November 7, 2023
First published at Evolve, https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/lovingkindness-in-a-time-of-war/
A few days after the attack on Israel on Simkhat Torah, I found myself offering extra spiritual direction sessions — for seekers who currently work with me and for some who had worked with me in the past. I tried to listen with as much love and inner calm as I could to people’s deep distress, amid my own anguish about the war. And, when it came time for me to offer a bit of guidance, I talked about finding ways to offer lovingkindness to oneself in times of intense pain.
This was not surprising. I am a longtime practitioner of metta meditation, which I have long loved to teach, write about and share with people. But several days of such sessions went by before I realized that I was saying more or less the same thing to each person who came to me. Perhaps, I realized, this was the message that I needed to hear for myself.
My own journey as an aspiring peacebuilder began during the second intifada, when the brand-new listserv of my beloved congregation exploded with ferocious arguments, aggressive accusations of disloyalty to the Jewish people and mean-spirited name-calling. My mind and heart ached from the absurdity of our declaring rhetorical war on each other, as if that would help our brothers and sisters in Israel in any way. I yearned to understand what drove this irrational, destructive behavior.
Over the years, I have learned many things about what moves people to rhetorically attack all those perceived to be “on the other side” at times of conflict and deep pain. (I write about this in my book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, Orbis Books, 2014.) I understood this to be an intellectualized version of the “fight” part of the “fight or flight” reflex, extremely common in discourse around conflict. In more recent years, many of us have learned about this kind of belligerent speech as a response to trauma. (When someone flies into a rage without much apparent provocation, something deeper is probably present.)
In this current moment of intense collective pain, I notice another element: how many of us (myself included) regularly “go to our heads,” reflexively wrestling with policy issues and attempts to predict the future, compulsively consuming more and more videos and webinars, and debating multiple organizational statements, rather than feeling the pain of what we have all witnessed and experienced. We live out the illusion that if we could just “figure it out,” find the “right” analysis or prognostication or land a fatal verbal blow on an objectionable post, then we would feel better.
There are surely many profoundly important and engaging questions to ponder and wrestle with: How could these terrorists — themselves human beings — have possibly acted as they did? What should be the ethics of Israel’s military response? How are we to feel about Palestinian civilians in Gaza? How are we to relate to non-Jewish friends and colleagues who seem more distressed about harm to Palestinians than to Jews? What will happen after the war is over? And many more.
But in an occasional quiet moment, when I have read and viewed (more than) enough, when my head is bursting from all the shouting and my heart aches from the images of horrific suffering and bloodshed, I realize that struggling with all of these issues is agitating and exhausting. The imponderability of the questions leads to a sense of hopelessness and despair on top of the raw pain of witnessing what had been done to our people, and now, the horror of watching Jews killing thousands of Palestinians in Gaza.
It is a time of unfathomable sorrow. For all Jews with connections to people in Israel and to Israel herself, and to Muslims and Christians with deep ties to the people of the Gaza Strip, the heartache and fear are intense — so powerful that we involuntarily attack anyone who touches our own grief and anxiety by uttering the wrong word. We are hemorrhaging, reeling from the pain and finding our own feelings intolerable.
Yesterday, one directee said, in tears, after wrestling with a variety of big questions, “Why can’t we all just be sad together?”
That is the question. Perhaps the answer is that the suffering feels unbearable, so we reach for ways to engage in battle to do something — anything — with our energy. So many rhetorical skirmishes await once we turn on our phones.
Just after the attack, many of us reached out to family and friends in Israel. Naturally, we wanted to know that they were OK, to let them know we were with them, to tell them we loved them.
But then I found myself widening the circle of calls and emails. I wanted to reach out to as many people as I could think of in Israel and to peacebuilder friends in Palestine. I broadened the circle of people I emailed, not only to people with whom I have deep relationships. I wrote to people I have known for decades, and people I knew slightly but knew must be suffering, and in need of a little extra kindness.
On some level, I would have liked to do something “big,” something significant, something that would make a difference. But gradually, I came to understand that I did not have the power to do the things I most wanted to do. I could not turn back the clock and prevent the Hamas attack. I could not personally find and rescue the hostages. I could not heal the bottomless grief of the bereaved or the terror of the children in Israel. I could not stop the killing and suffering of people throughout Gaza.
Perhaps the answer is that the suffering feels unbearable, so we reach for ways to engage in battle to do something — anything — with our energy. So many rhetorical skirmishes await once we turn on our phones.
I could not do any of those things. But I could offer kindness to people lost in sadness, fear and anger. At first, that didn’t feel substantial enough, but I gradually came to see that it is. In a world of war — in a community devastated by trauma, grief and fear — few things are more meaningful than spreading kindness.
I think my advice to my directees was right. What we need is a practice of lovingkindness towards others, meeting devastated people with the soothing quality of love. And we need to offer kindness to ourselves, to calm our own shattered nervous systems, to help ourselves cry, to enable us to feel loved by others and by ourselves. Nurtured with a bit more love, we can discern what is the next helpful thing we can do.
And so, I find myself finding satisfaction in sitting with people who are grieving, terrified and even raging because I know that I am meeting their pain with love. I am doing what I actually can do, and it makes me feel grounded and useful. Especially in synagogue, when I am surrounded by other Jews, I seek out Israelis or others I know who have loved ones in Israel. I ask how they are, extending my heart to them, for it is all I have. I have had conversations like these with neighbors (who I didn’t know were very connected to Israel), to people in the café where I eat my Sunday-morning brunch, to another person wearing a kippah in the grocery store and more).
What do I mean by offering lovingkindness? I mean two things: one for periods of formal spiritual practice and one in the midst of our days.
The caring I offer to others does not lesson my love for the Jewish people. There is room in my heart for both.
The classical Buddhist practice of metta meditation can be practiced “on the cushion” for extended periods of time each day. (I do this for 20 minutes before I daven Shakharit each morning.) One sits in silence and offers a series of phrases of well-being, such as: “May you be safe and protected from harm.” “May you be healthy and strong.” “May you be happy.” “May you be at peace.” First, we offer these wishes for well-being towards ourselves. Some days, it is clear that I am so hungry for this nourishment that I spend the whole 20 minutes sending kindness to myself, to help me soothe my own inner heartache and bring my best self to the day ahead. When I have the energy, I proceed to offer these blessings to other categories of beings: to loved ones, then to “familiar strangers (people I know superficially),” then to “difficult persons” in my life, then to “all beings.”
In these days, sometimes I focus on the families of the hostages or those who know their loved ones were killed or wounded on Oct. 7. Sometimes, I direct love to my friends and loved ones who have relatives serving in the army. I imagine my friends watching the progress of the war with terror in their hearts, knowing that their precious children are at dire risk. On some days, when I get to the “all beings” category, I send love to innocent people in Gaza, feeling my deep desire to lessen their fear, grief and anguish.
I know that some readers may be offended by the idea of a rabbi sending love to Palestinians in Gaza. I have come to understand that many Jews, who are so profoundly wounded by the way in which we were attacked, are not ready to extend empathy and prayer to Gazans. But for me, at a protected distance in the United States, having caught my breath three weeks after the attack, I find myself tormented by the images of innocent human beings in Gaza caught in this terrible war. Some days, I have the capacity in my heart to extend love to them — to mothers, children, babies, old people, who are unsure how they will eat today and whether they will survive the night. There is space in my heart to wish basic blessings for innocent people in Gaza; this in no way diminishes the profound connection I have to my own people. The caring I offer to others does not lesson my love for the Jewish people. There is room in my heart for both.
On a broader level, metta practice continues long after my morning meditation has ended. I have the opportunity to offer metta/kindness throughout the day, whenever I come in contact with other beings. My check-in emails with friends in Israel and Palestine are not my only opportunity for digital metta practice. The way I write my “normal” emails throughout the day can convey my sense of time pressure and impatience, or it can be an opportunity to remember that there is a human being on the other end of my email, and when appropriate, to ask how they are. I can practice metta (or not) with the barista from whom I order coffee, with the letter carrier, with the annoying driver who cuts me off on the road and, of course, with my family. There is literally no limit to the opportunities to practice.
This is not to say that we “should” be feeling kind and loving all the time. Especially in times of extreme stress and distress, we are not at our best. We tend to be more reactive, more self-focused, quicker to anger, impatience and irritability. This is absolutely normal and unsurprising behavior. We need to forgive ourselves and each other for these behaviors, remembering that when we or someone else speaks harshly, it is because we are suffering, especially now, and so is everyone else. When I read something I find offensive, I try to remember how much pain the writer is in (even though their words often sound more like rage and certainty than vulnerability).
Walking through my day with this perspective, noticing the sorrow that underlies my own and others’ behavior, I breathe more kindness and gentleness into my own being. Doing this makes me less likely to compound my own suffering and to spread my heartache in the form of hurtful words or behaviors. And, living with this consistent intention, I disseminate love beyond myself to a tormented world at an agonizing time.
I so wish that this practice could stop the war. I know that it will not. But it does serve as an infinitesimal counterbalance to the forces of hate and vengefulness in the world.
There is support in Jewish sources for the way in which one person’s action can affect the world. Here are three examples.
A person should always look at oneself as equally balanced between merit (zekhut) and guilt (hovah), and the world as equally balanced between merit and guilt. If they perform one sin, they tip their balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and bring destruction upon themselves. [On the other hand,] if they perform one mitzvah, they tip their balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and bring deliverance and salvation to themselves and others.
This image suggests that our lives are balanced precariously between merit and guilt, perhaps between goodness and evil. Any act we engage in, one way or the other, can literally tip the scales. So, too, is the world’s fate balanced between goodness and evil. It can be swayed (according to other rabbinic texts) based on the actions of the majority of people.
In this text, however, the imagined scales of justice weigh the relative merit and guilt not only of a particular person, but of the whole world. How is it that if one person performs one sin, they tip the balance of the entire world to the side of guilt, and that if they perform one mitzvah, they tip the balance of the entire world to the side of merit?
Similarly, I am suggesting that every act of kindness meaningfully shifts the scales suspended between war and peace, between hatred and love, even between goodness and wickedness. Breathing good-hearted concern into the world at a time of horrific violence shifts the cosmic balance just a bit.
Martin Buber once taught:
The wounds of the order-of-being can be healed in infinitely many other places than those at which they were inflicted.
I cannot shower the Middle East with droplets of love to make people think, feel and act differently than they do. But I can bring more lovingkindness into my small corner of the world, instead of adding to the cacophony of angry voices all around us. It is an act of faith that the love I spread right here where I live can tip the scales a bit, adding to the weight of the forces of love and peace, even while war rages.
My favorite Mussar teacher, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, teaches:
I declare, ‘The world is built of your love.’ (Psalms 89:2) … Every act of kindness, even a small one, is an actual act of building and creation, enlivening the spirit of the downtrodden and the broken-hearted.
Playing with the syntax of a verse in the Psalms, Rav Wolbe teaches that every act of kindness literally builds the world. This is an outrageous and deeply empowering idea. We so need such acts of world-building now.
Perhaps you feel that creating a brilliant strategic initiative to rescue the hostages, stop the war and finally resolve this endless, tragic conflict is the only way to make a meaningful contribution. If that is the case, most of us are doomed to complete powerlessness.
But I do not agree. However prayer works — whatever happens when we send our heart’s deepest longings out into the world — it makes a difference. Even if I can only make peace right here where I live, then I must do that, precisely because war is raging in Israel and Gaza. If there are people in need of kindness who cross my path, I must do so, because people are killing each other in the Middle East. To the extent that there are ways I can use myself to cultivate more love right where I am, I can dare to imagine that this makes a difference for the world.
Since I began writing this article, Israeli families still await news of their abducted loved ones, countless Israelis are in harm’s way in the incursion on Gaza, and several thousand more people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. Please join me in offering blessings of love and well-being to all: May all beings be safe. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at peace.
 A contemplative practice of wishing blessings of lovingkindness to ourselves and to others.
 Martin Buber, “Guilt and Guilt Feelings,” in Knowledge of Man, cited in Louis E. Newman, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, p. 175.