Pray, take action for Israel and all innocents

An earlier version of this letter was sent via email last week as a Shabbat message to the Congregation Beth El community. The rabbis share it this week with the wider community.

On this Shabbat eve, we turn our thoughts and prayers to people and land far away. We extend our compassion to all who have been displaced and all who live in fear of violence and random destruction. We grieve for all innocent lives that have been lost. Our love for the Jewish people, and commitment to and support of Israel’s efforts to defend its cities and citizens from terrorism remains unshakeable, amid the random barrages of rockets, launched in contravention of all treaties, laws of war or human decency. It is also joined with our compassion and grief for all the innocent Palestinian and Israeli children and adults who have been injured or killed in this conflict.

We reject the insistence by some — within and outside our community — that these concerns and commitments are mutually exclusive. Suffering and grief are universal and the pain of one person neither cancels nor trumps that of another. We have read two pieces that underline the challenges of ethical action in a region beset by terrorism: one by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who writes about false moral equivalencies, and one by Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian writer, about the situation of families in Gaza.

 The complexity of this conflict and severity of the pain and trauma can lead us to feel powerless and stuck. Here are four specific actions you can do on this Shabbat evening and in the coming week:

Do not turn away from the news or public conversation. We do not personally agree with all the sentiments expressed in the various links included in this message; however, it’s important for us to listen with respectful and open hearts to those whose experiences and perspectives are different from our own. We encourage you to engage in conversation with friends and family members about these complex topics, listening and speaking with curiosity and respect.

Donate to the humanitarian relief funds of the Jewish federations (www.jfna.org). These funds will be used to provide urgent assistance to people directly affected, especially addressing the physical and psychological needs of 38,000 children in the most vulnerable areas of Israel.

While we can and will continue to disagree about many matters of policy, we urge you to contact your representatives in Washington and express support for U.S. assistance in creating Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense. This defensive system has been invaluable in saving lives threatened by terrorism. (Between 2005 and this spring, more than 11,000 rockets were randomly launched from Gaza towards Israel. Iron Dome began operating in 2011.)

Prayer can lead to action, and from our action we can return to prayer and reflection. Here are five different prayers/readings that speak to us in different ways: Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, offers a new interpretation of the “Traveler’s Prayer” (for anyone traveling to or from Israel, whether in body or spirit); Rabbi John Rosove composed “A Prayer for Israel, Her People and Soldiers, and for the Innocent Among the Palestinian People.” Rabbi Joe Hample wrote his own original prayer, “A Prayer for Zion.” All of these can be found through a Web search.

We continue to take comfort and find our faith expressed in the ancient words of our tradition, such as Psalm 122, and the prayerful yearning of Yehuda Amichai’s powerful poem “I, May I Rest in Peace” from “Open Closed Open” (2000).

I, may I rest in peace — I, who am still living, say,

May I have peace in the rest of my life.

I want peace right now while I’m still alive.

I don’t want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg

of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair.

I want the rest of my peace now.

I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without

and within, close combat, face-to-face, the faces always

my own, my lover-face, my enemy-face.

Wars with the old weapons — sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,

dull ripping knife, love and hate,

and wars with newfangled weapons — machine gun, missile,

words, land mines exploding, love and hate.

I don’t want to fulfill my parents’ prophecy that life is war.

I want peace with all my body and all my soul.

Rest me in peace.

We close with fervent prayers for peace, in our world, in our homes and in ourselves.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn is senior rabbi and Rabbi Rebekah Stern is associate rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.