Crossing the silence: the healing power of listening

‘We came today to tell, to listen, to remember,’ said David Grossman at the mourning gathering of the Kibbutz movement. He knows what it’s like to lose a child.

I believe in the power of listening. It’s limited; it takes away from life’s sorrows nothing except the loneliness, the fear, the frustration that no one hears or cares. But that itself is solidarity and solace.

Since I came back from Israel, people have asked me ‘Why did you go?’ I went to listen. I want to listen to those who suffer the anguish inflicted on them since October 7, grief, shock, and waiting, waiting, waiting for news of relatives taken hostage, news which may or may not come even today. As the Torah says in tomorrow’s reading: ‘Give me my wives and my children.’

I want to listen, too, to those who uphold the human spirit, bringing reprieve, strength and joy. And, as Grossman says, I also want to tell, so that there’s less aloneness and miscomprehension in the world.

What’s more challenging, I feel the need to listen, too, to those who inhabit the other side of silence, those to whom a Jew like me may not be thought to want to talk, and who may not want to talk to me, in these cruel and divisive days. I want to try, at least try, to listen to those whom the appalling death tolls and the relentless rhetoric of hate push apart:

If we don’t find ways to listen across the divide between factions and acknowledge each other’s pain, the current conflict… will remain embedded in patterns of trauma for generations to come, almost certainly birthing even more violence. This task is more urgent than ever. (Quoted by Solutions Not Sides)

There are so many reasons for avoiding listening, (and they aren’t always wrong): don’t legitimise their point of view; stay with your own; have no time; change the subject; argue back; don’t expose yourself to what you don’t want to know. I’m as guilty as anyone.

Yet I believe in listening. It’s not always possible; there can be too much division, too much hardness of heart, too much hate. Yet I believe, want to believe, in listening’s healing power.

So how do we enter those silences, those spaces filled with the unspoken, with suspicion, with hostility real or perceived, that separate us, Jews and Muslims, colleagues with whom we used to chat over coffee at work, friends, even members of our own family? Where does listening begin?

It’s a question as old as the Mishnah. ‘Listen,’ says Rabbi Yossei, means ‘hear the words your own mouth is speaking.’ He’s addressing an entirely different question: the import of the first word of the Shema, (‘Hear!’) which opens Judaism’s most familiar meditation.

Nevertheless, his explanation is acutely relevant. If we want to listen across the silence, we need to consider what we ourselves are putting into it. Have I said hate-filled words? Is my posture saying, ‘I don’t want to know you’? Can I articulate instead, in word or gesture, ‘I’m ready to hear’?

‘Hear’ isn’t the same as ‘agree’. ‘Hear’ means ‘hold your story’, have a place in my heart for your humanity too.

This takes courage, not the daring of a fighter, but the readiness to step off the ledge and abseil into the abyss of human troubles and sorrows, cruelties and injustice, held safe only by the thin rope of faith. This is not exactly faith in God. It’s the faith that somewhere in the rawness of our consciousness, across our different journeys between life and death, we can take heartfelt cognisance of each other’s humanity.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can nurture from there small shoots of hope and trust, vulnerable, subject to hail and drought, but slowly, slowly, capable of growth.

How else are we to rebuild, out of our griefs, our enmities, our fears?

Trying to be human at an inhuman time

Last week I accompanied a friend to the Knesset to mark the sheloshim, thirty days since the terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas. We joined a thousand people, families of the hostages and the murdered among them, gathered in the raw solidarity of trauma, pain and anger.

As we walked through the deserted artist’s quarter of Mishkenot Sha’ananim towards Israel’s parliament, I recalled a party held there forty years ago. Our host asked us to state in a single sentence what we wanted from life. Someone said simply, ‘I want to be a human being.’ I don’t recollect his name, but I haven’t forgotten his words.

People ask, ‘How are you coping these impossible days?’ It’s the wrong question, wrote Lital Kaplan in a poem composed just days ago:

‘What’s up?’ is disallowed. Instead ask:
‘What’s lost?’
‘What’s broken?’
‘What’s left?’

My only answer is that what remains is trying to be human. I’m hoping that’s sufficient to enable me to put one foot in front of the other, reject hatred, not yield to fear, not look away from pain and not shut my heart. I’m hoping it’ll help me stay loyal to who I am: a Jew, part of the family of Israel, a human being striving to live by that most universal appellation, ‘made in the image of God.’

I’m not finding it easy. There’s no guidebook to say precisely where that leads just now. I’m troubled and pained, and I’m far from alone. On just one day four groups approached me: ‘How do we cope with the silence, the hostility, the brazen hatred, at work, on campus, among colleagues?

It’s the cruellest time I’ve lived through.

There are so many dead. ‘I’ve seen wars,’ a journalist told me, ‘They’re disgusting, indescribable.’ ‘People we know are losing their sons,’ said an Israeli colleague. ‘My uncle died in Gaza City,’ said MP Layla Moran, before hundreds gathered opposite Downing Street under the banner Humanity Not Hate. ‘My parents were murdered on 7 October,’ said Ido at the same vigil. ‘More deaths won’t bring them back.’

There are huge demonstrations everywhere. ‘When Russia invaded Ukraine,’ an international analyst told me, ‘Colleagues in India said it was a regional conflict and not their concern. Suddenly they’re all worked up about Israel. I knew there was European antisemitism, but I never thought it would burst out like this worldwide.’

Yet the marches are complex. Some people flock to banners of hate. Many more are ignorant, driven by disinformation. But thousands, Jews included, are deeply distressed by what’s happening to innocent people in Gaza, can’t understand how this will bring the hostages home and fear that violence must breed more violence.

What horrors Hamas has released, knowingly, cunningly, upon Israel, Jewry, the world, and, not least, the Palestinian people, for whose lives they care not at all! I ask myself how and by whom such deep, heart-destroying hatred has been promulgated. I shudder to think how much more contagious it may yet prove to be.

On top of everything are the terrible wrongs perpetrated by West Bank settlers driving out Palestinian villagers while the world, mostly, looks the other way. They undermine both Israel and the moral standing of Judaism.

What, then, does trying to be human mean at this time, loyal as a Jew and loyal to the image of God?

It calls me into solidarity with suffering, firstly among my own people, but also with whoever feels anguish and grief. It teaches me to rejoice in nobody’s pain. It demands my commitment to chesed and tsedek, loving kindness and justice. It requires me to do everything I can for the hostages, for life, for the future.

Most days that’s enough to help me put one foot in front of the other and find companions to walk together.

Just back from Israel: this isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma

‘This is the life of:’ thus begins tomorrow’s Torah reading. How many families are staring, half numb, at what those words conceal: ‘This is the death of…’ But, unlike our biblical mother Sarah, their loved ones didn’t reach the ripe age of one hundred and twenty-seven. They were scarcely twenty; maybe they weren’t even seven.

Yesterday Ilana Kaminka sent me pictures of the sheloshim, the thirtieth day of mourning, for her son Yannai. He was one of seven soldiers, men and women, boys and girls really, killed as they courageously defended their army base at Zikim, protecting their ninety new recruits against Hamas. ‘He missed out on his life,’ said my friend who’d been one of Yanai’s teachers.

‘I’ll continue taking Palestinian patients to hospital appointments in Israel,’ said Ilana, gently but firmly. as we left. ‘With Road to Recovery?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, with Humans Beyond Borders.

The same day I got a whatsapp from Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish – my brother found me his number. ‘Your family in Gaza?’ I’d asked him. ‘Tens dead. When will this horror and violence end?’ He’s the author of I Shall Not Hate. Just now he’s sent me the You Tube of his interview with Piers Morgan: Palestinians Are Not Numbers, They’re Human

‘Is he family?’ I asked a woman at the huge, quiet gathering for the sheloshim outside the Knesset. She was holding a picture of a young man killed on October 7. ‘My son,’ she said, simply. ‘My son Tom,’ said his bereaved father, addressing the crowd. There was deep pain, and anger at Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government who left the south defenceless.

Tom’s father is encamped outside the Knesset with other families of those murdered and taken hostage. There’ll be even more fury if it proves true that a significant deal involving the release of many of the latter wasn’t followed through.

Our group met President Herzog and the First Lady. ‘The date in Israel is still October 7,’ she said. ‘This isn’t post-trauma; it’s trauma.’

The shock to the country is immense. The breach of confidence is multiple: political, military, economic, personal (can my children ever feel safe here?); spiritual (where was God?); societal (how long will unity last when blame has already begun? Can we trust Palestinians after what Hamas did? Can Palestinians, also fearful, trust Israelis after what the West Bank settlers are doing? Can we ever co-exist?) The unaskable question is: if not, then what?

Leaving Israel yesterday felt treacherous. Walking down the long slope at Tel Aviv airport you pass large pictures of each and every one of the hostages. It feels like betrayal, like leaving them behind. We shan’t.

So where do we who live outside Israel place ourselves right now? I’m not speaking politically, but as a Jew, a human being, someone for whom those two loyalties are inseparable because true faith and true humanity must be one.

Since we’re not immediate combatants in the horror of the front lines, we can, and should, be in places of healing. To be clear, this involves no compromise whatsoever with the indescribable hatefulness of what Hamas did on October 7.

There are innumerable options. We can give money for hospitals, orphans, displaced people. We can volunteer to pick crops, pack food. We can ‘adopt’ specific people who need us. We can draw into our communities, homes and hearts, Israelis, fellow Jews, and, importantly, others too, who feel broken and alone. We can, and should, speak frequently to Israeli friends, and, more importantly, listen.

Where possible we can dare the silence and suspicion and try to share with Muslim colleagues, ‘I hurt; you hurt too.’ A Palestinian student at Israel’s Arava Institute wrote of the ‘implied consensus to act from a place of compassion and not from a place of anger.’ If a bereaved mother can commit to Humans Beyond Borders, we can too.

What we can’t allow to be broken are courage, compassion, determination and hope.

Hineni: being there with each other at this cruel time

In these cruel times I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and hearing in my head that unique low voice which goes straight to the soul:

Hineni, hineni,
I’m ready, my lord…

These are the words Abraham speaks, as we read in the Torah tomorrow. He says them no less than three times, when God commands him to offer up his son and he tries, impossibly, to be present not just for his God but also for his beloved child.

Leonard Cohen follows Rashi in his lyrics, that great eleventh century commentator who explains that hineni means humility, readiness. But the most basic translation of hineni is simply ‘I’m here.’ It’s the answer we try throughout our life to give to God’s first, and everlasting, question: ‘Ayeka: Where are you?’

In these distressing weeks, there are so many for whom we are called to be here, not just in body but in heart. Almost everyone reading these words will have loved ones for whom they are deeply concerned, in Israel, perhaps in Gaza, around the world. Saying hineni, being together, gives us strength.

Hineni is the coming together of two words, ‘Hineh, Behold!’ and ‘Ani, I’. But it signifies the very opposite of ‘Look at me!’ On the contrary, it means that I dedicate my self to being present with you: ‘I’m here, I’m listening, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

I feel for so many people. Yesterday I found myself helping facilitate three different groups about Israel and Gaza, for colleagues, a multi-faith team, and an online gathering wanting to understand what’s happening and what it all might mean. I imagine that, in different contexts, that’s been other people’s week too.

‘I’m here and my heart is here:’ how do we say that truly? We must do our best to be there for our own people, family, friends, here, in Israel, anywhere. We must do our best to be there for those who’re afraid, or grieving, or worrying because their children have been called up, or desperate for relatives taken hostage.

Being there is not just about doing, though often there’s much we can and should do. Being there is not about having the right words, though sometimes there are things to say. But often there are no great words. There’s only the heart’s language, the unspoken, the hug, real or virtual, the tears.

Hineni is not just for those who see the world the same way as we do. What kind of humanity do I have if I withdraw into hostility or indifference when the person next to me says quietly that she’s had no news from family in Gaza, not for days or weeks, and a whole generation maybe gone?

Strangely, paradoxically perhaps, this is where we can meet, Jews and Muslims, people of other faiths and none, in our very anguish, our fear for those we love, our aloneness when we feel shunned because we’re a Jew, or a Muslim. The very pain that divides us may become the pain that unites us, at least here in the UK.

Only if we reach deeper than fear and hate can our world progress beyond hatred.

It’s not possible with people while they proclaim and act out antisemitism or any form of racist spite. It’s unthinkable with the brutal terrorists who commit wanton, indescribable acts of premeditated torture and murder.

But where it may be possible, there we must try.

How, though, can the heart find the strength? I believe that if we go down, down and down, we reach within ourselves the deep hidden river of life through which all spirit, all existence is sustained.

We make that journey each in our own way, through prayer or silence, music or nature, alone or touched by others.

It takes us to that place of mercy, hidden yet all around us and within us, where God, the unnameable, gives us strength and hope.

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