me if I am safe because they read of the spike in American antisemitism. (Antisemitism in America is indeed real and alarming, and we must fight against it. Nonetheless, I think New York is still safer than Israel at this time.)
A good friend who is also a shaliach says that he and his family are all right but feels that it is more dangerous abroad than in Israel; however, the danger is not external but internal. “I feel,” he says, “that I have developed a kind of schizophrenia. My heart and mind are on fire, but I have to keep smiling so I won’t disturb the public order.”
Baruch Hashem, SAR is a safe and understanding space where the other Israeli staff members and I can share our concerns and feelings. The school’s communal tefillot for the hostages and the wounded, ongoing donation collection, loud singing of “Acheinu Kol Beit Israel,” and ongoing projects for the chayalim make it clear to us that we are all in the same boat. And these joint efforts give us strength while we are worrying about our friends and families. This is a strength that we try, in turn, to send overseas.
Because, beside the strong feeling of rupture between here and there, the other prominent feeling we are experiencing is helplessness. How can we, from this distance, help our people? What can I do to help my nation in need?
So you go to rallies and demonstrations, hang the “kidnapped” posters around the city, and contribute to the 30 huge duffel bags filled with donations to fulfill the soldiers’ specific requests. It is all so important, but still, the feeling that you are not doing enough is always there.
So you do little things as well. If, on social media, you come across a post to read a perek of Tehillim for the refuah of a wounded soldier, you stop your scrolling and do it at once. Even if you are not sure how much you believe in hashgacha pratit, Divine providence, at this moment, someone has asked you for something in their time of need.
But after doing the bigger things and the little things, the questions remain: Is it enough? And also, is it possible to make a change at all? And then I recall a tale the Israeli author David Grossman liked to tell: “A man demonstrated in front of the White House against the Vietnam War for years and years. Every Friday he came with his homemade sign and stood there for two hours. Eventually a journalist approached him and, with a condescending grin, said, ‘Tell me, sir. Do you really think you can change the world?’ ‘No,’ the man answered. ‘I’m just making sure the world won’t change me.’”
And I think to myself that this is another thing we, here in America, must do. We must make sure the world won’t change us. We cannot allow the horror of the war to overcome us. Don’t watch the graphic videos of the horror so we can protect our souls and the dignity of the victims. Don’t let the sorrow and horror fill us completely.
And, on the other hand, we cannot seal ourselves off from the pain nor allow ourselves to become indifferent. The large numbers—over 1,200 murdered innocents and hundreds of hostages—can dull our senses. But we should try, each according to his strength, to pause when we see an article on one of the fallen soldiers or a picture of one of the kidnapped individuals to try to know each of them as a person. Do they have brothers or sisters? What are their hobbies? We can give them a gift in our world simply through the act of knowing them. Doing so maintains their and our Tzelem Elokim, the spark of the Divine that exists in every human being.
In Hebrew when you want to console someone you say אני משתתף בצערך “I take part in your grief.” We can’t really take a part of someone’s grief; their sorrow won’t be diminished by those words. But our willingness to carry someone else’s burden of grief might bring them comfort. And that is a kind of comfort we can all offer even from far away even from the farthest reaches of the west.